During an online drink with a group of friends, one of them was discussing their lockdown. He was finding it hard because his children were constantly demanding his attention. On the one hand, he loved spending more time with them as it meant he was never lonely but on the other hand, he didn’t have a moment’s peace
Then there was silence. A sudden awkwardness had woven its way into the now stagnant conversation. “What’s wrong?” I asked him, sensing that he was feeling uncomfortable.
He shuffled around noisily before saying, “I’m sorry, I mean, I know you must be really lonely because you’re by yourself.”
It was a kind but ironic thought. Throughout the whole conversation, I had been struggling to hear everyone because both sets of neighbours were arguing loudly and every word of their fight was becoming more of a distraction!
Alone vs. Loneliness
There is a common perception that somebody living on their own must be lonely. Being with others means that you are no longer lonely, right? We all know from our own experience that neither view is correct in all cases. Here’s why.
Loneliness is described as an unsatisfied need to connect with other people. When we feel disconnected, this can manifest in all sorts of ways and each experience of it is different. For me, loneliness feels like abandonment, sadness, longing and rejection. It’s a painful place to be in. I remember feeling this particularly strongly when I was anxious about my father’s health and my bereavement before and after his passing. I felt like nobody understood my suffering and I couldn’t talk about it without making somebody feel uncomfortable or worse, receiving a dismissive or indifferent response.
Loneliness feels isolating but it’s a universal experience felt by all human beings and animals too. The sad thing about it is that by not expressing our vulnerability, we remain unable to connect to others. Sharing how we are experiencing life can create intimacy and more satisfying relationships. This is how we connect to others in a meaningful way.
What prevents you from connecting to yourself and others may be feelings of shame about who you are, your sexual orientation, beliefs or any other element of your identity. That’s linked to low self-worth which puts up barriers towards others and makes you feel even more lonely. Most of the time, you’re not even aware of this.
Being alone, however, is a choice. In choosing to be alone, you are comfortable in your own company, having accepted all of your faults, imperfections and behaviours (which is an ongoing, work in progress). You treat yourself as your own best friend and know how to engage with and soothe difficult emotions. You also hold yourself accountable for your own unskilful actions.
Supporting and nourishing yourself is the key to periods of being alone and when you are able to do both, the result is unconditional love and acceptance of yourself. Having somebody around enhances life and enriches your experience and you are able to profoundly connect emotionally because you are not afraid of rejection. You also know when to disconnect from others because you are in need of rest. In short, being comfortably alone is powerful and a sign of personal growth.
In this state, there is room for creativity, kindness and gratitude.
This blogpost is about learning to be alone during lockdown. It takes courage to do this and if you are struggling with it, this is the perfect opportunity to grow and learn from it. Whether you are in lockdown or not, we all benefit from feeling comfortable with solitude.
Here are a few great skills to learn to make your alone time more fruitful:
- Emotion management. Feelings cannot be controlled but you can learn to accept that they are there and recognise what they feel like in the body. That requires noticing your experience instead of over-thinking conflict, encounters, other peoples’ behaviour or anything else that has provoked an emotional response. All you are doing is welcoming in difficult emotions and being with them, no matter how hard that is. You can do this in a number of ways. Meditation helps to increase self-awareness and to use it to respond to conflict and other difficulties, instead of being controlled by your emotional reaction. Journal writing is another way of doing this and it may also help to keep note of what different emotions physically feel like.
- Boundary and standard setting. If a relationship has gone wrong, analyse why that was but in particular, what was your own contribution? It helps to identify when you felt your standards had dropped or you let yourself down by accepting bad behaviour. Describe the kind of behaviour you will accept from others and what you will not. At the centre of this is self-acceptance and a commitment to yourself as a person worthy of love and respect. The outcome is the ability to easily say “that hurts”, “stop”, and “i want/ need this instead”.
- Doing what you love. It shouldn’t be a lesson but for some people it is. Sometimes, we do things because we “have to”, not because we really enjoy it. When are you ever going to get this time again to do what makes you happy without compromising with anybody? If you like to cook, explore new recipes, commit to a daily yoga schedule, log onto an online dance class or learn a new skill. We have access to almost every conceivable activity possible from the comfort of our homes so start taking advantage!
- Mind and soul nourishment. Dealing with difficult emotions can be hard, especially if you are feeling anxious about the current state of affairs. During lockdown, noticing what keeps you balanced is a skill that will sustain you throughout any kind of difficulty. For some, it’s physically activity. Meditation and contemplating nature are some other forms. Having the time to tend to my plants, grow herbs and to deepen my daily meditation practice has helped me to stay balanced and to eliminate habits or activities which throw me off. At the same time, you could also start to notice what doesn’t nourish you, such as toxic environments, behaviours or over exposure to social media.
- Self-care. Just because you are alone, it doesn’t mean that you can’t make yourself a delicious meal or that you should let personal hygiene slip. Treat yourself like you would a person you really love. There are hundreds of ways you can take care of yourself.
- Communicating your emotions. One of the most difficult aspects of the lockdown is being separated from my family. This is even more reason to tell those close to us that we love them and to express our feelings more freely. It’s also a good time to build up the courage to let others know you are struggling. I’m not suggesting that you tell all 587 Facebook friends about this but if you need help, ask for it from a person who will be open to your vulnerability.
- Congratulating yourself for a job well done. If you have achieved something today, give yourself a pat on the back. Carry on acknowledging the progress you are making to support yourself emotionally. These are the wings that will carry you through life’s hardships.
Being alone is one of the most enriching ways to grow and develop as a human being. In many spiritual traditions, undergoing a period of solitude marks the transformation from child to adult because it develops strength, resourcefulness and self-knowledge. Armed with these skills, relationships will blossom with meaning and satisfaction. Good luck!
What other skills can we learn through solitude? I’d love to read your own tips and comments!