I hope Virginia Woolf won’t mind my theft of her words but they seemed apt for the topic at hand. Many of us fear loneliness, it is the spectre hanging over us as we go about our daily lives, as we interact with others. As people we seem to have an undying need to be liked; to seek approval. I know this feeling well. We strive to make others happy, to make them think well of us. One case in point is the ‘yes’ factor. The word seems to roll of our lips almost before we’ve had time to think. As people lots of us agree to do anything when asked. We have an aversion to the word no. We, as a society, have this belief that saying ‘no’ is a bad thing, that it will make people hate us, or at least like us less. We’re a group of ‘yes men’ and those of us who are not are few and far between. Interestingly, although most of us would bend over backwards to help others, we’re not good at saying yes when it comes to ourselves. We agree to help our friends, families, colleagues etc., even when we’re busy, but hesitate to look after ourselves; to cut ourselves some slack. In the words of First Lady Michelle Obama “We need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own to-do list”. Despite this we continue to say yes because we fear being alone; being rejected into loneliness.
Being alone and being lonely are not the same thing. Yes, loneliness is not a good thing. In fact we know that it can, on some level , for a prolonged amount of time, damage our emotional health. Studies show that loneliness increases the risk of heart disease and dementia, disrupts sleeping patterns and reduces life expectancy. Above and beyond that the research reveals that some of us can experience loneliness as a physical pain. In short, I’m not advocating loneliness by any means. Being alone on the other hand is a different matter.
Spending time on our own, when it is our decision, can be good for our wellbeing. It gives us time to think, to process, to experience our emotions in a safe environment. Many of us need to learn to be able to be alone and in our own company. Not for prolonged periods of time but to give us the space we sometimes need but don’t have time for in our busy lives. Beyond this, it is admirable to be able to cope when you are alone on a literal level. There is a lot to be said about independence, about being able to stand on your own two feet and survive by yourself. As we get older it is good for us to be more self-sufficient and learn not to rely on others. Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t get to. There’s nothing wrong with relying on your spouse, parents, siblings, friends etc. It’s a wonderful thing to have a support network and many of us are very lucky. But it is good to know that if in need we can provide for ourselves. Lots of us get a sense of pride or happiness knowing we can cope alone if we had to or wanted to.
I have great admiration for those who travel alone or even go to the cinema or out for a meal. It is my first instinct to dismiss this idea. Why go on holiday by myself or see a movie when I could go with a friend? But there definitely is something to this. Recently I forced myself to sit alone in a cafe and have a drink. I wasn’t waiting to meet anyone, I didn’t have work to do, I wasn’t reading a book or hiding behind my laptop screen. I just was. I was just me, having a drink, because I wanted to. One part of me feared what people would think. That they would believe I had no friends and pity me. That they would assume I was lonely and had no one to meet with. Soon after I realised I didn’t care. It wasn’t true, I’m very lucky with the friends I have and it didn’t matter what virtual strangers thought. It was good to have time for myself when I wasn’t rushing around trying to please everyone, to be a good wife, sister, daughter, employee, friend. The list goes on.
Here is my challenge to you. Find time to be alone. It doesn’t matter if it is going for a walk, the gym, a cafe, seeing a movie or even going abroad. Challenge yourself. You’ll be surprised how confident you feel and (hopefully) comfortable you can be in your own company. Even if this is the only time you ever go it alone, do it, just once so you know you can. Until next time I will be challenging myself to be alone with just me. Next stop the cinema.