In September last year, I sat at the beach, pen in hand, and I began to write. Three nights in a row I went back, I sat in the same spot with nothing but a blank journal. I wrote about everything I was feeling, where I was going, where I had been, I made up stories about each person walking along the beach, I wrote poems, and I wrote so much about how I love the ocean. I wrote about how comfortable I felt by the water. And how comfortable I felt alone. When I first started writing, I promised myself to never lie to the paper. To never sugarcoat things or pretend. And so when I wrote those words, that I felt comfortable alone, I surprised myself.
I can’t explain just how uncomfortable I had been in my own company, for a very long time. I found it hard to wake up in the morning. I avoided being alone. I was always filling my time with other people in an attempt to run away from myself. But all the while thinking they didn’t want to spend time with me because well, I didn’t want to spend time with myself, so why would anyone else? This became such a vicious cycle of how I would spend my time. I constantly wondered what people thought of me. I became extremely anxious about what I had planned for my weekends and my free time, always concerned about what was coming next and who it would be with. I managed to keep myself extremely busy, always relying on my boyfriend to spend time with me or organising a group of people to hang out so that I wouldn’t be alone and to reassure me that I was “worth” someone else’s time.
That same night on the beach I also realised that spending time with other people had come at a cost of doing things I genuinely enjoyed, or exploring new things. This realisation came from the simple fact that just by sitting at the beach, toes in the sand, watching people walk their dogs as the sun was setting and the waves rolled in, my soul felt light, my mind felt free and I felt joyful and content. I thought back to a few months earlier, where I might have suggested to someone else going to the beach after work, but if they said no, they weren’t keen, then I just wouldn’t have gone. I would’ve sacrificed the things I wanted to do, just so I didn’t have to do it alone. If I suggested a movie, a walk, a holiday, an activity of any kind and it was declined, I would give up on that idea altogether. That night on the beach as I wrote all my thoughts and feelings was actually where this blog idea first surfaced, and now flash forward another six months, I am still growing and learning what it is like to be alone and to find peace and joy in that. Solitude was one of the very first draft blogs I ever wrote, but it was something I decided I wanted to “live” a little bit more before I published anything about it. Practice what you preach if you like. So here I am now. After a year of being single, a year since I lost a lot of friendships, a year since I lost my routine, my go-to, my safe place, the biggest growing year of my life by far; these are my reflections on the time I have spent alone over the past year. This blog is about my journey of what it is like to be single but it is also a reflection on what it is like to just purely spend time alone, regardless of your relationship status.
In the very depth of the break-up and in the immediate weeks that followed, one of my deepest fears was that I would be completely alone. I can’t emphasise enough how much of my life was tied up in that relationship. Most weeknights, every weekend, the same friend groups, same sports team, extremely close with each other’s families, all our holidays together. It was always a question of “what are we doing?”, “what should we eat?”, “where are we going?” It’s a hard thing to turn off a “we” mentality and realise you don’t have to make considerations for another person anymore. It’s also scary sometimes! What if I don’t know what I want to do or eat or be just by myself? What am I worth if I am not spending my time with other people? Am I boring? Am I failing? Am I anti-social? What is my future as an individual? There were times at the beginning where it was incredibly scary and overwhelming that I didn’t just have my person to turn to, to spend time with or talk through a situation with.
I knew I had to make being alone more normal and less scary. So I did what I do whenever I want to regain control of something: I wrote a list. I pulled out my phone and titled a note: “All the things you don’t need anyone else for” and then I started to write a list of ideas of things I could do alone to fill my time. This meant whenever I had a moment where I thought “crap I’m alone and I’ve got nothing to do and my life sucks because look at me all by myself with nothing to do, this is too hard”, I would pull out my phone and consult the list. This list consisted of some fun things but also some mundane things too. It ranged from cleaning the car, running in to the ocean, climbing a hill, going for an aimless drive, painting a picture, baking or cooking a favourite recipe or trying a new one, starting a new TV series, reading a book, walking the dog, planning a holiday, writing a letter to a friend, taking myself to a café, listening to a podcast, leaving my phone somewhere and walking away… really, the list is endless and everyone would have different ideas. The key for me was as I wrote these, I realised they weren’t second-rate options just because I was alone. They were all things I genuinely enjoyed doing and conveniently, didn’t need anyone else for. They all also happened to be things that I felt were really positive and healthy for me. I would say I have done more things I am proud of and I have enjoyed over the last six months than ever before, purely because I learnt to value my own time rather than put it in the hands of others. I learnt to find joy in the act of doing, rather than who I was doing it with.
