Lots 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.
Don’t confuse alone time with loneliness.
Being alone and feeling the negative aspects of loneliness are two different things. So why does so much societal or internal pressure 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. Like a lot of things, the “dose” won’t be the same for everyone and some folks will want alone time more than others. Either way, there are reasons, backed by research, why being alone is necessary for self-care, maintaining focus and increasing happiness.
Not all being alone is the same, and there are some simple strategies you can use to do it well. Here’s how.
The key is to choose rather than just “be”
One of the long-lasting results of the COVID-19 pandemic is that our lifestyles and households have been compressed in ways we weren’t used to before. Even with vaccines and lifted lockdowns, the ways we work, go to school, and socialize have been deeply impacted. If we live with our families or partners, many of us are less alone than we’ve ever been before. For some folks who live alone, the opposite could be true — they’re more alone than ever when they don’t want to be.
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. Maybe we don’t really want to focus on the feeling that we’ve been ignoring or pushing below the surface. If we remove stimulation and go to be with just ourselves, what happens if we don’t like what we find?
Embracing the desire to be alone and actively planning for it can feel sort of radical. Not only because we’re not all 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 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 most likely 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 busy restaurant to meditating in a park to taking up that table for two in Starbucks even though there’s only you, think of a thing that would bring you joy while you’re alone and just do it. Unabashedly.
Solitude helps us recharge our emotional batteries
We all know the feeling of being totally drained. As our home, work and school lives converge into one ongoing neverending workday, that exhaustion is more prevalent than ever. Feelings of burnout can mean we need more self-care.
Taking some time just for yourself helps 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 don’t take time 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 set 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 during the rest of your busy day.
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.
It’s a fresh mindset that has to be intentionally cultivated. It’s something you have to work at. 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 tiny thing you’d like to try doing alone. It can be absolutely anything: go outside, stay inside, do a thing, don’t do a thing. The only requirement is that it’s just you and, ideally, something you think you’d enjoy by yourself.
2. Schedule it
Put alone time in your calendar. Schedule a phone alert. Write it in your journal. However you organize your day, pick a time slot for your 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
This is a big one. Many of us, especially those who work as primary caregivers in the home, do this perverse thing where since there’s so much to be done we feel guilty if we’re not constantly doing something traditionally productive. It’s not fair to you, and ultimately it’s not helping the people you love and who you’re working so hard to take care of.
A little alone time will boost your mental health and help you to be better at everything you do. Try not to feel ashamed, indulgent or like a solo break is something you’re sneaking in.
Instead, flip it around so that your alone time is as necessary as any of your other daily work tasks. Don’t think of it as a separate frill, but part of your responsibilities and that, if you do it, you’ll be more effective at everything else you’ve got to do.
Choosing to be alone and all its benefits is something that you’re worthy of and that you deserve. Accept that you come first during your glorious alone time because there’s only one person to think about: