Quarantine measures, and the looming second wave of the coronavirus pandemic have us all seriously restructuring our lives. We’re encouraged to stay home, avoid groups, and isolate ourselves as much as possible. While some thrive off of alone time, for others, being stuck with just themselves for company can be a massive challenge. But knowing how to be alone is actually a really important – and valuable – skill.
Why is it so hard to be by myself?
What is it that conjures up a feeling of dread at the thought of being alone? Is it boredom? Are we just terrified of having to listen to our own thoughts?
Studies have found that many people – especially men – would rather endure electric shocks than be left alone with their thoughts for just 15 minutes. That sounds absolutely ridiculous, doesn’t it? after all, 15 minutes is hardly that long. And yet, most people find the experience highly unpleasant.
According to a study published in Science “In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative”.
Of course, personality types will play a big role in how we feel about being alone. Introverts are more likely to feel at peace without company, whereas extroverts require other people in order to feel truly content. But that’s not all there is to it.
The fact is, that being alone is quite different from being lonely. Psychotherapist and author of The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us, Ross Rosenberg, believes that “the idea of being alone is what you make of it”.
According to Rosenberg the real roots of loneliness run much deeper than merely the experience of being alone. They stem from trauma, loss, grief, and insecurity. Sometimes, when we’re not in company, we can feel like we’re either anti-social, or unwanted. Neither of those feelings is very pleasant, and they’re particularly prevalent in an age in which all our friends are posting all their activities on social media.
“Loneliness is a normal part of the human existence,” Alena Hall, writing for Huffpost, quotes Rosenberg. “We all feel lonely, but chronic, pathological loneliness is a deeply embedded pattern that is self-reinforcing. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Healthy, resilient people respond to normal loneliness by resolving it. Unhealthy people become overwhelmed by it”.
The fact that loneliness is not merely about being by oneself is evident in the fact that often, even in crowds, the feeling can creep up on us. If we’re struggling to form connections with the people around us and are feeling lonely even in company, the problem may lie elsewhere.
Compounding that is the fact that human beings are social creatures. We’re naturally averse to being isolated from our group. Unfortunately, times are a little strange right now and we’re having to adjust to keeping our distance. We’ve previously published an article about how to stay busy during quarantine. Of course, that is important, but many of the methods used to do so – online games, zoom calls, – are all actually helping us to avoid being alone. Leaning into the isolation, and learning to make the most of it, may actually be really good for us.
How does being alone benefit me?
Some of the benefits of being alone are obvious: you’ll have more free time, you’ll become more independent, and you’ll get a break from having to make other people happy (which can be super exhausting!). But there are deeper benefits that can be harnessed once we know how to be alone without feeling miserable.
Sigal Samuel, writing for Vox, cites a number of lessons learned from people who were in voluntary or involuntary isolation long before the pandemic – think monks and prisoners.
Samuel writes that it’s important to see being alone as a time to confront reality instead of opting for distractions. It’s a time in which to get to know oneself, and build upon oneself.
“You’ve got to quit seeing solitude as an experiment in subtraction, and start seeing it as an experiment in addition. What you’re adding is your self — a true self, because at last it’s you who’s building it, not anyone else. You’re no longer looking to other people for their attention or approval”.
When it’s just us, we can no longer rely on others to scaffold our sense of identity, and instead have room to grow into our own unique identities.
Not only that, but disconnecting from outside distractions and from having to perform for others can free up a lot of our time. Samuel writes that many artists insist that being alone is vital for creative work. “I paint with my back to the world,” he quotes the painter Agnes Martin, because “the best things in life happen to you when you’re alone”.
Furthermore, just about any religion you can think of advocates spending time alone to promote spiritual growth. You don’t have to be religious to realise that if so many distinct groups find value in the same thing, there must be some truth to it. Not to worry, though. Those of us who aren’t ready to abandon the physical world and become monks in the Himalayas may find similar benefits just from doing a simple digital detox.
How can I get better at being on my own?
The great news is that feeling comfortable being alone is a skill that can be improved. As with anything, it might be a good idea to ease slowly into it– easier said than done in the middle of a pandemic, though. Luckily, after months of lockdown measures we’ve all already had a fair amount of practice, so it should just keep getting easier from here.
Samuel writes that a simple three step process can make a big difference when it comes to managing the discomfort we feel when alone. First, accept the feeling and stay with it. Second, observe how the feeling is manifesting – such as clenched muscles or the compulsive need to check your phone. Keep observing it until it subsides. Third, focus on an activity you can do in the present moment. If you need some examples of these, here are activities your can try to help make the learning how to be alone a little less uncomfortable:
- Try a change of scenery: If you’re going mad staring at the same four walls, try getting out from time to time. Go for a walk outside. Rearrange the furniture you’re getting so sick of looking at. Take your laptop to a different desk and work somewhere yo’ve never worked before.
- Explore new hobbies: There are so many resources at our finger tips, there’s really no excuse not to start learning a new language, take up landscape painting, or get into calisthenics. Extra points for hobbies that get you away from your phone and computer.
- Really get to know yourself: Switch off your phone, get away from distractions, and try journaling or meditation. These are both great ways to get to grips with who you are and what you want, without outside influences clouding your judgement.
- Acknowledge the things you’re grateful for: Quarantine is lame, but you know things could be much worse.
- Find a purpose: Getting through any struggle is made at least a little easier when one has a purpose or a goal in mind. Not knowing what lies ahead would drive anyone a little crazy, so setting goals to move toward can at least erase some of the uncertainty we’re all facing. It’s good to have a range of short-, medium- and long-term goals, and check them off as you complete them. Importantly, these should be goals for yourself – such as ones you’ve identified though the activities mentioned in step 3.
Finally, expect that the distress, melancholy, or anxiety of being alone will return. When it does, you’ll be better equipped to deal with it than you were before. Also remember that you’re not alone in this. Though we need to keep apart in order to beat this virus, we’re all in it together.