(and why it’s okay to think it sucks sometimes)
On more than one occasion in life, someone has (without warning or a great deal of context) referred to me as a “strong independent woman”. On more than one occasion, I have had to tilt my head to one side as I try to figure out if they’re being patronising or not. About 50% of the time, they are.
We live in a modern society that preaches a strange dichotomy. Women are raised on the traditional diet of fairy tales and chick flicks that teach us that we should have our hero riding in on a white horse at any moment, but we also have this newly emerging viewpoint telling us that we don’t need no man and we’re queens in our own right. All very well and good, but ultimately a confusing contradiction. I imagine (though I cannot possibly speak from experience) that men suffer a similar problem, not just in portrayals of masculinity, but also in what they’re told to be attracted to. Is it the traditional damsel in distress they like feeling that they can help (not necessarily a bad thing), or is it the strong independent woman who exudes confidence and assurance (also not a bad thing)?
Popular media does a crappy job of conveying the fact that most of us are a delightful mix of the two. I often liken myself to a duck on the water. I look calm and assured on the surface, but just under the water I am paddling like all hell to try to keep myself going. Unfortunately, in my analogy I am also the slightly mentally challenged duck who frequently decides that wherever I was going was not the correct direction, causing me to zigzag feverishly in random directions until I look like I have no actual goal or path in mind. But I digress.
Personally, I would not be averse to a partner riding in on a white horse and helping me out. But by the same token, I’m also perfectly content to keep zigzagging around and figuring it out myself. I’m capable of the latter, but that doesn’t negate me from kind of liking the idea of the former.
The problem is that, at times, being alone is not easy no matter how well adjusted and self-assured you are. The fact is that humans are social creatures – we are, by design, inclined to want to be with each other. And that means that sometimes, even though you’re perfectly fulfilled in your life as an individual, being by yourself can… well, suck.
I don’t just mean relationships either. Sometimes learning to be by yourself, sans friends and family, is an uphill battle. Not everybody is born an introvert who can take solace in being by themselves. For example, when I was younger I would have definitely been classified an extrovert. Yet when I moved away to a place where I had no family or friends, with a small population with whom it was difficult to break into existing friendship groups, I had to learn how to be by myself. In complete contrast to my youth, these days time alone is not just something I actually enjoy but is something I need to get by.
With all that said, here are my top tips for learning how to be alone, and how to learn to love your own company.
Hobbies are your friend
If you’re going to spend a lot of time by yourself, taking up a hobby is almost a requirement. It gives you something to focus your attention on when you’re sitting at home contemplating the fact that you’re going to die alone and be discovered weeks later half consumed by your legion of cats. Any hobby works honestly, so long as it requires some kind of concentration. In my time, I’ve tried reading, writing, nail art, gaming, crocheting, photography, colouring, art, jogging, bike riding, basketball, makeup… the list goes on. All are successful in their own ways. The point is that a hobby gives you a break from whatever thoughts might be otherwise left to spiral out of control when there’s no one around to distract you from them.
Get outdoors as often as possible
Not dissimilar to 1., but important enough to mention separately, is the fact that leaving your house is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Personally I took up hiking and ended up travelling to a few national parks to do so. The benefit of hiking alone is that no one can see you struggle for air as you contemplate why the hell you ate that fourth cheeseburger last night. But, more importantly, getting outside and seeing the amazing things your small part of the world has to offer is amazing. There is something so freeing about finding yourself truly, truly alone in the midst of all the kickass things nature has to offer. If you happen to live in South Australia, my top pick at the moment is Port Lincoln National Park. Taking a day to do one of the 10k hikes is well worth the effort. I came back full of ideas for a new novel, and appreciative of the things I’d managed to achieve in life… by myself. Perspective is everything.
If you can’t go hiking, so be it. Go for a walk. Doesn’t matter how far or how long – just getting yourself out of your own four walls can sometimes be a necessity to keep you sane.
(Note: if you do go hiking alone, be safe! Let someone know where you are and how long you should be. Make sure your phone is fully charged before you head out, even if you won’t get reception. SOS calls might still be achievable, but not if your phone is flat. Always have a first aid kit, plenty of water, and maybe even some protein bars just in case. A compass is also really important, as it’s easy to lose the trail sometimes!)
