The difference between being alone and feeling lonely

There is nothing wrong with being on your own but don’t enter a relationship, platonic or otherwise, because you need company. Natalie Ng explains why this can be dangerous and why you should learn to love and prioritise yourself first. 

Illustration by Lesley Tang @yelselogy

Being a university student, especially an international one, is the best time for one to learn true independence. There are not many times in life where you get to find out what you are truly made of and what you are truly capable of on your own, and this period of time as a university student in your 20s is one of those times. Independence will definitely come naturally through living away of home, but what I wish to focus on here is more about emotional and psychological independence.

Friendship and building strong relationships with the people around you are important, and that’s why it makes far more sense to invest your time and emotions into people you actually care about and who care about you in return. This sounds obvious, but most young people fall into the trap of surrounding themselves with 50 people they call their friends but few that will actually show up when it matters. Some even jump from one romantic relationship to another without true fulfilment.

In my first year in university, I found myself hanging out with people I called friends but that I never really found a connection with. I’ve always been the type of person who does what I think is best for myself, so eventually it just made sense to choose not to hang out with people I had no real connection with. I’ve seen way too many people continue to hang out and care about people they call ‘friends’ who wouldn’t really be there for them when it actually mattered.

Don’t do it. Don’t hang out with people just because you need company. Always choose yourself first over making others comfortable. It is important to care about people, but not to the detriment of what you want, what you need, and most importantly, what you deserve.

Don’t hang out with people just because you need company. Always choose yourself first over making others comfortable.

I’ve observed other international students, and how many are prone to falling into relationships, romantic or platonic, for the sake of companionship and to combat loneliness. At best, these relationships eventually fall apart and you move on with no real consequence. The worst is when these relationships become unhealthy or toxic. These types of relationships have a varying level of toxicity, but it can be as simple as a friendship that is draining on the part of one person to an emotionally/financially/physically abusive relationship.

The signs when a relationship becomes one can be subtle: from a partner being possessive, to the other party seeing their friends less and less, to the control of spending habits. They are subtle because the person being abused often doesn’t see it as such: the isolation of someone in a relationship from their friends because they don’t want to make their partner “jealous” is not healthy behaviour at all and is often the first red flag of a toxic relationship.

Friendships can also be unhealthy when one person takes advantage of the other: it can be as simple as financially mooching off someone, but it can also be a friend who always ends up tearing down your self-esteem instead of supporting you. And again, the signs of an unhealthy friendship can be very subtle as well.

I think it is harder to remove yourself from the dependence of such a relationship as an international student, when your support system is not as stable as when you have the relationships of your immediate family to fall back on. If you are in such a relationship, I think the most important thing firstly, is to find the strength to tell someone. It will be hard to do just that, but when you do, it will eventually give you the strength to leave that relationship.

It is better to be alone or have one or two friends you can truly count on than to be surrounded by a whole bunch of people who end up making you feel lonely nonetheless.

There’s also a difference to being alone and feeling lonely. It is better to be alone or have one or two friends you can truly count on than to be surrounded by a whole bunch of people who end up making you feel lonely nonetheless. It is therefore immeasurably valuable to learn how to be alone. It builds your emotional and psychological resilience and your overall independence. It ultimately makes you a stronger person inside. It makes you more comfortable to be in your own skin, and that kind of confidence just leads you to communicate better with people. The relationships that you do have will be better valued as well because you know these are the people you really care about and who care about you.

So how do you learn to be alone? Do things by yourself. Start small by reading a book by yourself without interruptions on social media. Go to the cinema by yourself or explore the streets of the city or town you live in by yourself. You’ll probably discover something new just without any distraction. Take the next step by making bigger decisions like travelling or studying a semester abroad without any friends or significant others to accompany you. Hike a trail or climb a mountain on your own like Dakota Johnson did at the end of the film How To Be Single. You will likely learn something about yourself that you wouldn’t have discovered by spending all your time with other people.

While people are social creatures and need connection and emotional intimacy, I believe that you will be able to be your best self when connecting with another person if you are secure enough to be by yourself. It all comes back to this: you need to find out who you are, what you are and what you want by yourself, without people influencing your decisions. You make your own choices. You are responsible for your progress and your growth, and at the end of the day, you are responsible for your own happiness.


Supported by the City of Melbourne through a community grant, this story is part of a year-long PEER Project which aims to help international students build healthy community, explore and find peer-support on issues around identity and gender, discuss common struggles and stereotypes, and gain the confidence to navigate current and future relationships.

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  1. Great article! I’m starting Uni in a few months so it’s given me a lot to think about re: how I’m going to deal with the changes etc.

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