As you age, it’s inevitable that your friends will reach milestones at different times, making you feel left behind. Here’s how to handle that.
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.
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.
Why does it feel so lonely to be at a different life stage than our friends?
Friendships bound by the social structures of school, university, or entry-level jobs are often simple.
For the most part, we feel like we are progressing at similar paces while we all scramble to figure out what we want to make of ourselves as we enter adulthood.
Once we start to find our unique path, however, life can quickly transform from what feels like a team sport to a solo venture. This transition often sparks feelings of fear, apprehension, and deep loneliness.
People who dedicate their 30s or 40s to their careers may struggle to relate to those who decide to settle down and start a family or pursue a life of travel and adventure, and vice versa.
Of course, these things can all co-exist and are not mutually exclusive, but most of us have to prioritise whatever is most demanding, urgent, or speaks most closely to our values and heart’s deepest desires.
Athanasiadis said that it’s perfectly natural to gravitate more towards people having similar life experiences or transitions, but that, of course, it doesn’t mean we can’t have deep and meaningful friendships with people leading a different lifestyle than us.
While it’s natural to drift apart temporarily while preoccupied with our own goals, challenges, and journeys, Athanasiadis said there is a difference between friendships that grow apart due to changing life stages and those that end for deeper reasons.
“A strong friendship will typically withstand any change in personal life circumstances if both parties are willing to be flexible to and adapt to each other’s life transitions or changes,” she said.
Maintaining meaningful connections with friends at different life stages
Friendships often become more complex and effortful when we no longer have as much in common, but this doesn’t mean they have to end or are any less meaningful or important.
We can learn to acknowledge and accept complicated feelings like loneliness, comparison, envy, or resentment regarding where we are at in life, especially when comparing to our friends.
There is then a real opportunity to become closer than ever and build a connection untethered by external expectations and meaningless standards we’ve learned ‘should’ govern how we connect with others.
Suppose you’ve noticed some distance growing between yourself and a dear friend or loved one due to incompatible or changing life circumstances. In that case, Athanasiadis suggests finding new ways to nurture these connections.
Friendships require effort, even if that effort looks different at different times in your life. However, it’s usually possible to check in regularly, schedule time to see each other, and find enjoyable shared activities, even if you can only do so every couple of months.
“Remind yourself of what qualities are important for you in the friendship in the first place,” said Athanasiadis.
“It’s rarely about doing exactly the same things at the same time. Usually, it’s things like mutual respect, kindness, humour, honesty, trust, loyalty, and reliability. We don’t have to like or do all the same things as our friends (and it would probably be very boring if we did).”
You can show how much you care by displaying genuine interest in what is going on in your friend’s life, even if it is very different from what you’re doing in yours. Celebrate your friend’s goals and achievements, regardless of whether they resemble your own, and be courageous in telling your friends how you’d like them to support and show up for you too.
Unspoken expectations can be resentments waiting to happen. Even when life is less hectic, nobody can read our minds and perfectly anticipate our needs. Voicing them requires vulnerability and risking rejection, but it’s also the best way to deepen our relationships.
Making space for new connections that align with who you are becoming
Sometimes, relationships fade into the background to allow new ones to flourish. While we shouldn’t ditch our friends just because we no longer share everything in common, it may be worthwhile to build new connections with people doing similar things to you.
“This may be exploring things like joining professional development or peer consultation groups, joining parenting groups, or connecting with people online who share similar interests and goals,” said Athanasiadis.
Websites like Meetup, mobile friendship apps, online forums, or Facebook groups are great places for this. You can also consider joining book clubs, yoga classes, arts and crafts classes, sporting teams, dancing studios, women’s circles, philosophy dinners, gardening clubs, walking groups, or animal or environmental conservation groups.
Making new friends doesn’t mean you are replacing or less interested in your existing circle, but it can help you feel less alone in your journey and take some of the pressure off your current friends to fulfil all of your social needs.
Experiencing loneliness does not signify that you have failed or are inherently unlovable. It can happen to anyone, no matter how well-connected they are.
Support is available, and reaching out for help shows great strength and courage. You are not alone, even when it feels like it.