How to handle being by yourself: Building a solo spirit
Even before the pandemic, loneliness was being described as an epidemic. Technology has been a major player since the industrial revolution first threw millions together in faceless cities. Today, between the pandemic, social distancing and the facelessness of modern living, it’s not so much a question of if you’ll be lonely but how you’ll handle it when you are.
A study by researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine found that there are three life stages when people are typically confronted with unwanted solitary time. The late 20s, when one is likely to be living and operating within a new social circle for the first time. The mid-50s, because that’s when most people go from parents to empty-nesters. And the late 80s because that is an age by which one can expect to have lost a number of one’s friends and loved ones.
But there are a myriad reasons one could end up with more time to oneself than one would like, at any stage. Millions are single and wish they weren’t, others are in unhappy relationships or living situations, still others in long-distance relationships or working and living far from loved ones. How should one use this time so as to make it seem less burdensome?
Strategise: Plan how you will spend your time alone. “What we do with our time alone will determine how we feel about it,” says psychiatrist Dr Rahul Bagale. You can turn loneliness to solitude by choosing to nurture the emotional and creative self, thus gaining a sense of control while also making the time more meaningful. Exercise and self-care are a good first step, whether this be going for a walk or cooking, painting or journaling.
Face the discomfort: Part of the displeasure of being alone comes from conditioning. As children, being sent off by oneself is a common form of punishment. Casual remarks about solo diners or single people can reinforce the idea that there is something wrong with being by oneself. Part of it is of course evolutionary. Someone who wasn’t part of the tribe was most likely dangerous in some way: either weak or ill, infectious or dangerously non-conforming. The sense of being left out of the pack returns when one is unwillingly alone. A good way to confront this discomfort is to settle deeper into it and examine what it is about being by yourself that is so uncomfortable. The next question is necessary but harder: what can you do to ease the root cause of that discomfort (work on a key relationship? reach towards a long-held goal?). Perhaps when you confront it the discomfort will dissipate and you will find it was mere habit. In this best-case scenario, the alone time can become something desirable and full of possibility.
Work on your relationships: Spending time alone is much easier when you know there are people out there who care. Build on connections that make you feel heard and wanted. Sociologist Robert S Weiss identified six social needs that, if unmet, contribute to feelings of loneliness: attachment, social integration, nurturance, reassurance of worth, sense of reliable alliance, and guidance in stressful situations. Feeling connected is a fundamental human need. Pick up the phone and message a loved one. If you’re lonely, let them know. Ask them how they’re doing. Right now especially, chances are they’re feeling isolated and left out too.
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