Many of us have a complicated relationship with the idea of “being alone.” Maybe because it just sounds so similar to “loneliness,” and feelings of being solitary can bring up a lot of unpleasant memories of times we were by ourselves when we didn’t want to be.
However, don’t confuse alone time with loneliness. Whether you’re an extro-, intro- or ambivert, every personality type has something unique to gain from the power of intentional, scheduled time alone. But why does common wisdom make it seem like we shouldn’t ever be alone, nevertheless want to be alone?
The truth is, it’s incredibly normal to want to be alone sometimes. There are clinical reasons why it’s necessary for self-care and to maintain our happiness, and there are ways to do it well. Here's how.
The key is choosing rather than just “being”
During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, our lifestyles and households have been compressed and compacted in ways we couldn’t have predicted before. If we live with our families, many of us are less alone than we’ve ever been. For folks who live alone and are isolating, it’s the exact opposite — they’re more alone.
Some of us will remember being sent to our rooms alone as children as a punishment and carry that negative association into adulthood. For others, being alone with our own thoughts can be scary. If we remove stimulation and go to be with just ourselves, what happens if we don’t like what we find?
The act of desiring alone time can feel sort of radical not only because we’re not used to it, but because we’re not always prepared for the awareness and self-focus that comes with it.
Dance like nobody’s watching - because they’re not
Think of all of the times in your life where you wanted to do something but then stopped yourself because you worried about how others would react. And not just your family and friends — even strangers and people you pass by in public who you’ll never see again. Why do we care so much about what others think of us?
Here’s the surprise: They don’t. Just like you, they’re far more interested in thinking about themselves. They’re not thinking about you at all. This is called the Spotlight Effect. It’s a cognitive bias (which is just a fancy way of saying a regular trick our brains play on us) where we drastically overestimate how much other people care or judge what we do.
It can feel challenging to spend time alone, particularly in public, because it’s common to care more about what other people will think rather than focus on our own enjoyment. From eating alone in a packed restaurant (remember when that was a thing?) to meditating in a park to taking up that table for two in a coffee shop even though there’s only you, think of a thing that would bring you joy while you’re alone and just do it. Unabashedly. Because, truly, the only one who cares is you.
Solitude helps us recharge our emotional batteries
We all know the feeling of being totally drained. For the last two years, as our home, work and school lives converged into one on-going neverending workday, that exhaustion is more prevalent than ever.
Taking some time just for yourself helps you regulate your emotions. Without the persistent strain of outside pressures and demands, you’re able to not only relax and feel calmer but your brain is able to do some of the work processing subconscious feelings that it’s not able to when you’re not able to unplug.
Some of the same neurological pathways that activate during mediation and sleep are similarly switched on, though to a lesser degree, when you have a minute or two to yourself. Quality alone time isn’t so different from a quick, rejuvenating nap — except you get to be awake and enjoy it. The more you’re able to intentionally side aside time to choose to be alone, and relish in it, the more you’ll be priming your brain and body to ease stress and tension the rest of the time.
Yet this is easier said than done. There’s a reason why there’s an old phrase “always remember to stop and smell the roses.” Because we’re psychologically wired, especially when we become stressed and unaware of our feelings, to not stop and not smell the roses. And certainly not to do it by ourselves.
It’s a fresh mindset that has to be intentionally cultivated. It’s something you have to work at. Just like any healthy habit, it takes a few proactive changes to get rolling:
1. Start small
Don’t expect to wake up one morning and have a plan to be constructively alone every day for the rest of your life. It’s not realistic, and it won’t happen. Based on your lifestyle and your commitments, begin with one thing you’d like to try doing alone.
2. Schedule it
Put it in your calendar. Schedule a phone alert. Write it in your journal. However you organize your day, pick a time slot for your alone time activity and look forward to it.
3. Piggyback it
You might have other goals, like reading more or starting an exercise routine. If you can pair one of those and make it your solo activity then you’ll be a little bit closer to achieving multiple goals. Win-win.
4. Don’t feel bad about it
Many of us, especially primary caregivers in the home, do this perverse thing where since there’s so much work to be done we feel guilty if we’re not constantly working. It’s not fair to you, and ultimately it’s not helping the people you love who you’re working so hard to take care of.
A little alone time will make you a better person and better at everything you do. Try not to feel guilty or like a solo break is something you’re sneaking in. This is something that you’re worthy of, that you deserve, and accept that you come first in your glorious alone times because they’re only one person to think about: you.
Jeremy Elder is a Toronto-based content marketer and copywriter with over a decade’s experience telling stories for some of the world’s biggest brands. He’s an expert at finding WiFi wherever you least expect it.
Jeremy Elder is a paid Sonnet spokesperson.