Humans are very social creatures. It is our ability to be social and to cooperate in large numbers that has enabled us to create such amazing societies. We usually feel most at home when we’re with others, but there are times when we find ourselves alone. Most of us find it rather uncomfortable. How do we learn to be alone?
A friend of mine who went through a recent breakup asked me how to deal with living alone. And while I gave him a few suggestions, I thought that it was big enough question that I want to address it further.
When I went through my divorce I found that the hardest change in my life was learning how to live alone again. I had my kids part-time, but I found that on the evenings after I dropped them off, the quiet of my apartment was just too much to bear. I would go to the mall or the grocery store or a karaoke bar just to fight off the dreaded loneliness that was so apparent after having my kids for a few days. On the days that I’d forget and just go home, I’d feel so heartbreakingly alone I would end up in tears on my couch. It took some time to learn how to be alone again. I was used to the hum and the noise of my family and found comfort in the rhythms of dinner, bath, and story time with the kiddos.
Alone in my apartment, I worked on making friends with the quiet. I let myself feel the sadness at the ending of my marriage. I cried at missing story time with my kids. Sometimes it would sneak up on me, leaving me feeling like I had just gotten the wind knocked out of me. I would still find myself trying to distract myself from my feelings. I read books, watched movies, and played guitar, but I got better at just being okay with feeling like shit sometimes.
“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”
When we learn how to be alone, we learn that loneliness is not the enemy. It is just a reminder that we like being around other people. Because we are social creatures, it’s built into us to want to be with others. Often the hardest part about being alone is the stories our minds tell us about why were alone: “I’m not good enough.” Or “People don’t want to be around me.” Or “I deserve to be alone.” I think this is where a lot of our loneliness comes from. Our mind is trying to make sense of why we’re alone, so it starts finding reasons to support it. Because we don’t like hearing these things and the feelings they create, we try to distract ourselves. T.V., drinking, drugs, overeating, and Facebook are just a few of the ways to distract ourselves from the constant dialogue in our heads.
If you can sit with the quiet you can start to hear the thoughts that are constantly humming in the background. At first, it may be uncomfortable. You may feel all sort of uncomfortable feelings because of the negative chatter that goes on in your head. When you take the time to listen to and get to really know yourself, you can learn to like yourself. What’s great about it is that if you don’t like the company you’re in, you can change. You can work on becoming the person you want to be. You can become someone that you like. That you can change yourself is one of the most important things the Stoics taught.
“It is in your power to withdraw yourself whenever you desire. Perfect tranquility within consists in the good ordering of the mind, the realm of your own.”
― Marcus Aurelius
When you learn to be okay with being alone, you develop a stronger sense of who you are. In my case, learning to have my own sense of autonomy was something I needed to develop. I had relied on my ex-wife for a lot of things. I had relied on my church as well. Now that I was no longer married and no longer Mormon, I had to reinvent myself. My identity that I had held for so long was not really who I was anymore. I had to decide the kind of life that I wanted to live. I had to create the person I wanted to be.
When you can be comfortable with the quiet, you can find being alone as a refuge from the noisiness of the world. With all the technology we have that keeps us so connected, sometimes you need to disconnect and turn off all the noise and chatter just to hear yourself think. You can put down your phone, turn off Netflix, and just listen to the quiet. With no pressure or rush to be anywhere, you can learn to be more comfortable with yourself. Rather than reacting to one distraction after another, you can listen to, and get to really know yourself. You might be surprised what you learn about the one person you should know better than anyone else.
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