Exeter, Devon UK • Apr 18, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Comment Lonely Only: How being an only child has impacted my experiences at University

Lonely Only: How being an only child has impacted my experiences at University

Livvy Mason-Myhill, Print Editor-in-Chief, shares insights on confronting the social intricacies of university life from an only child's perspective, highlighting the critical value of cherishing solitude.
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Image: Livvy Mason-Myhill

For the majority of my life, I have enjoyed being alone. Growing up as an only child, I managed to keep myself entertained as I was greatly encouraged to have a broad imagination. I would engross myself in books, push myself to make friends and ultimately learnt to become comfortable in my own company. Therefore, when I started university, I anticipated that I would be able to cope successfully, especially as I was expecting to instantly make friends and that I would be so busy socialising and studying that I wouldn’t really have much time alone. Yet, the reality of being at university is that there are many moments where you find yourself being completely alone.

Following a survey by the UK Government in September, 92 per cent of students have experienced loneliness and 43 per cent of students are concerned that they admitted to feeling lonely. Additionally, a recent Exeposé survey found that being away from home for the first time was commonly cited as a cause of student loneliness alongside the workload that comes from University and learning to become completely independent. The survey also revealed that social media also distorts people’s views of what university life is like, insinuating that you will consistently be surrounded by people, making us view student life with rose-coloured spectacles.

Alongside many students nationally and locally, I too have felt completely alone at university. My first year at university in particular, I found myself sat in my room, watching films, calling my mum 24/7 and making copious cups of coffee from my coffee machine. My ‘only child-ness’, however, did enable me to appreciate my time alone; there is a sort of preciousness to the way in which I treat my time and space. Even now that I have become comfortable and truly settled in university life as a final year student, instead of dreading the moments of loneliness that I once feared as a first year, I have chosen to fully embrace them again, just like I once did in the past.

My ‘only child-ness’, however, did enable me to appreciate my time alone

There have been scientific studies that explain the behavioural differences of only children or ‘onlies’ to people who have siblings. According to one study from the American Institutes For Research, which involved interviewing over 400,000 students in 1960 and again one, five, and eleven years after they finished school, only people were less likely to participate in social activities and were more interested in isolation. In contrast, children without siblings had lesser agreeableness (friendliness and cooperativeness) and increased “flexibility,” a sign of inventiveness, in 2016 MRI brain scans, according to Chinese researchers for Southwest University. It’s debatable if this indicates something really significant because each person on the planet is unique. Even though the data is questionable, I still frequently feel different from those who have siblings.

The best thing that being an only child has taught me is that time spent alone isn’t a negative thing. With all of its opportunities and challenges, university required me to face the restrictions of my isolated upbringing and find a way around them. I do still find myself being somewhat of a ‘showman’ or ‘jester’, trying to constantly entertain people and make them laugh in order for people to notice me and include me. I do feel like being a people pleaser is a major part of being an only child. We’ve consistently had the pressures to find friends as we don’t have siblings to hide behind. This is a blessing and a curse. If you choose to be a people pleaser at university (like I find myself doing quite often), you find that your social battery becomes drained incredibly quickly. However, if you choose to be more introverted, you may feel disappointed that people are not gravitating towards you. Of course, I’m not suggesting that being introverted is a negative thing, as I know that is what several people are comfortable with. But I do think as an only child at university it is good to try and find a balance of being both extroverted and introverted. I am trying to discover how to strike a balance between my natural independence and the social and communal needs that come from others. I have come to understand that vulnerability is a strength, which helped me build more lasting and profound relationships both with others and with myself.

I have come to understand that vulnerability is a strength

Upon reflection, the transformation of me from a ‘lonely only’ person to a well-rounded person highlights the university experience’s transforming impact. It wasn’t always simple, and there were times when the quiet I had loved seemed solemn and lonely. However, these instances gave me valuable lessons about adaptability, resilience, and the need of being open to the world.

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