In our modern online culture of ‘sharing’ our lives non-stop, the emphasis is firmly on the social. From having a high friend or followers count, to posting pictures of yourself doing things with friends or family, being alone appears to have gone out of style.
And for too many of us, time spent alone now equates to time spent by yourself but online, spying on or chatting with others.
Have we lost the fine art of being alone? And at what cost?
Why being alone is good for you
Being alone is actually a very important part of psychological wellbeing. Here is why –
1. You can truly relax.
While always being with others is fun and stimulating, its easier to relax by yourself. And it’s not just our bodies that need to relax. Our minds need a break too. Gaining space from thoughts helps lower stress and anxiety. (Find your mind doesn’t let up even while alone? You might want to try mindfulness to create some thought-free moments).
2. You discover who you really are.
It’s easy to go along with what your family, friends or partner want to do, or be who they want you to be. While this might be positive and enjoyable in many ways, it can also mean you are not actually fulfilling your potential. If you feel happy enough but often aimless, this might be you.
Only quality time alone can show us who we are inside. It creates a space to learn what we actually do and don’t really like, what our secret hopes really are, and what our real strengths are.
3. You learn how you feel.
If we are always surrounded by the influence and input of others we can simply agree to feel what they tell us we must feel, or we can use the company of others as a distraction to avoid ever facing our less than perfect feelings. If you feel panicky or unhappy alone, this might be because all your repressed feelings struggle to get your attention in these moments.
4. And when you feel, you can heal.
While many who experience sadness or upset when they are alone decide that they better stay around others because they ‘don’t want to be depressed’, this is not really a sound tactic.
The problem with avoiding processing our emotions is that we also avoid healing. We stay stuck, unable to move forward into the life we want. And repressing emotions takes a lot of our energy, meaning we are often tired without knowing why.
The truth is that although it an be uncomfortable at first, spending time alone with your feelings can actually help with depression in the long-term as it helps you understand, process, and let go of old hurts.
5. You can focus more.
It’s not just that being alone obviously means there is less noise and distraction. It’s that developing a consistent habit of spending quality time with yourself often leads to a decluttering of your emotions and mind, which further adds to your capacity to focus.
6. You gain confidence.
Learning to be comfortable with your own company generally leads to learning to like yourself more, which boosts confidence. And doing things alone can be a challenge that further increases your confidence – the buzz of going to a film alone for the first time, or actually sitting in a restaurant and eating alone, can leave you feeling brave.
Loneliness vs alone – what is the difference?
If you think that being alone is a negative, it might be that you are confusing being alone with being lonely. But the two are quite different things.
Being alone is a physical state – we are by ourselves.
Loneliness is actually an emotional state of being – we feel disconnected to others.
It’s perfectly possible, to feel lonely when you are surrounded by others. It’s that bereft feeling when you have fought with a partner and sit at a restaurant table with him or her sure they don’t know you at all, or when you find out your social group has been gossiping about you and you feel like they might not be real friends at all.
And it might be that always being ‘connected’ via the internet is making you more lonely than time alone ever could. The rise in people feeling lonely seems to have an inverse relation to the rise of our internet use, with experts calling it a ‘pandemic of loneliness‘. This is being connected to the false intimacy of online connection distracting us from real connection (for more on this and others ways social media might be affecting you, read our article on the dangers of Facebook).
Good reasons vs bad reasons to be alone
Of course not all moments of life are the right ones to be alone, and the trick is in showing discernment with your alone time.
A good rule would be to be honest with yourself around why you are choosing time alone. Is it that you are wanting to learn to enjoy your own company? That you know you need to heal so are taking time out? Or that you have a big project that you feel deserves more of your attention? All good reasons to increase your time alone.
There are equally wrong reasons to be alone that you should watch for. Are you angry at the world and hiding from your friends and family? Have you been hurt by someone and suddenly fear intimacy with others to the extent you are becoming more and more introverted? Or are you feeling very low, even deeply depressed, and just don’t want to be around others?
These are actually reasons to not be alone but rather to seek the company of either those you trust or a professional like a coach or counsellor who can help you find your way through your challenges.
The secret in discerning if your alone time is healthy might be to look at the mood of your aloneness. Is it liberating? (Even healing difficult emotions can feel this way). Or is your aloneness like a trap you hate but can’t stop choosing?
Watch out for becoming addicted to being alone. Finally having time to yourself to read books and sit around the house in your pyjamas without a care in the world can make meeting new people seem more and more of an effort. Keep an eye on your self-care as a signal here.
If you are spending a lot of time alone and are also letting your self care slide, no longer exercising or eating well or not taking care of your appearance, it could be that your alone time has stopped being positive and slid into depression.
Also be careful you aren’t using alone time to hide addictions or unhealthy distractions. Is your time alone spent getting to know yourself better? Or are you actually numbing out, watching endless movies, playing video games, overeating, or bingeing on romance novels?
Terrified to be alone?
If you have a deep rooted fear of being alone, to the extent you’ll hang around with anyone, even people you don’t really like, or date partners who are not good for you over being alone, it can be a sign of mental health challenges. This can include hidden childhood trauma or dependent personality disorder.
It is advisable if you are experiencing real anxiety over ever being alone to seek the support of a professional counsellor or psychotherapist who can help you find what is behind your anxieties. You can also speak to your doctor who can refer you a NHS mental health care professional.
Do you want to share another great reason to spend time alone? Share below, we love hearing from you.