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Why It's Important To Spend Time Alone, And How To Be Good At It

Photograph by Sophie Davidson
It happens about ten minutes before I get home. I’ve had a strong day smashing admin and returning that package because not everyone looks good in beige culottes, but, unusually, there’s nothing planned for the evening. I’ve got the whole night to myself; I can do anything, watch anything, eat crisps in the bath if I want to – and I am starting to feel panicked.

This is because I know what will happen: I'll manage to cook a good meal, and eat said good meal, and then it will all go from zero to googling air pollution and becoming convinced I’m going to die of lung-related illnesses terrifyingly quickly. That, or I'm obsessing over the time I borrowed my mate's mega expensive Macbook then stomped on it by accident.

Problem is, my inability to be alone doesn't make sense, because I maintain that than I am an introvert. I avoid big festivals, not because of the long distance walking, but because you can’t have alone time without losing your friends and ending up around a campfire with insistent Australians. I even like freelancing and doing life admin alone. And yet, there’s just something about A Night By Myself that feels formalised to the point where you have to capitalise each word.
“Extroverts need to be with people to feel good, and introverts need alone time to recharge after being with people, because they can find it draining,” says Michael Guttridge, a business and coaching psychologist. “Introverts are often better at being on their own because they need it, whereas extroverts might find they’re climbing the walls without that reassurance of company. They might have low self confidence and need people to make them feel good – without that, then they can turn to negative thoughts.”

He continues: “There are five elements to a personality, each with their own sliding scale. One of these is neuroticism, and it refers to anxiety levels. If someone is anxious and introspective, then that can spiral when they’re on their own whether they’re an extrovert, or an introvert.”

Ah, so anxious extroverts and introverts can both struggle to be on their own, and sometimes, it's because they're frightened of what that introspection could bring up – what thoughts could climb out of that carefully packed-away box.

“Sometimes people fill their life with busy-ness because they are hiding. They don’t want to look at what their thoughts are doing because they’re frightened, but you can’t run away from yourself. It will catch up, and you will find yourself becoming overwhelmed or acting out,” explains life coach Carole Ann Rice. “It’s important, then, to be alone with yourself, to be brave, and to write everything that comes to you or hurts you down. If your thoughts are sad or stressful or painful, then go and speak to a counsellor."

Often, when you’re considering wearing a gas mask to prevent polluted air getting into your lungs it’s about something else. And if you think I’m speaking from experience, then you’re absolutely correct. But in order to figure out what these thoughts are, I need to be away from all distractions. I need to start to learn to be alone so I don't end up turning into a frazzled husk made up of wifi connections, Whatsapp groups and crying.

“Solitude is an essential part of healing. If you have a high stress job, eventually you won’t be able to sleep, and in later years you’re talking about high blood pressure, things like ME, insomnia...", says Rice. "That stuff will start to come up if you carry on with this lifestyle and you’ll become frazzled. Your body won’t be able to process stress and noise.”

Alright, so how do I turn it around? Guttridge believes it begins with the words you use. “If you keep telling yourself that you’re not good at being on your own, then you’ll continue to struggle,” he advises. “You need to flip this negative attitude, and replace it with maxims like ‘I’m getting better at being on my own’ or even ‘I’m good on my own’.”

Rice agrees: “We get addicted to noise and energy because we come from a noisy environment into nothing, and that feels strange. But start saying ‘Phew! This is lovely!’ You need to treat it positively, or you’ll never reap the massive benefits of solitude. Make it nice. Light a few candles. Sit with a comfy blanket. Create a cosy cocoon experience, rather than one where you’re thinking ‘Oh my god what am I gonna do next?’”

Then once you’ve got the words down and you’ve bought a nice blanket, it’s time to build it up. “Try 20 minutes a day, even if it’s a walk home on your own, but crucially with your phone, laptop, iPad, everything turned off. You could build up to a goal; there are day spas where you can spend the day on your own in your dressing gown.”

If your thoughts become overwhelming, and you can’t stop thinking about how you forgot to cc Shaz into that email so she won’t be able to bcc Kev with the figures (can you tell I don’t work in an office?), Rice suggests seeing the thoughts almost like a sushi conveyor belt. But rather than visualising them as bits of fish, it’s more about watching each one pass without engaging in it. Like you’re people watching, but with your own thoughts and all the thought-people are on a conveyor belt – it's one of the principle practices of mindfulness.

“Doing something calming rather than just sitting can help with thoughts too – our brains go into an alpha state when we’re relaxed. Walking, swimming, ironing, all those sorts of things calm our brains down. It’s in that alpha state that you get creative thoughts and vision and ‘aha!’ moments, too.”

Alpha states are also helpful for figuring out if you are indeed running from something, or distracting yourself from yourself with the white noise of being constantly busy. Also, writing those thoughts down will help you figure out patterns, and if you’re scared about what those thoughts might be, getting someone who’s close to you to help you work through them might be a good starting point.

But the main thing is, keep it fun. “If you don’t know what helps you relieve stress, then why not try a different one each time you’ve got a night in?” suggests Guttridge. “A relaxing bath, watching a certain TV programme, meditating, going for walks, you’ll come across one that helps and have a bit of fun in the process.”

So let’s do it together. Let’s clear our diaries, and embrace that Night In By Yourself without seeing it as some big scary thing to conquer. We’re all good at being alone, we’ve just got to figure out how to go about it.