“Spending time alone is an essential part of my mental health maintenance,” says Poorna Bell.
When you’ve experienced deep loneliness despite being surrounded by family, friends, and your partner, you quickly learn that loneliness and being alone are not the same things.
However, that’s not what I was taught when I was younger. I remember single women past the age of 25 being held up as figures of pity because they were alone. As such, I always viewed being coupled up with a partner as a failsafe way to ward off loneliness and pitying looks from other people. But I’m afraid to say, that wasn’t correct.
I found, while married, that I experienced some of my loneliest moments with my late husband while he struggled with depression. And it wasn’t until I made some active choices to spend time alone, when he was alive, that I realised how empowering and self-affirming it could be.
This active choice to be alone is part of a rising sociological trend. It’s even been captured in books such as How To Be Alone by Sara Maitland and, more recently, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone by Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University.
While I like spending time alone, I have experienced moments when it has tipped over into the realm of perhaps too much solitude and isolation. A few years ago, ahead of wondering whether to quit my office job and go freelance – which would involve spending lots of time alone - I asked Klinenberg for advice.
He pointed to the rise of women in the workforce, and the broader options available to them in their personal lives, as playing a big role in driving the trend. However, he also cautioned against just upping sticks and moving to a wilderness where you didn’t have a support network – something I had mentioned doing.
“There’s a difference between living alone and being isolated,” he cautioned. “Living alone works best if you can do it with other people around you.”
At the time, I didn’t want to take this advice. I had spent so long in an office feeling exhausted by the relentless meetings and managing of other people’s lives that I didn’t want to be around people, period.
But there is a downside to that. Spending time alone can recharge your batteries, but so can the energy of other people. Working alone or cutting yourself off from that also means that you instantly lose the benefit of having a supportive social network around you.
I found that if I was left to my own devices, I would spend large chunks of time at home because it was easier and supposedly less tiring than travelling to see people. But that was deceptive, because I wasn’t considering the fact that being around vibrant people can boost you in a way that being alone really can’t.
I learned this after going on holiday with my best friend in Thailand for two weeks. Rather than getting sick of her company, I found that by the end of the trip, I didn’t want to be separated from her. We’d had adventures and a lot of laughs that I couldn’t quite replicate at home. My biggest learning was that I needed to be more proactive about socialising with other people, even if I had made work and personal choices to be alone.
“When you are a single person living alone, you have to be the author of your own life in a very profound way,” Klinenberg added. “Things don’t come to you. You might get some invitations here and there but you have to wake up everyday and create your own social life. If you’re married, you wake up and your social life is right there because you have to deal with the person lying next to you.”
I also learned that there is a distinction between being alone by accident – because you forgot to make social plans – and being alone in an active way. The former triggered boredom and FOMO, and quite honestly, an uncomfortable sense of loneliness. This was then supercharged by going on social media and seeing all the cool things other people were up to, while I was alone at home lying under an electric blanket, bored out of my mind.
When done right, being alone can be hugely restorative. Oliver Burkeman, who writes This Column Will Change Your Life for The Guardian, says, for instance, that in the case of introverts, “a certain amount of solitude is essential just in order to recover from the energy-draining aspects of social interaction”.
He also says that scrolling on your phone while being alone doesn’t quite count as proper restorative time, as you’re still chasing outer distraction.
“A major benefit to carving out time to be alone is that it removes a lot of the things we otherwise use to distract ourselves from how we’re really feeling, what really matters, what needs attention,” he tells me. “It’s easy to immerse yourself in socialising, work and parenting and intimate relationships and much else, and thereby avoid certain kinds of contemplation that are essential – and that in fact make us better friends, partners, parents and employees.”
A common refrain I’ve heard from friends who are resistant to spending time alone is that they are afraid of their own company. Of being bored, of being left alone with their thoughts and finding that an unattractive prospect.
But if you can overcome that fear, I promise you’ll reap the benefits. You will be more confident, have a closer understanding of yourself, and become less reliant on other people to entertain you. And the possibilities are endless, especially when it comes to travel.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned about travelling alone, is that there’s a myth surrounding the solo female traveller. We imagine this solitary woman skipping carefree around the globe, having adventure after adventure. We expect her to find love – which hints at a latent sexism, because I don’t think the same is expected of men. The number of times I’ve been asked “ooh, so did you meet someone?” after coming back from solo travels are too many to count.
When I travel alone, I want to feel a certain level of safety, which is why I never look for romance. Comfort levels are also important. I’ve learned the hard way that I don’t like going to beach or party destinations solo. Instead, I am happiest being in another city, or taking part in a group experience such as a trek.
I speak to Brenna Holeman, who started travelling solo when she was 22 and runs a blog called This Battered Suitcase. She tells me that in her 13 years of travel she has learned the vital importance of knowing your limits before you embark on a trip on your own.
“I started by getting comfortable with the little things at home before I traveled solo: eating dinner at a restaurant by myself, for example, or exploring a nearby town on my own,” she says. “Start small, build your confidence and your solo travel skills, and trust your instincts.”
As part of my mental health maintenance, spending time alone isn’t optional – it’s a must. It began at a point in my life when I couldn’t quite see how important it was to have that time to myself, and soon became something that fuels my ability to be the best version of myself.
But also, conversely, it frees up oxygen for other areas of your life. When friends are being flakey on WhatsApp groups, or you’re struggling to find someone to come to a gig or an art exhibition with you, you can decide to go alone, and that can be an empowering thing to do.
The long and short of it is that there isn’t necessarily a right or a wrong way to spend time alone. But is it something you should do? Absolutely.
Images: Getty, Unsplash