• Life as a single person may usually involve around seeing friends and going on dates – this is why the UK's lockdown might be particularly challenging

  • Therapist Wendy Bristow explores the value of acknowledging our feelings and nurturing self-compassion

  • Our therapists and counsellors are ready to see you online – start your search here

We are living in the strangest of times. This virus and lockdown would never have come at a good time for anyone, obviously. But what if it’s come at a particularly difficult time for you? If you’re single and your pre-viral social life consisted of seeing friends and/or dating, now you can do neither of those things in the flesh. And while there are inventive substitutes to social events like having a drink with friends via videoconferencing, it’s just not the same.

Lockdown is hard on singletons. It may enhance feelings of isolation and loneliness, especially if you’re living alone but even if you have a housemate or are staying with family for the duration. Everyone’s carrying an extra dose of stress, anxiety and frustration as we adapt to a huge, unprecedented change made harder by not knowing how long it will last. Whatever feelings you had about being single pre-lockdown are likely to be heightened. If you were craving that one special person the yearning may intensify. If grieving a break-up the hurt may feel harder. We all want life to go back to normal but if pre-lockdown normal wasn’t how you wanted it anyway, that can feel devastating.

Even if you were single and loving it when you entered 2020, this time is challenging. When we’re not in a relationship we get our need for human contact met in different ways to when we are. If you’re used to seeing people at work or university, you may be realising  – and affected by – how much that need was met in the working world.

So here are a few thoughts that may help with navigating this difficult time.

First the ‘don’ts’. Or, at least, ‘try not tos’.

In my practice at the moment I’m hearing varieties of: ‘but many people have it worse off than me so I shouldn’t be complaining’ or ‘I’m not ill so it’s silly to be feeling this way’. This kind of thinking encapsulates two of the unhelpful ways our mind tries to deal with difficult feelings.

One is what’s come to be called ‘compare and despair’ – when you go online you’ll see plenty about people taking on big projects like learning a language or attempting a half-marathon. But when you’re feeling lonely or down it can feel like an achievement to have got out of bed. Equally you may try to rationalise yourself out of your own emotional difficulties by comparing yourself with people who are worse than you. Does it work? No.

The other is judging ourselves for having painful feelings – which doesn’t make them go away. In fact they’re more likely to hang around. Much of how (and why) counselling and psychotherapy work is about airing, owning and exploring so-called ‘negative’ feelings.

It sounds entirely counterintuitive but actually accepting difficult feelings helps them pass more swiftly. Some think this would mean wallowing in, say, feeling low and moping around. It’s more about self-acceptance and being kind to ourselves about our feelings, whatever they are.

How to be kind to yourself

Kristen Neff pioneered psychological research into the concept of self-compassion and says (in her book Self-Compassion) ‘One of the most robust and consistent findings in the research literature is that people who are more self-compassionate tend to be less anxious and depressed’. 

Telling yourself your feelings are silly, judging them, dismissing them, becoming impatient with them or trying to rationalise yourself out of them by comparing yourself with some mythical other is not being kind to yourself emotionally. Thinking you ‘shouldn’t feel this’ and ‘should be like that’ is a slippery slope that can lead to being deeply unkind and hard on yourself. It helps to mentally ban the word ‘should’ (along with ‘ought’). The fact is, you are experiencing some difficulty and feeling a painful feeling, be it anxiety, frustration, envy or downright sad.

Many of us have no idea how to be kind to ourselves. Neff offers a three-part structure aimed at developing emotional self-compassion.

  • Firstly, acknowledge the feeling. Neff suggests something like: ‘This is a moment of suffering’. Name the feeling – for example, ‘I’m really hating lockdown today’.
  • Secondly remind yourself others are going through similar difficulties. This replaces ‘compare and despair’ with a more comforting and inclusive connection with others that’s about acknowledging you’re not the only one struggling with whatever you’re struggling with. Something like ‘Suffering is part of life. There are people all over the world hating being single right now, just like me’. This stage is important for de-toxifying the idea that you’re somehow not coping with a situation that others are OK with. Or that you’re the only single person in a world of couples. It’s about practicing self-reassurance.
  • Finally talk to yourself about the feeling or situation sympathetically by saying the kind of things you might say to a friend. What Neff suggests as ‘May I be kind to myself in this moment’.  It’s about cultivating a sense of ‘I’m sorry you’re having a tough time today’. It helps to follow this with ‘Given how I’m feeling, what do I need or what would help right now?’ The answer might be something simple like go for a walk, call a friend or even just put the kettle on.

Calming negative self-talk

Training your inner voice towards kinder self-talk in this way takes practice. Like building up a mental muscle, you need to keep at it but it does come with powerfully beneficial side-effects. For by accepting your feelings and developing a kinder attitude to yourself  you’re deepening the relationship with that most important person: yourself. Stephanie Dowrick, author of Intimacy and Solitude says: ‘Your connection with others can only be as rewarding as the connection you have with the only ‘someone’ with whom you live every moment of your own life: your own self.’

She adds: ‘Being in good contact with your own self, welcoming time with your own self as you might welcome time with a friend: this makes being with others less essential (I can’t bear to be alone) or perhaps less dangerous (I can’t be with others. They are sure to hate me/find me out/ignore me/crush me). Knowing you can enjoy your own company precedes believing that you can matter to other people in much the same way they matter to you.’

So perhaps we can re-calibrate lockdown as the opportunity for a crash course in getting to know yourself under pressure. To this end you might ask yourself what meaning you’re making about where you are now. What’s that telling you about core beliefs you hold? About yourself, about relationships, about life and difficulty? Do they serve you? If a friend told you they were thinking this, what would you say to them? This might throw up more opportunities not to judge.

If you find emotional states aren’t changing or you’re getting depressed, drinking too much or your anxiety won’t calm down then plenty of therapists and counsellors are working online. Either solo or with a therapist, if you can emerge from lockdown with a greater degree of self-acceptance your time won’t have been wasted and you might actually find you’re more available for love.

Wendy Bristow is a verified welldoing.org therapist in Central London

Further reading

Why can't I stop thinking about someone I barely dated?

Moving from self-criticism to self-compassion

How to nurture more self-compassion

What has the coronavirus crisis taught us about home and identity?

Covid-19 lockdown and mental health: it's OK not to be OK