This one is not for the newly alone. If you’re used to being surrounded by friends/partners/family/whatever, then travelling by yourself can be scary as hell. Be gentle with yourself and realistic about what you’re comfortable with. If you’re a no-fear adventuring type, then by all means plan that high-octane holiday overseas to a non-English speaking country. If you’re a bit more cautious, start small and try interstate.
Travelling alone teaches you independence and problem solving skills, as well as pushes you out of your comfort zones to meet new people (one of the dangers of being alone for a long time is forgetting how to make new friends!). But be warned – it can also feel painfully isolating. More than once I’ve found myself looking at some incredible wonder of the world with an ache in my chest thinking “I wish there were someone here for me to share this with”. On the other hand, there’s also been plenty of times where I’ve thought “man I’m glad I didn’t have to work to anyone else’s schedule or preferences today!” – it’s checks and balances.
The best days I have had have been when I’ve stepped outside my comfort zones, forced myself to talk to random strangers, and ended up being adopted by other people for day trips. For example, recently in London a whole group let me spend Christmas Day with them after my luggage was delayed (I even had to borrow a pair of socks and shoes from them as I’d arrived in thongs on the plane!). Also in London, I started chatting to the couple who sat next to me on the last leg of the flight from Dubai to London, and we ended up spending a day together at Hyde Park Winter Wonderland. In Canada, I spoke to a couple of girls at the hostel who turned out to be going to Toronto Zoo the next day, same as me. We went together with another guy we randomly dragged from the hostel, and ended up having the most fun I think I’ve ever had. In America, I joined two sisters who happened to be Harry Potter fans like me and we went to Universal Studios together and bonded over our shared mad fangirling. All of these experiences were better because I forced myself to find someone to share it with. But I also didn’t let not having someone stop me from enjoying myself either (i.e. in Disneyworld!)
Never settle for less than you deserve
Sometimes when you’ve been alone for a long time, it’s easy to settle. Not just in relationships, but in friendships too. However, don’t be quick to be offended either.
The honest truth is that you’ll have different kinds of friends in your life: you’ll have some who are fun to hang out with but who don’t make the effort you wish they did, and you’ll have some who will be there for you no matter what and drop everything to hang out with you. Don’t underestimate the importance of both.
For the true friends, hang onto them for dear life. Be honest with yourself and step back occasionally to think about whether or not you’re showing how much you appreciate them. Make it known loudly and clearly. Those people are golden and you do not want to lose them just because you forgot to say how great they are.
That being said, there is nothing wrong with having friends who you have to contact if you want to hang out, but that doesn’t mean you have to invest a lot of feeling and emotion into that friendship. If you can’t step back and not take the lack of effort on their part personally, then walk away. More importantly, if their lack of effort actually is personal rather than the effect of having a busy life, then run away. But if they’re just flighty kind of people who are hard to pin down, then by all means ask them for a random coffee catch up once every few months.
The trick is to avoid people who are actively treating you as lesser. People who make plans but cancel at the last minute, people who are constantly significantly late, people who never ask you any questions about your own life and just vent about theirs whenever something goes wrong… any of these are truly the people to be wary of. Don’t put up with their shit just because you’re feeling isolated. You deserve better and you have better. Namely, YOU are better company than that. Go for a hike and tell them to take one while you’re at it.
Not settling is true of relationships too. Never enter into a relationship you’re not really feeling just for the sake of curing the alone blues. For one thing, unless you’re incredibly blunt and tell the person in question that that’s what you’re doing, then you’re being deceptive and stringing them on. For another, relationships like that have a nasty habit of making you feel more alone than you did to start with. Spare yourself the pain.
Don’t be afraid to ask to reconnect
It can be really daunting to contact people you haven’t spoken to in a while. Whatever the reason you’ve lost touch, it often feels like you’re coming back with your tail tucked between your legs. Most people, however, won’t actually care. Take that chance. Ask that old friend you haven’t spoken to in ages if they want to grab lunch. Worst thing that can happen? They’ll say no. In which case, go to lunch anyway and take yourself on the best date ever because you’re rocking it.
