Oberlin Blogs

Loneliness vs. Being Alone

October 23, 2022

Ilana McNamara ’24

As the first-years transition to their new life on campus, I’ve been thinking about the difference between being lonely and being alone. To me, being alone is something out in the corporeal world, whereas being lonely is something you feel inside your mind and heart. The two can coexist, but they also quite often are separate from each other: being alone physically doesn’t need to be lonely, and the feeling of being lonely can happen any time, even when you’re not alone. 

In college, you might end up being alone a lot. You are on your own schedule, and that means that you’re not always with other people while doing homework in the library, playing your instrument in a practice room, or walking to class. This can be hard for some people, and you’ll see a lot of first-years traveling around in large groups to avoid being alone, which is more likely a strategy to avoid the feeling of loneliness.

Loneliness can be felt anywhere, even in a crowd of people. College can be a very lonely place, especially at first - you’re away from your support system and in a new environment with new people and new expectations. And it’s ok to feel lonely! Living into your feelings is super important, and you’ll eventually find the people, places, and things that make you feel at home here. 

Something that I’ve learned in my time at Oberlin is how to really be comfortable being alone. It comes from a comfort in myself and a strong knowledge of what I want and need. I’m an introvert, so I need my alone time in order to recharge. Sometimes I, like most people, have a fear of missing out on things, or FOMO, especially on a small campus like Oberlin where it feels like everyone you know is going to the ‘Sco or a particular concert. I’ve learned to accept that even if it seems like everyone else is doing something, sometimes that’s not what I want to do, or I might not even have the energy to go out and do anything. A lot of people will tell you that you need to dive into everything right away when you get to college, but I would caution first-years (and everyone else) to be aware of your own boundaries. 

I wrote some notes on this topic in my first year at Oberlin, and reading them back now, I’m kind of shocked at how much I’ve changed. Three years ago, I wrote “I get very worried that when I’m alone in a place where lots of people can see me, they might be judging me for not having any friends.” I don’t really find myself thinking this that much anymore. I’m not sure I could articulate what changed really, but I’ve definitely become more comfortable in myself and with what I want and need. 

Living into the difference between being alone and being lonely, and working on not conflating the two, has helped me a lot in college and as a person in general, and I’m really proud of the progress that I have made in this area. I hope my musings on loneliness vs. being alone have helped you think about your own conceptions of the terms and how to feel all right as you’re feeling all of your feelings <3

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