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Sex + Relationships

How Being Single My Whole Life Has Altered My Brain Chemistry

It’s time to get personal, besties. I’ve thought about writing this for a while, and finally starting it is intimidating. As a wellness writer, the expectation that I put on myself is that I should be an expert on all things mental health, physical health, and sex and relationships. Admitting that I have basically no experience with the last one has been an obstacle for me as a writer (hi, imposter syndrome!). I’m talking never even been in the talking stage before.

If you’re a college student who’s never been in a relationship (or had any romantic interaction whatsoever), you may be feeling like you’re behind or that you’re doing something wrong. Thinking about being romantically involved with someone on an emotional level is scary, to begin with. But in the age of college hookup culture, one-night stands, and the plethora of dating apps at our fingertips, romance seems even scarier. There are so many ways that I feel like my lack of experience has impacted my personal development, whether it’s my sense of self, how I navigate relationships, and confusion about my sexuality. I honestly think there needs to be a study done on those of us who’ve never had any romantic experiences, just to see the effects it has on our development. 

If you’ve been on TikTok recently, you’ve probably seen creators talking about moments that “altered their brain chemistry,” whether it was their experience at a job, iconic moments in pop culture, foods that they ate, memories with a loved one, and so many more. The trend is a way for users to share moments that changed their lives in some way, positively or negatively. For me, it’s the way that being single has impacted me mentally and emotionally. 

My self-esteem took a hit.

The first way that I consider my brain chemistry officially altered is my self-esteem. Being chronically single has decreased my self-esteem more than I care to admit. Although it’s gotten easier to deal with over time, I used to consider my relationship status a reflection of my worth as a person. I was constantly dealing with feelings that I’m not worthy of love, or that I’m not funny, interesting, or pretty enough for someone to have a crush on. These are already things that my silly little brain told me on a daily basis, but I took my lack of romantic interaction as evidence of this way of thinking. I would base my self-esteem on external validation, specifically male validation. There must be something wrong with me, right? Who still has never been in a relationship at age 19? It turns out, a lot of people.

Gen Z has a very unique way of dating compared to other generations. So many of us are in the same boat, never having been in a relationship. It just doesn’t feel like it most of the time. And even if we’re tired of hearing about it, the pandemic has had huge effects on the dating world. Years of our lives were turned upside down at such a young age. We were thrown into isolation, unable to pursue relationships in the “normal” way. And now that things are starting to get a little more normal, there’s an unrealistic expectation to immediately “get back out there” – even if some of us were never out there in the first place.

Flirting? I’m honestly clueless.

Having been single for my whole life, I started to believe that nobody would ever think of me in a romantic way – I simply am not used to that sort of attention. Even if they were being completely obvious, I honestly would have no idea if someone was flirting with me. It’s like I’ve got blinders on when it comes to flirting. And even if my friends assured me that someone was making a move, I would laugh it off and make a self-deprecating comment – my toxic trait. This habit creates even more stress because I really don’t want to seem like I’m fishing for compliments. Since I had never been given romantic attention in the past, it’s like I’ve been conditioned to think that someone would only want to be friends with me.

This might be the strangest part of my experience. On one hand, I feel like nobody is romantically interested in me. But at the same time, I’m anxious around everyone that I meet when I go out, just in case this is finally the person who I’m going to be romantically involved with. Even if I don’t feel particularly attracted to them, it’s this strange pressure I put on myself. It’s like I don’t want to mess things up, just in case something does happen with them eventually. And then I step back and think, girl… you just met them. Like, literally five minutes ago. There are no wedding bells anytime soon, so let’s just relax.

@herculeankate

even if they tell me they like me straight up, I’ll still be like … are u sure…

♬ original sound – morgan

Self-deprecation is a lifestyle.

Having people know that you’re sexually inexperienced leaves you feeling extremely vulnerable. For me, self-deprecation is a way of coping with these feelings. You’ll often find me making fun of myself for being single, overcompensating for this personal “flaw.” When my friends tell me about their sex lives and dating experiences, I listen excitedly. I’m genuinely so happy for them, who doesn’t love a good storytime? But when they ask me about mine, I automatically make myself the butt of the joke. I tell them that it’s the same as always – nothing to report, laughing it off and changing the subject. The walls go up, assuring them that I don’t want a relationship. I tell them that I’m not emotionally available. I say that I’m an introvert (which is true, extremely INFJ) and that I’m hyper-independent. I say that I prefer my own company and that I like having alone time. Don’t get me wrong, being independent and enjoying time with yourself is a great skill to have. But I’ve protected my peace a little too much. Like so many others who’ve never had romantic experiences, it’s our way of protecting ourselves. Although I’ve gotten better at realizing when I’m self-deprecating and changing this habit, it’s still a huge struggle.

I Have a very complicated relationship with my sexuality.

It’s hard enough to cope with feelings of shame and embarrassment when it comes to being perpetually single. The added obstacle of coming to terms with your sexuality amid these feelings was seemingly impossible. When you think of what experimenting with your sexuality looks like, you probably think about sexual experimentation. And with my rice purity score in the 90s, that was a terrifying concept to me.

I’ve always known that I wasn’t straight from a young age. I’ve had many intense crushes over the years, and I know that I experience strong romantic attraction to multiple genders. The hard part was finding and accepting a label for myself when I had no sexual experience. Again, the imposter syndrome was so real. I would actually gaslight myself into thinking I was faking it. I would tell myself that I was making it up for attention, even though I didn’t tell anyone. It took me years to come out to even my close family… make it make sense. And googling the “Am I Gay” quiz at age fourteen should’ve been my first clue, but I digress. Invalidating yourself and your sexuality is a huge struggle that comes with being “inexperienced.”

I constantly feel disconnected from my friends.

We all know the “boy crazy” phase that our friends seemed to go through in middle and high school. All of a sudden, everyone started getting obsessive crushes. The most iconic middle school couples started forming, and so began the awkward first dates where their parents would carpool. One thing led to another, and soon your friends were entering the “talking stage” and going on their first dates. Not me, bestie. I watched anxiously from the sidelines as my friends had crushes, first dates, and first kisses. Being LGBTQ+ made this phase even harder.

If you’ve never had any romantic experiences, you know the comments that people make to try to cheer you up: “Don’t worry, it’ll happen when you least expect it,” “You’re not missing out,” “You’re lucky, men suck,” “Just be yourself.” And as well-intentioned as these comments are, it creates even more distance between you and the people who say them. The last thing that I want is for someone to be drawing attention to my lack of experience, trying to reassure me that I’m great and that they have no clue why I’m still single. And then there’s the most hurtful comment of all – “I just can’t picture you in a relationship.” I’ve received this on more than one occasion, unfortunately. Again, it just reinforced what I was already telling myself. 

It’s finally made me embrace self-acceptance.

Although it’s a constant struggle, being single has also changed my life for the better. When you don’t have a partner, you have so much room to learn more about yourself and prioritize your own needs. I’ve been able to become aware of when I’m doing things for the validation of others. Although being single has definitely held me back in many ways, I’ve also been able to find peace with myself by practicing self-acceptance every day. Journaling my thoughts and finding ways to reframe them has brought me so much peace. In a way, it also helps to know that so many of us are in the same situation. I’m hoping that this resonates with someone who’s beating themselves up over their lack of romantic experience. We honestly need to start a support group for us, besties. Join the club, you’ll love it here.

Julia is a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh studying Media and Professional Communications with a minor in Gender, Sexuality, & Women's Studies. She loves to go thrifting, grab a coffee with friends, and go on walks with her dog!