I am by no means suggesting that complete solitude is the best way to live your life. Humans are designed for connection, and there is a reason why solitary confinement is used as an extreme form of punishment. Spending too much time alone breeds isolation and disconnection. However I have found in my experience that the thing I was so afraid of, has actually been very good for me. Taking the chance to spend some time alone has forced me to get to know myself better, to enjoy my own company, to make decisions and to learn new things. It has given me time to think rather than speak, and to do rather than wait for anyone else. I have spent my entire life being described as an extroverted person and I think I let that become far too much of my identity, letting myself believe that I needed other people for anything to be enjoyable or worthwhile.
We also live in a world that is becoming increasingly connected through social media. In many ways this is creating hyper-connectivity. We are constantly connected and in communication with one another, constantly comparing ourselves, constantly aware of what others are doing. In order to be intentional about spending time alone, it is important to leave the social media world behind as well. I would suggest the picture many people conjure up when they think about solitude is one of sitting alone at home on your phone or watching the tv. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for this but from my experience, you are not truly alone. If you really want the benefits of solitude, put the phone down, get off the couch, maybe go outside. Beneficial solitude is not confined to lazy habits and is not dependent on the use of technology as a crutch. In my opinion, spending time truly alone helps me to break free from the cycle of social media altogether. We are being fed the thoughts, feelings, opinions and ideas of other people every second of every day as we engage with social media, advertising, reading, conversations. Give yourself a break and let your mind rest. Let yourself mull over a situation and gather your own thoughts and feelings. You might have an original thought or create a new idea or come to a new realisation. This is so much easier when you don’t have the thoughts of thousands of other people flooding your eyes and ears.
There are so many ways that intentionally spending time alone has benefited me, and many of these ways are intertwined.
I am relaxed. When I look back at “the old Bernie” I see someone who was quite often highly strung and stressing about the next thing or about the future. I lived on a hamster wheel that went round and round from one thing to the next with no time to stop and reflect. I felt anxious about many things including work, my relationship, my perceived lack of friendships, my health and fitness, money, and just the future in general. But as I prioritised social activities and the time of others over spending some time by myself, I wasn’t dealing with any of these worries or concerns head on, and they began to weigh heavier and heavier on my mental and emotional health. I have also realised that I would often become quite stressed by other people’s perceived enjoyment. If I organised an activity or I was doing something with a friend or a group of friends, I would feel solely responsible for their enjoyment, making it hard for me to relax and just enjoy myself. I am so content going for a walk barefoot along the beach, sitting and watching the sun set, taking myself for an aimless drive with the music up loud, and I feel genuine joy doing each of those things. But if I was to bring someone else into that, I would be worried it wouldn’t be good enough or enjoyable enough for them. When I am by myself I am not worried about anyone’s else’s enjoyment and I get to do the things I truly enjoy.
I am positive. I’m not sure if I ever would have described myself or been described by others as a particularly positive person. I felt negative about a lot of things and often felt like I came across to others as a pessimist and quite sarcastic in nature. Developing a mentality of finding gratitude in all things over the last year has made me a much more positive person in every aspect of my life, and spending time to cultivate a routine of gratitude in the solo moments of my day has influenced that positivity immensely. Life is far more enjoyable when the glass is always half full and I’m glad I learnt early-ish in life that perspective can be a choice.
I am strong. If anyone told me the list of events that would begin to unfold about this time last year, I firstly wouldn’t have believed it possible, and I secondly wouldn’t have known how (or if) I was going to handle it. I certainly wouldn’t have thought that this blog or that sharing my journey in any sense would be where I would be. And I often sit in awe of myself and my own strength over the last year and over some particularly hard days. There hasn’t been one day where I haven’t picked myself up in my own strength and carried on, sometimes with the support of others, but a lot of the time, in moments of solitude.
I am more tolerant. This one is huge. I didn’t realise how much spending time with people was burning me out. Taking time out for myself to regroup and reevaluate my own thoughts and feelings means firstly, I am so much more aware of the potential thoughts and feelings of others and how much they might have going on and secondly, I have had time to chill out and so I am better equipped to deal with other people.
I achieve more. I am so much more productive by myself. I am less distracted, I can focus, and I can set goals and tick things off. This is evident in the very fact that I ever actually get these blogs finished and published. The fact that I can run further than I ever have in my life. The fact that I have planned an overseas trip by myself in my own time.