Your body is yours so do what you want with it… so long as it’s for the right reasons
Okay, so… this is a bit of a touchy subject. There are lots of schools of thought around whether having casual sex when single and/or alone is beneficial or damaging. The bottom line is that it comes down to your personal psychology. If you find the idea of getting down and dirty with a stranger icky, well don’t (obviously). If, however, you’re comfortable with your sexuality and you like sex regardless of who the partner is, go for it (safely!). But the trick is to not fall into using casual sex as a crutch. If you feel you need to be sleeping with and/or hooking up with people to feel validated, then take a giant step back and reassess your situation. There is a difference between doing something because you enjoy it and doing something because it makes you feel worthwhile. If you need casual sex to feel valued, then you need to stop and you need to find ways to be comfortable with yourself without it. If, however, you feel like a total babe with or without the attention of someone else, go forth and conquer my friend. Go forth and bang.
Be gentle with yourself. It’s okay to feel lonely sometimes.
In this world where we’re told we’re meant to be strong and independent and powerful all the time, it’s easy to beat yourself up when you find yourself wishing you weren’t going to the fourth wedding this year dateless. It’s easy to feel guilty for being jealous of what others have and missing intimacy and feeling understood and respected and appreciated by another person. Those feelings are hard enough to deal with when they arise (and don’t let anyone tell you they don’t – they’re putting on a brave act because it’s scary to admit we’re vulnerable as fuck sometimes but we totally are) without immediately whamming yourself over the head with the metaphorical baseball bat of “but I should be happy with myself”.
Listen. You ARE happy with yourself. But it’s okay to sometimes wish things were different. Again, human = social creature. We want intimacy. That’s what allows our species to propagate. That’s evolution baby. And whilst we’re smart enough to override our baser instincts at times, that doesn’t stop them existing and it doesn’t make them shameful. Let yourself feel it. Don’t feel bad for feeling it. Just don’t dwell on it and instead go do something productive (see 1. and 2.) to get your mind off it so you don’t spend weeks (or more) in that flunk.
And don’t forget – the grass is greener. You’re jealous of that girl whose boyfriend bought her flowers for no good reason? She’s probably jealous of the fact that you got to spend your Saturday reading a good book instead of attending some social obligation with her boyfriend’s friends. Checks and balances. Neither of you are ungrateful for the good things, but it doesn’t mean you don’t envy someone else’s positives sometimes.
It’s okay to ask for help.
Your friends are your friends for a reason. It is perfectly okay to admit that you’re struggling. It’s okay to say that you’re feeling isolated because they’re all over in happy couple-land and you’re sitting on the desert island of foreveralone. Your friends have to prioritise their partners – that’s life and you need to accept it. But that doesn’t mean that a good friend won’t put you first from time to time if you ask for it. So long as you’re not asking every weekend, their partners will rarely give a damn either. In a similar manner, there are some things that are just easier with the help of friends and family. I have, in the past, been forced to admit that my job has been so overwhelming and consumed so much of my time that I haven’t been able to cook for myself in weeks. Suddenly I’ve been bombarded with home cooked meals and offers of dinner at their place. People will amaze you with their generosity… sometimes you just have to let it be known that you need it.
And there you have it. Wisdom earned from far too long of being by myself. But you know what? I am so unbelievably grateful for it. I don’t think there has ever been a time in my life where I have been more assured about who I am and what I want out of life. I know exactly what my priorities and goals are, and I know how to achieve them. I’m also comfortable enough in myself and my abilities that I’m not going to lose my shit if things don’t go to plan, because I’ve learned to be resilient enough to have multiple Plan Bs in the wings at any time. I can go with the flow and not drift into a panic attack at any moment that I’m starting to relate far too heavily to Bridget Jones in her pre-Darcy days. I can also write shitty people off out of my life in a heartbeat, because I’m comfortable enough in my own company not to tolerate their crap.
So breathe deep. You’ve got this. You can do this. You rock – with or without others around to tell you so.