Few people enjoy being alone; there's a hard-to-escape sense of rejection about it. Nevertheless, solitude can make you more self-sufficient, add to your confidence, and help you get to know yourself a lot better. If being alone scares you, bores you, or just isn't your favourite thing, here's how you can fix that and make your "alone time" more productive.
Many people seem to subscribe to the idea that being alone is like having some sort of disease. You might skip movies in the theatre if you have to attend on your own. Or maybe you criticise yourself for eating lunch at your desk instead of with coworkers or friends. Perhaps you spend too much of our time out with others because you just don't know what to do when you're by yourself.
With a little work, however, you can make your alone time much more productive. With the help of Roger S. Gil, a clinician specialising in marriage and family therapy, and Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at NYU and author of Going Solo, we'll look at the benefits of solitude and how you can use them to your advantage.
You Can Engage In Productive Introspection
Some aspects of being alone that frighten us can actually help us. When nobody else distracts us, we have the opportunity to become introspective. You, like many others, may not look forward to moments of introspection. The idiom "you are your own worst enemy" exists because we tend criticise ourselves more harshly than anyone else. Nevertheless, if you engage in introspection productively, you can wind up feeling better rather than worse. Roger explains:
By taking the time to understand what our core beliefs are about ourselves, others, and the world at large, we can gain greater insights into our own thought processes and how our minds work. "Alone time" helps us shut out the noise introduced by others and get to inspecting our emotional baggage.
Instead of criticising recent behaviours or worrying about the future, use introspection to think about what you believe and what matters to you. Spend a little time considering the positive actions you took in a given day or week. When analysing personal weaknesses, think about how you may improve. Negative thoughts tend to find their way to the forefront of our minds when we have no other distractions, and that's OK. Just approach them productively. See your alone time as an opportunity to solve problems through introspection and get to know yourself better rather than a time to dwell on the downsides of your life.
You Get To Do Whatever You Want
Some people don't hate being alone as such;; they simply find it boring. When you're with others, you have the advantage of multiple minds thinking of an enjoyable activity. When you're alone, you're entirely responsible for entertaining yourself. While sometimes daunting, when you only have to please yourself you can try anything.
Personally, when I have little to do I like to pick a place I haven't been and wander around. When I have no agenda, I can pay closer attention to my surroundings and I almost always find something interesting happening nearby. This allows me to not only try something new but also experience it unencumbered by the opinions of others. While you might think you form unique opinions regardless of who you are with, that's not really the case. Roger explains:
The influence of others' opinions plays a huge role in the establishment of trends and what the mainstream feels is good or bad. Being by ourselves removes the biases that others may introduce into our opinions. Forming our beliefs about something before bringing others into the mix helps us get a clearer picture of what it is that we actually like and want. A great example of how others' opinions can sway our own often happens when a person is determining whether or not someone is a potential mate. If you constantly consult friends and rely on their opinions to form your own then you may allow their own preferences and biases to overshadow your own feelings. The danger in this is that you may ignore someone who is more your type and focusing on people that are more acceptable to your social circle.
The same issues occur with almost anything you do. If you're like most people, you won't see a movie alone even though you might enjoy it less with friends. Whether you like it or not, the opinions of others in your social circle affect yours and you may leave liking a movie less if your friends didn't care for it. Seeing it on your own, however, allows you to think about it without outside influences. Not only does this increase the likelihood of enjoyment, it also helps you develop a more accurate picture of what you enjoy and what matters to you.
You Become More Self-Sufficient
Increased solitude equals increased self-reliance. If you can't count on others for everything you do, you have to learn to do quite a bit more yourself. Of course, you have to rely on others sometimes, but alone time helps you create a balance between getting help from others and relying on yourself. If you have trouble getting things done without the encouragement and help of others, Roger suggests solitude as a potential solution:
Depending on others too much can lead to people who do not learn the life skills necessary to function effectively on their own. Being alone and forcing yourself to get something done is a great way to start breaking free from enmeshment ("a relationship between two or more people in which personal boundaries are permeable and unclear"). Even if the outcome of your new undertaking isn't ideal, the fact that you tried on your own can go a long way toward helping you feel more comfortable with doing something unfamiliar the next time around.
You have many options if you want to try and get something done on your own. You don't have to start big and, say, learn to code — it could be a much smaller DIY project or even just keeping a journal. The more you learn to do on your own the more self-sufficient you become, making it easier to handle tasks on your own when you can't rely on friends. In addition to becoming more capable and productive, you'll have fun finding new ways to spend your time.
Remember To Keep A Good Balance
Although this post advocates spending time alone, you need balance. You can't live a life without engaging with others, wherever those interactions fall on the scale of superficial to intimate. That balance falls in a unique place for each of us, as Eric explains:
We do know that social isolation is dangerous, so the trick is to balance solitude with social activity in a way that suits you. Remember that for Emerson and Thoreau, the point of having solitude was not to retreat from the world altogether, but to prepare for a more productive return.
Spending time alone doesn't make you bereft of human connection. You can interact with others when you explore, and even technology can help you avoid isolation. Eric notes, however, that technology can hurt the benefits of solitude:
Technology helps to connect us but it makes being alone difficult. Today you can be home alone and intensely involved in social activity. That's both a challenge and an opportunity, and we don't yet know how it will change us.
You'll need to figure out the right balance of social activity for you, and you can only do that by attempting to make your time alone more productive and figure out how much of it suits your needs. You don't want to become a loner, but you don't want to become enmeshed with others either. Nevertheless, if you embrace both your social activity and your solitude you can look forward to everything you do.
A very special thanks goes out to Roger S. Gil and Eric Klinenberg for their contributions to this post. You can follow Roger on Twitter and check out his podcast. For more from Eric, check out his book Going Solo.