I feel more knowledgeable. Creating more time for myself means creating more space for learning. More time to read books, research things of interest, google incredibly random thoughts that pop into my head and listen to a variety of podcasts. In the years that I studied my degree I became quite adverse to learning. Maybe due to a fear of failure or an uncertainty of what I wanted to do. I have loved becoming more akin with learning over the last year and having the time to really dive in to all sorts of topics and reignite a love of reading, writing and learning.
I am more intentional. With my time, with my thoughts and with my words. I now understand the value of my own time and the effect of my thoughts and my words on myself and others. I want to live an intentional life and build lasting memories, friendships and an identity for myself rather than just floating through my years on this earth.
I am in touch with nature. Having time to myself means a lot more time to do what I love and as I have touched on before this often leads me to the beach, the sunrise, the sunsets, the walks, the views, the fresh air. I have spent so much time outside over the last year and I’ve fallen in love with nature and the way it refreshes my soul.
I have clarity. I have spent a lot (aloooot) of time over the last year thinking about the break up, the relationship, every aspect of it. I discovered early on that although I like to talk things through, I gain the most clarity about how I really truly think and feel about the situation when I am by myself. When I am not being persuaded by someone else’s thoughts or emotions or subconsciously saying what I think someone else wants me to say. I am the most honest with myself when I am by myself.
I am confident. Realising that I enjoy my own company, that I find myself fun and funny and all of the other good things has given me so much confidence in my interactions with others. I value myself and know that I am worth every good thing and so I appear with much more confidence in every situation than I would have a year or so ago.
I know myself better. I am far more aware of my own thoughts and feelings. I am aware of the things that irritate me and the things that bring me joy. I understand the reasons I react to things the way that I do, the ways I have acted in the past and the connection between my thoughts, feelings and behaviours. So much of my self improvement has come from just this time of reflecting in solitude and understanding myself past and present.
I am more genuine and true to myself. When you are alone it is the only time where you are truly free of compromise, negotiation, judgment, conformity. I listen to the music I want to listen to, the podcasts I am interested in, I eat the food I want to eat, I go the places I want to go. It sounds selfish but what it really means is that I’m being true to myself without any outside influence and this in turn helps me to remain true to myself when I am with others too.
I am independent. I make my own plans. I think about my own future. I get myself places and create my own memories and experiences. I am known as me and not as a member of some friend group or one half of a relationship because I have formed my own identity and interests in my own time.
I have stronger friendships. Ironically, spending time alone has made the time that I spend with others so much more enjoyable. Probably because of so many of the other benefits listed here, I am more tolerant, probably more interesting, more positive, more confident and just generally I believe a better person to be around for lots of these reasons already listed here.
I love the person I am becoming. It’s a journey. But I’m stoked. I never in a million years imagined I could be so in tune and so happy with the person that I am today. There’s room for improvement and there always will be but the girl I was a year ago never even dreamed that (short of some magic personality and body switch) she could be so happy in her own skin and in her own identity. I credit a lot of that feeling to the time I have spent alone working on myself.
In the times that I used to spend alone, I felt lonely, afraid, worthless, bored, and like I constantly needed the approval of others. I truly feel that looking back, I would spend most of the time I had alone, waiting for other people; waiting for the next plan or waiting for them to finish work or waiting for them to contact me. Now when I am alone I feel content, happy, proud, I have fun and I’m not thinking about what anyone else thinks. And I go and do whatever it is I want to do!
If spending time in solitude is something you feel you could benefit from, something you know you don’t do enough of, or even something you fear, then I would strongly encourage you to give it a go (somewhat consistently) and watch the benefits flood in. If it’s hard for you, start with the list. If you are an extremely busy person, I would recommend blocking out a time in your calendar to spend with yourself and make it non-negotiable. I still love to hang out with friends and family and so I am such a “yes” person when anyone asks to do something. Sometimes you need to say “no” and spend some time alone, intentionally. I should also say it will be hard sometimes. I have come to a point where I can genuinely say that I love my own company and seek it often and really enjoy those times. But there have been days and there will still be days where I would rather be around people that I love or where I struggle with the idea of loneliness. There is value in solidarity and value in connectedness and it is so important to find the balance and the benefits in each and participate in both regularly.
This is what I have learnt: No one else fills my cup. I have spent so much of my life relying on other people to build me up and fill my cup and it has always failed. I made excuses that I needed other people to make me happy. As cliché as it sounds, what I needed was inside me all along. I hope you might also find the courage to look inside yourself, to fill your own cup with the things you love, and to value yourself enough to make time to reflect and learn and grow. I would back the fact that not only will your relationship with yourself improve, your interpersonal relationships will thrive as well.