I find it fascinating the range of comfort levels people have with being alone. It’s pretty much guaranteed that we will all need to spend at least some time in our own company, yet there are many, many ways in which people experience this. While I know that for some people alone time is quite a negative experience, that feels really quite foreign to me.
Can you be alone without being lonely? Or lonely without being alone? I would say yes on both counts. Google gives this as the primary definition of lonely: “sad because one has no friends or company.” A secondary definition is “without companions; solitary.”
For both definitions “alone” is listed as a synonym. Google’s definition of alone is: “having no one else present.”
Loneliness has a certain emotional charge and judgment attached to it. Aloneness, on the other hand, is more of an objective observation about the immediate social environment. Being alone also has a temporariness to it; you can stop being alone by walking into a space where there are other people. Loneliness, though, can be a persistent state of mind, and changing it requires mental adjustment rather than simply changing the environment.
Loneliness can easily be triggered by falling into the trap of comparing one’s own life circumstances to others. I’m usually able to avoid this particular trap, but it still lurks around in the background sometimes.
There’s also the issue of feeling lonely while around people. Being around others and feeling completely disconnected can be a strong reminder of my level of isolation. I’m not anxious and I’m not worried about what others think; I just feel like an alien life form with no shared language of meaning or experience. That kind of loneliness isn’t eased by being around people; in fact, the more contact there is, the worse it gets. I only feel better when I’ve settled back into my cave. More alone, yet less lonely.
Personality is obviously a key factor in the experience of aloneness. Introversion lends itself better to alone time, but most people aren’t at the extreme ends of the introversion–extroversion spectrum. I was always sufficiently introverted that I was comfortable with my own company. However having some social contact used to be a good thing, whereas now, it’s the opposite, at least in terms of in-person contact. Depression + introverted me = über-introvert firmly ensconced in my fortress of solitude.
However, introversion and loneliness aren’t mutually exclusive. We all need social support in some form or another; it’s just that introverts and extraverts might prefer different styles of social support.
Patterns of thinking
Another factor is the kind of thoughts swirling through our heads. If there’s no distraction from negative thoughts and a pesky inner critic, I can see how being in one’s own company could be a rather uncomfortable situation. My particular version of illness is much more likely to produce slow mind than busy mind, and I think slow mind is much more alone-time-friendly.
I think it also helps to lock the should monster outside or at least shove it into the back of a closet and not let it nag at you about what you should and shouldn’t be doing. Should-free alone time is much more bearable than alone time with the should monster’s claws digging into your butt the whole time.
A sense of control also matters. Being alone by choice (internal locus of control) is far easier than having alone time forced upon you (external locus of control). For me, the pandemic hasn’t brought the same sense of loss of control that a lot of other people are experiencing, as it’s just not the rate-limiting factor that determines what and how much I can do.
Surroundings matter. Spending time alone in public places where people don’t normally go alone can take some working up to. Travelling alone built up that comfort level for me. In a lot of places I’ve visited, I was quite obviously a tourist, either because of appearance or lack of language ability, and no one seemed to blink an eye at a backpacker chick doing her own thing. That made it much easier when I started doing more things on my own back home in Canada.
The home environment also matters. Is home a safe haven? It’s hard to be comfortable at home alone if simply being home isn’t comfortable. My home is definitely my safe space. The whole decor theme is mellow and comfortable, with guinea pig-related debris scattered rather liberally throughout. When it comes to my home, the should monster is locked out and not allowed in the front door.
I find that having some routine and structure helps to avoid feelings of aimlessness and find greater mental ease. Not much happens when I’m home by myself most of the day, but routine helps to keep things flowing. It also keeps the guinea pigs happy.
Forms of connection
We all connect best with others in different ways, and with most things being virtual in pandemic mode, it’s nice to try and get the most bang for your figurative buck. WordPress is a really good fit for how I feel most comfortable connecting with people. I like that it’s focused and doesn’t involve a lengthy back and forth. I use some social media for other connections, but I don’t get the same benefit. When I feel the need for connection, I tend to just focus on good old WP, my online comfy couch.
For me, the guinea pigs are the best form of companionship there is. It’s a lot harder to feel alone when there are furry little ones giving you love. Having the piglets makes a massive difference in my life. I’d certainly much rather have them around at home than another human.
I am by far the most comfortable when I’m at home alone with my guinea pigs. I’ve been with myself my whole life, and being by myself is kind of like wearing a cozy flannel onesie—perhaps one with a butt flap. (BTW, I spent a rather inordinate amount of time looking for a freely available photo to illustrate said butt flap, but unfortunately, you’ll just have to use your imaginations.)
How do you feel in your own company, and is there anything that makes it easier for you?
Resource: The Expressions of Being Alone Workbook from Concordia Counselling and Psychological Services