Being happy on our own might not come naturally, but we can all learn to be content with our own company. We speak to an expert to discover how to make the process more comfortable, and hear Vick Hope’s story of finding the power in solitude…
For some of us in this world, being happy on our own is something that comes as naturally as belting out the lyrics to Destiny’s Child’s Independent Women.
We can happily organise a date night for one, spend hours immersed in our new craft project, and generally take charge of our own stories.
For others, however, being alone is a challenge, and it can take a while to become comfortable with our own company. Which is totally okay, because we all have different levels of self-sufficiency - and it’s fair to say that we’ve all had a little more “alone time” than we ever could have anticipated in recent times. But there comes a point where we need to reclaim our independence.
That’s exactly what Vick Hope set out to do after a devastating break-up and relentless overwork culminated in a breakdown. For the first time in her life, the TV and radio presenter found herself alone, forcing her to explore the concept of solitude. After embarking upon a journey of self-discovery, she found that being alone with her own thoughts could be totally liberating, as she explores in the latest episode of Nobody Told Me… below:
Contrary to perception though, being happy with your own company isn’t just the ability to keep yourself occupied with practical activities. There’s an emotional aspect that also plays a significant part in determining how we navigate our way to independence.
With that in mind, we spoke to executive and confidence coach and integrative psychotherapist Phanella Fine to find out the small steps we can take every day towards finding the joy of being alone.
1. Recognise the benefits of solitude
“Solitude is vital to our health and happiness, yet the combination of social stigma, fear of loneliness and the fact most of us don’t know what to do with ourselves if we’re not busy connecting, mean most of us will go to extreme lengths to avoid being alone. In fact, one study showed that people would rather do a mundane activity, or even administer themselves electric shocks, than be left completely alone with their thoughts.
“Ironically, 2020 has seen negatives on both sides of the solitude equation. On the one hand, people living alone have had more solitude than they ever thought possible. On the other, those sharing their homes with family or friends have often craved solitude but found it incredibly hard to come by. For both groups, reframing solitude as something desirable and necessary, means they can reap the rewards of any alone time they have and become empowered to ask for time alone when they need to.
“Part of that is understanding the proven benefits. A key one is connection and the relationship we have with ourselves. It’s foundational to all other relationships in our lives but many of us are afraid to spend the time really getting to know who we are. Making connection a meaningful, intentional activity rather than something to fill a void also improves both our boundaries and the quality of our relationships with others.”
2. Process your emotions
“Solitude is hugely stigmatised, not only in relation to others but also in our own heads. This feeling that we should be connecting with people, if only we were more tolerant or popular acts as a deterrent to being alone. Fear of being alone is compounded by the fact that it is unfamiliar – when did you last spend time completely alone without technology for a significant period of time? Plus, the blank space solitude allows means that many of us fear that unhelpful thoughts or issues may surface that we would rather suppress.
“In fact, it is these unhelpful beliefs in relation to solitude and unhelpful thinking patterns that generate the negative emotions associated with being alone. Instead of being able to avoid these through distraction and business, we are forced to confront them head on. This is actually an important process as we know that suppressing emotions just doesn’t work. Instead we can use the quiet to try to identify what unhelpful thoughts and beliefs we hold that might be driving those feelings.
“I also recommend that people practice just allowing the emotions to flow: a good metaphor to think of here is that of the sky. The weather changes continually, but no matter how bad it gets, the weather cannot harm the sky in any way. And no matter how bad the weather, the sky always has room for it. Plus, sooner or later the weather always changes.”
3. Find an activity that works for you
“One of the main benefits of being alone is learning to just be: to move away from over-scheduling and constant contact thanks to technology, to a state where we become more comfortable being with ourselves. Blank time might feel scary but that’s sort of the point. Instead of planning “self-improving” activities, why not just go for a walk in nature or sit in a garden without trying to reflect on anything specific? Research tells us that this type of mindful activity reduces anxiety and increases satisfaction with our lives.
“It’s not always easy to do nothing. With this in mind, activities to ease yourself into alone time include journaling - a proven way of connecting to your inner thoughts, values and motivations – as well as guided meditation or creative activities like colouring.
“Whatever activity you choose, try to factor in some time reflecting intentionally on how you want to live. It’s only away from the influence of others that we can tune into what we really want.”
4. Sit with your discomfort
“Firstly, switch off (and if necessary, lock away) any technology. This will help focus you inwards, reduce the temptation to mask solitude with online connection. Coming off social media in particular, is one of the best ways to reduce the urge to compare ourselves with others – a key driver of anxiety and low self-esteem.
“There can be a temptation to “stay busy” either by ticking off tasks on your to do list, reading an improving book or watching Netflix. Whilst these are all valid activities, if you want to reap the full benefits of solitude try to spend some time truly switched off. These behaviours act as ‘numbing’ or ‘displacement’ activities that prevent you from really confronting some of the thoughts and feelings that might be helpful to deal with in the longer term.
“Once you stop numbing, you might be left with unhelpful thoughts, perhaps worry, self-criticism or self-doubt. You might also experience positive thoughts and feelings – perhaps being alone is more enjoyable than you thought it with you or you might discover a creative side you never knew existed. Contentment in life comes from self-acceptance. And self-acceptance involves welcoming all aspects of our personalities as valid.”
5. Trust the process
“If you’re not used to being alone, it’s best to start small. Try just 10 minutes of mindful rest or a short walk without a podcast to distract you, then build up. If it feels difficult at first, that’s normal. This is the perfect time to practice self-acceptance. Counteract your fears and any judgment with the evidence: knowing that alone time is essential for everything from good relationships to being more productive and creative at work should provide the counterargument you need.
“Over time, build up to bigger solo challenges. You might find that the activities you love – travel, eating out, exercising – become even more enjoyable when you’re able to do them completely on your own terms. The most important thing, as ever, is to keep a balance in your life: offset time alone with real, intentional connection with others and you’ll have the perfect foundation for a happy life.”
Nobody Told Me… is Stylist’s podcast exploring the personal life lessons of brilliant women in their own words. Season two is brought to you in partnership with Clinique, who for over 50 years have been empowering women through great skin care backed by dermatologist expertise.