What is it that can sometimes be so scary or uncomfortable about being alone? When we’re kids, we fear it because being alone makes us feel vulnerable (well, that, and we’re afraid of monsters…a problem that gets exacerbated when your dad lets you watch Tales from the Crypt at the tender age of six).
But what about when we’re older? Is our fear around being alone an evolutionary condition, embedded within us to somehow better ensure our survival? Is our discomfort with it just an expression of our innate need to connect with others?
Whatever the underlying reason, being alone has historically been a challenge for me.
I used to get deeply caught up in my loneliness. My mind would seem to get stuck focusing on it. I’d become so fixated on the fact that I was on my own that I’d get trapped inside of that feeling of emptiness and unfulfillment.
I first encountered this problem when I was in the process of getting divorced. Why then? Probably because that was the first time in my life that I found myself in the position of having to be alone on a regular basis (a fact that makes me feel fortunate and privileged, but also a bit pathetic and ashamed, all at the same time).
Initially, I didn’t possess the self-awareness to really recognize what was going on. I knew I was lonely, so I tried to fill my life with social activities and commitments. I’d say yes to almost any invitations that were extended my way, and I’d book up my calendar with a slew of distractions so I didn’t have to sit alone with my pain.
Of course, not only was this a sometimes-expensive and frequently-draining approach to take, but I also gradually came to realize that I was circumventing the real problem: I needed to learn how to enjoy being alone instead of dreading and avoiding it.
Now, in order to to shift your mindset with respect to an issue like this, it’s first helpful to understand and have awareness around your baseline — the current state of things. So before taking further action, I took a step back to assess my situation and my struggle.
I noted that I had never spent much time alone in my life. Up through high school, my parents, siblings, grandmother, and numerous pets had been a constant presence in my life. In college, I had roommates or housemates and was also in back-to-back serious relationships. Then I moved in with my boyfriend / eventual husband.
By the time I was 28 and going through my divorce, the hard truth was, I had never taken it upon myself to independently navigate through my life. I had largely shielded myself from having to experience loneliness, and I hadn’t spent much time on my own in the world.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that I was incapable of competently leading my own life, but it is to say that I had never tried. And, slowly, I began to realize that that was pretty abnormal. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, it was a problem.
Most of my peers had gotten substantially more experience than I had at being alone, whether due to being an only child, or traveling, or moving, or being single for periods of their lives, etc. I recognized that I needed to grow in this area and learn how to spend more time on my own, because it felt like a pretty basic and essential life skill — something I’d likely need to be able to handle at various points in my life.
So, now knowing that I needed to take action and make some changes, I wondered : How could I get over my fears around being alone? How could I shift my perspective and begin enjoying being on my own?
An early approach I took was to try to desensitize myself to being alone. I figured that if I isolated myself for a period of time, sooner or later I would get used to it and grow more comfortable with it.
So I spent a period of weeks essentially homebound. I would go to work, I’d work out, and I’d run any errands that I needed to run, then I’d return home and read or watch TV. I’d force myself to be alone and sit with the discomfort that I felt.
Unfortunately (and perhaps not surprisingly), I discovered that this approach didn’t work. Even after weeks of shutting myself away, being alone wasn’t getting any easier for me, and forcing myself into that position was making me completely miserable.
Thankfully, I was working with a coach at the time in exploring this issue, and she helped me to see the flaw in my methods. More specifically, what I discovered was that my attempt at desensitization wasn’t working because I was addressing the wrong problem.
And the underlying problem, the real root of my fear of being alone, was that I didn’t know how to be complete — how to feel whole, happy, and fulfilled — on my own.
I realized that I was struggling with loneliness and harboring such an intense distaste for spending so much time by myself because I was holding onto this internal belief that I wasn’t enough. That I needed more. That others were the solution to my problem.
In other words, I had been walking through life looking externally for the connection, fulfillment, and validation I sought. I had never learned that it needed to be conditioned internally. Until I was able to get the validation I needed internally, within myself, simply spending more time on my own wouldn’t be enough to make me enjoy it.
I wish I could say that as soon as this realization clicked for me, everything was resolved, and I never feared being alone again. But that would be total bullshit.
The fact is, being able to recognize a problem and taking the action necessary to address it are two different things. And this was not a quick fix. Learning to seek validation internally was something I had to intentionally practice and consciously work on. Consistently. For a long time.
And, to be perfectly honest, finding any validation that I need or want internally as opposed to externally is something that I continue to work on. Because that shit’s hard, and it’s easy to slip into old habits — especially in this age of Instagram and so many other forms of social media that pull our focus externally.
But shedding our fear of being alone and learning how to thrive on our own can be a gift. And it’s not possible to truly discover or reap the benefits of that gift until we’ve first learned how to attain inner fulfillment.
The good news is, once you have mastered the practice of looking internally for the love, confidence, strength, and support that you need, you will feel more whole and more complete than ever before. And that’s something that can never be taken away from you.
This essay first appeared on Medium.com and was written by Kim West, founder of When It’s Knot Forever. Read her blog here.
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