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Sound Familiar?

Katya was suprised last night when her boyfriend remarked that he’d noticed since moving in that it seemed she never really liked to be alone.  She walked in the morning with her mom, spent literally the entire day talking to other people in her gig as a “Relationship Manager” at her pharmaceuticals firm, always kept the radio on in the car, filled her evenings with classes,  phone calls, or social events, and even slept with the TV on!  After being incredibly offended and hurt at the littany of things he pointed out, Katya had a profound realization of the accuracy of what her boyfriend had to say.  What was she avoiding by keeping \herself engaged all the time?

After successfully completing his college degree and graduating summa cum laude, Nolan’s parents were shocked when he let them know he wanted to move back home.  His explanation was plausible and comforting — he wanted some time to re-group, he hadn’t been satisfied with the first round of job offers he got as an entry-level graphic designer, and he wanted to save money while he kept looking.  Now, some 14 months later, his parents have begun to get worried.  Nolan spends most of his time in their basement, on the computer or sleeping.  He has gained significant weight and is generally moody if interrupted or really talked with much at all.  He denies feeling depressed and says he spends up to 4 or more hours per day applying for jobs, though they also see a lot of pornography use and gaming.  He spends so much time alone, they didn’t even know that he’d broken up with his girlfriend of 2 years.  This much alone time doesn’t seem right.

As a result of COVID-19, the amount of alone time Julie typically contended with has literally quadrupled.  As a university teacher, most of her days were spent interacting with students and parents and administration, with only a slight dip over the summer because she taught  courses both online and in-person through the end of July.  While she conceded that her alone time has allowed her to get more done around her house, there were only so many projects to attend to and then she’d be left with her singlehood and boredom — she only moved to town a year ago and had been so career focused, she failed to develop many relationships.   And during COVID-19, she couldn’t even if she wanted to.  

Being Alone.  Being Lonely.

We all spend time alone now and again, by accident or intention.  Also, everyone feels lonely sometimes.  Is there a way to have aloneness without being lonely?  Perhaps, if we learn to look at loneliness as good data about our needs, rather than something we have to fix.  That is, loneliness can be a natural indication that we need interpersonal connection, that we’re craving connection with others. Feeling lonely can also present an opportunity to connect with ourselves, to turn our attention inward and spend some time with ourselves.

But really, spending time alone on purpose?

Spending time alone is often portrayed negatively.  From song lyrics (“One is the loneliest number…”) to evaluations that spending time alone is weird, sad, bad, weak, “lonely”, or makes one a loner, to the concept of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), many of us have the idea that spending time alone is not beneficial. What’s more, when we’re struggling or experiencing difficult emotions, we might not want to turn our attention towards that experience. It might be painful to be with just ourselves. And there are plenty of distractions out there that keep us from connecting with ourselves. Social media, watching TV, using substances, and focusing on other people can all be ways of distracting ourselves from our own experience.

While we might need distraction sometimes, spending quality time with ourselves has the potential for a variety of benefits, including greater self-awareness, increased confidence, and an improved sense of self-value.

  • Greater self-awareness: Being by ourselves can help us get to know ourselves better. Without the influence of others, we can find out what things we like and don’t like. When you take yourself out to dinner, you get to choose your favorite place to eat without having to consider the input of others! Or pick a new restaurant and decide for yourself whether you like it. Spending time noticing our own thoughts and feelings can also help us get to know ourselves.
  • Confidence Bump: Once we’re more aware of ourselves – what we like, dislike, need in the moment, think about certain topics, feel about different things – we can accept ourselves for who we really are. Experiencing our true selves leads us to feel the “7 C’s” from Richard Schwartz: Confident, Calm, Compassionate, Courageous, Clear, Curious, and Connected.
  • Improved sense of self-value: As you get to know yourself better and experience living more authentically, there’s opportunity to value yourself and your own human needs. You can recognize that you have value inherently on your own, as your own complete human being, in all the ways that you are uniquely you. Having an improved sense of value can help you understand that while others bring a sense of comfort, support, and validation, you are whole without them. This can help you get clear regarding the “why” of relationships, a question most people omit altogether before simply plowing into them.
  • Increased capacity to care for ourselves: Spending time alone builds our capacity to find comfort within ourselves. While looking to others for support and comfort is not wrong, there will be times when we don’t have someone else readily available. It is important to be able to care for and comfort ourselves, to help ourselves feel good and to accept ourselves rather than always seeking those things externally.

Okay, those are the benefits, but what if I have something deeper going on?

A lot of people understand theoretically that spending time alone could be positive, but have a sinking suspicion that if they do spend time alone, it won’t actually meet their needs.  That is, they sense that their feelings of loneliness aren’t really about people or relationships, but about something that feels missing inside.  The good news is that this is actually quite common, and in fact is so common that loneliness is considered to be one of the four core themes of existential thought (along with meaning in life, death anxiety, and freedom/responsibility).  The other good news is, even if that’s true, that you’re working on something deeper, you can get clarity about what that is, if you’re willing to do some work. 

Here are some things to try on your own.

  • First, notice whether spending time by yourself seems like a crappy idea. If you’re still stuck on the idea that spending time alone is sad or weird, you will feel uncomfortable spending time by yourself. FOMO is likely to quickly show up and you may feel lonely or left out. So first, believe in and remind yourself of the value and benefits of spending quality time alone.  If there seems to be an obstacle to doing that, consider talking with someone you trust about it.
  • Begin slowly. There’s no need to start off with a week-long silent retreat in order to create your practice of spending time alone. If you aren’t used to it, start with something more manageable. Try taking a 30 minute walk, and work your way up to taking yourself out to dinner!
  • Ditch your phone.  Try keeping your cell phone or tablet out of reach during your alone time. It can be tempting to respond immediately to a text from a friend or check social media. A break from technology can be useful anyways, and especially while you’re intentionally trying to cultivate beneficial alone time. 
  • Try something constructive. If you’re having a hard time combining time with yourself along with something relaxing, like a walk or going out to dinner, try doing something like a chore, or a project you’ve been wanting to finish. You can spend time with yourself also while getting something productive done. 
  • Keep tabs on how you’re doing. Notice and record your actions, thoughts, and feelings during your quality alone time. It’s likely that you will feel uncomfortable, anxious, and bored sometimes. Note when you feel those things most acutely, that’s valuable information. Tracking your efforts over time can also help you determine how much progress you’ve made.

Need some guidance with all of these?  We can help!

Our therapists aren’t just expert counselors – they’re agents of change!  They can help you discover how to be okay being alone, including helping you investigate what prevents you from getting there on your own.  
Looking for help with spending time alone in St. Louis?

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