Learning to Be Alone
04.25.17
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For my 30th birthday, I took myself to London.

I spent four nights in one of those pod hotels, where all the furniture is constructed out of one giant piece of plastic and the room key comes out of a vending machine. I went to museums alone and walked around my favorite neighborhoods alone and tried on clothes I couldn’t afford, all alone, and spoke only to baristas or bartenders or people who wanted me to buy things. My last night, a bit worn, I watched groups of humans talking and touching, and the empty space around my body felt like a heavy, wet coat. When I finally found a place for dinner, I was escorted to a booth tucked into a corner with a curtain that the waiter zipped closed, “for your privacy,” but mostly because I probably killed the mood.

People aren’t that comfortable with solitude.

The idea of peace, of being able to simply be, is a preoccupation of our connected world: we’ll pay people to hide our iPhones and force us to sit in silence, so foreign is the concept, so fetishized the ideal of the solitary figure on the mountaintop. Today, aloneness isn’t only physical; it’s also the untethering of the electronic connections that perpetually bind us to the rest of humanity. I’m not talking about between being single or in a relationship, or the lack of friends or a community. There’s a chasm of emotion between being alone and being lonely. As Maria Popova wrote, “This crucial difference between aloneness and loneliness, in fact, is not only central to our psychological unease but also enacted even in our bodies — while solitude may be essential for creativity and key to the mythology of genius, loneliness, scientists have found, has deadly physical consequences on our risk for everything from heart disease to dementia.”

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In a 2014 study at the University of Virginia, researchers put college students in a room for 15 minutes and asked them to occupy themselves with their own thoughts. 67% of the men and 25% of the women were so miserable that they elected to give themselves painful electric shocks rather than just sitting inside their own heads. The modern brain lacks chill.

When was the last time you found yourself with a stretch of uninterrupted solitude? When did you go so far as to seek it out, to revel in it, to wash yourself in the details of quiet, the way the rain looks outside the window, the yawn of space at your table, the glass of water? Aloneness requires a gradual unspooling of your defenses, like shrugging off layers when you enter a hot room, letting your skin breathe, pulling away the armor that stands between you and the world. It’s Georgia O’Keeffe, alone in her desert; it’s Virginia Woolf’s room of her own.

Time spent alone is essential to carving out a sense of self without the noisy bargaining of others instructing us how to be. It’s how we learn self-reliance. Solitude is great for creativity, too, and for regulating emotions. Child psychologists encourage caregivers to provide toddlers with solo time: kids need that space to learn independence, to figure out what feels good and bad, to self-soothe, to practice imagination. I cold-turkeyed my aloneness with a post-college road trip, driving myself around America for three months with only my own thoughts for company (do not recommend).

Still, if you’re one of those people who’d rather fire electricity through your body than sit alone in a coffee shop — especially if you struggle with anxiety or depression, which can make alone time nothing short of excruciating — here are some ways to start cultivating the awesomeness of you.

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Aloneness, baby steps.

  • Take yourself to a movie, preferably a matinee.
  • Go to yoga or spin or Zumba. Try extra hard, or leave halfway through: no one is watching you anyway.
  • Take a bath but leave your phone and your book on the other side of the door. Time yourself. Start with 10 minutes.
  • Go for a little walk.
  • Wander around a library, or through a museum. Touch whatever you’re allowed to touch. Try to just look at one thing for an extended period of time. It’s nice, isn’t it?

Aloneness, leveled up.

  • Coffee alone is good, dinner alone is better. Sit at the bar, or at a table where you can see other people. Just saying the words “table for one” can be immensely liberating.
  • My friend Logan travels alone all the time. She loves it. “It’s my favorite way to explore,” she says, “totally at my pace. Wandering around a neighborhood, stopping at a cafe, getting a haircut, maybe — these are my favorite things to do abroad, but they don’t quite work with another person. I’m a people pleaser, and when I’m with with other people, I spend a lot of energy making sure they are having a good time. Traveling alone means I only have to please myself.”
  • It may not be possible for you because rent is terrible and we all have obligations, but if you can spend some time living alone – even just a few months! – you will learn more about yourself than you could in years of therapy. Your funny patterns and habits, the way your voice sounds in an empty room, the things you like to eat late at night, how you arrange your throw pillows — all of these add up to a person, eventually.

How often do you spend time alone? Do your crave it? Fear it? Avoid it at all costs?

Author Meghan Nesmith is a writer and editor living in Toronto. Illustration by Juliana Vido; follow her on Instagram @julianavido.

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