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University of Cambridge Counselling Service

It is a cliche that we can feel lonely - even particularly lonely - in a crowd. Unfortunately it is one that is only too true and all too common at university. Here, surrounded by people of a similar age and, supposedly, with lots in common we can nevertheless feel wretchedly isolated and awkward. This is made worse by the sight of others who seem perfectly at ease, are rapidly making friends and are becoming embedded in groups from which you feel excluded or only tolerated on the margins.

Looked at from another angle, however, it is not surprising that loneliness at university is common especially among first year students. Coming to university is a major stage in 'leaving home'. It may indeed be the first time you are away not just from the supportive familiarity of home and family, but away also from friendships that may have been built up over years.

Leaving home and coming to university involves a number of changes: in lifestyle, work patterns, and degree of independence. The accumulated effects of these can make people feel uncertain of what to do or how to be. Social insecurities can then creep in, even in people who normally feel quite socially adept. So, for some, loneliness is a new and disconcerting experience, while for others it is more familiar, but may now be accompanied by disappointment that university has not brought a hoped for change.

If you are starting a new job at the University, you will be meeting new people and wanting to prove yourself in your new role. Academic and research work can often feel very isolated.

Loneliness is common at university for many reasons including:

  • you are away from friends and family
  • it may be the first time in years - maybe even since primary school - when you have had to 'start from scratch' making new friends
  • you may be missing old friends and finding it hard to replace them - or perhaps even a bit reluctant to replace them with substitutes
  • you may have high expectations of university as a place where you will make friends for life, and be disappointed in the people you initially meet
  • you may have a long distance relationship and feel torn between social life here and elsewhere
  • you may be anxious about work and feel in conflict about spending time on social activities.
You can feel lonely:

  • when you are alone and have no choice in this
  • when you do not feel part of a group or event
  • when there is no one with whom to share your feelings and experiences
  • when you feel disconnected and alienated from your surroundings
  • when there is no-one to know how miserable and isolated you feel.
Loneliness can make you feel:

  • unloved and unwanted
  • socially inadequate
  • convinced that there is something wrong with you
  • self-conscious and ill at ease with others
  • angry and critical of others.
These feelings, of course, can then result in lowered self-esteem; a (usually unfounded) conviction that people do not want you around; a reluctance to even attempt to make friends or take part in social activities; an inability to assert yourself and say 'no' to things you do not want to do and a consequential feeling of being exploited.

What you can do about loneliness:

  • Remember that loneliness is very common. Almost everyone feels it at some time. It is not a defect. It is something that can be changed. It is a sign that important needs are not being met. Changing the situation may involve finding and developing a circle of friends, but it may also mean finding ways of learning to enjoy your times alone; to use them more constructively and pleasurably.
  • Do not wait for other people to visit you or speak to you. Try to talk to people you sit next to in class or at meals or in breaks at work. Say hello, or even just smile, at people you pass on the staircase or elsewhere in college or in your workplace.
  • Try to put yourself in new situations where you will meet people with interests in common. Choose activities that you are genuinely interested in and enjoy - societies or sports or voluntary work. Do not, however, over-extend yourself, filling your time with too many things just to avoid being alone.
  • Do not deprive yourself of things you would like to do just because you have nobody to do them with e.g. going to a concert or for a walk, or seeing a film.
  • Try not to be critical of your efforts. Remind yourself that intimate friendships take time to develop. Do not disparage friendships in the belief that only romantic relationships will relieve your loneliness or give you confidence and social status.
  • Build relationships by being a good friend to others.
  • Respond to others and their interests (but do not feign an interest you do not feel).
  • Some people are more at ease in groups and others in 'one to one' situations.
Consider your own preferences and 'style'. Find others with similar outlooks and interests. Remember that, despite appearances, not everyone is interested in bars or sports.

Try talking to the people in college who are there to support students, such as your tutor or the chaplain or JCR welfare officer. If you continue to feel lonely and miserable, you might consider coming to talk to someone at the University Counselling Service. The service has on offer a variety of approaches that may help you combat the feelings that loneliness brings, such as those described below.

Group Counselling
Small group counselling can be particularly helpful in providing an opportunity for students to fully realise that other people suffer difficulties which may be similar to their own. They can compare notes, offer each other support, and learn, in a safe context, something of how other people see them. The prospect of joining a group can feel a bit intimidating at first but it can be an enormous morale booster to realise that you are not alone in your feelings; that you are not particularly weird or unacceptable; that people can respond to you with warmth and understanding; and that you have things to offer other people.

Individual Counselling

  1. Talking to a counsellor one to one can also help you understand and accept yourself better. It can help shift patterns of thought, and expectations that you will be rejected, and help to promote a more open, relaxed way of interacting with people. It can help boost confidence and self-esteem.
  2. Cognitive-behavioural techniques can also help, for example by devising strategies for combating social anxieties and for changing the negative thought patterns through which we undermine ourselves.
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