The loneliness of being at a different life stage to your friends

For so long, I refused to admit to myself, let alone others, that I struggled with loneliness. In my fear of judgement, I assumed loneliness was a red flag, a sign that something was ‘wrong’ with me, and that people had good reason to steer clear.

It wasn’t until I was much older and wiser, and had benefited from years of therapy, that I realised how many others felt precisely the same way. Feeling lonely is not reserved for those without a huge circle of friends, supportive family members, or a loving romantic partner.

Most of us know all too well that being alone and being lonely are far from synonymous; I often feel the worst isolation when surrounded by people, especially those I can’t relate to on a deeper level.

Kerry Athanasiadis, psychologist and practice director at Be You Psychology & Counselling, explained that feeling alone is a challenging yet normal part of moving through various life stages, finding independence, and forging a path that feels most meaningful and authentic for us.

How loneliness shows up in different life stages

Until a certain point, usually towards the end of secondary school, most of us develop at a pace that more or less aligns with our peers. Throughout primary and high school, we are surrounded by friends, spending almost every day together and facing similar challenges.

Athanasiadis explained that from the ages of 16 to 21, we start to branch off from our friends, doing different things such as tertiary education, TAFE, travelling or taking a gap year, or going straight into the workforce.

“This is also the stage of adult development when there can be a lot of identity exploration, instability, attempting to gain independence, feeling in between adolescence and adulthood, and exploring all the possibilities of the future,” she said.

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In our 20s and 30s, we branch off further, either pursuing further education, establishing a career, settling into long-term relationships, or starting a family.

“According to psychologist Erikson’s theory of human development, this stage can also trigger feelings of isolation, particularly if there is difficulty forming or maintaining close relationships,” said Athanasiadis.

Between their 30s and 60s, people are often busy contributing to society through work, hobbies, relationships, raising a family, or being part of a family-like community.

“According to Erikson, those who feel that they’re contributing in a meaningful and fulfilling way experience what is called ‘generativity’, which is the sense of leaving behind a legacy,” said Athanasiadis.

“Those who don’t feel like their work or lives matter may experience stagnation in this stage of development.”

This stage of life can easily trigger comparison, loneliness, and self-judgement, especially for women, who face more significant pressure to meet societal expectations, raise children, and keep up with increasingly unrealistic beauty standards.

These emotional experiences are even more challenging if we look around at our friends and feel out of sync with them, which can feel like a profound personal failure.

It can also worsen feelings of isolation and loneliness, perpetuating the false idea that we are the only ones feeling and thinking the way we do or struggling to live up to the expectations we and others have for ourselves.