As a writer, I spend more time alone than not.
Under a lamp immersed in a book over a cup of tea. In front of a laptop, toying with phrases until I’m satisfied the words have come together just right. Spending long stretches of time in my own company is a habit, a condition of my writing career, and admittedly, loneliness often comes to visit, especially now.
Loneliness versus Alone
It may be somewhat surprising to learn loneliness is not the same as being alone. Psychologists tell us loneliness is a state of mind which produces anxiety and feels draining, which is why you can feel lonely your first day on campus, starting a new job, or arriving in a new city. A lack of connection can leave us feeling lonely no matter how many other people are in the room.
Conversely, spending time alone is a state of being, and the right setting can actually reduce anxiety, feel restorative and peaceful. Think of it as a time to clear your head or catch your breath, much like a tired athlete sent to the bench before getting back in the game, or how a nap can calm a fussy toddler.
The differentiator between being alone versus feeling lonely is how we approach solitude. We can choose to view time alone as a gift to ourselves to do or eat whatever we want. To check in with ourselves, away from public opinion, to form our own thoughts and ideas. To get in touch with who we are—our authentic self. In nature, think about how a caterpillar, tucked inside a cocoon, transforms into butterfly. It does the work in isolation, all by itself, and the result is something quite beautiful. In life, one can only imagine what sparks of inspiration Nikola Tesla or George Washington Carver, alone in their labs, later honed into reality. Modern day singer-songwriter James Taylor is open about how solitude shaped his music career while growing up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina:
“It was kind of isolated out there. As kids we seemed to have hours of empty time. A fantasy could last all afternoon. I don’t think I would have become a songwriter if I had not had all those free days to let my imagination roam.”
-James Taylor, Break Shot, audio memoir
Yet, time alone doesn’t always have to be about creating something nifty. Doing absolutely nothing also has merit. Gazing out the window, enjoying a cup of tea, closing your eyes for 5 minutes, are all powerful acts of self-care. That’s the beauty—and joy—of solitude in that it can be used however you like, to do whatever you want. It’s time just for you and no one else.
How To Cope
To be clear, too much alone time is detrimental to both our physical and mental health. That’s why so many of us are struggling right now, trying to cope with pandemic-induced isolation, separated from our tribe, and in many cases, our identity. We are starved for connection like never before, while spiking COVID numbers and businesses opening and then closing again, make us wonder if there is an end in sight. For some of us the approaching fall and winter seasons mean even more time indoors. So how can we manifest a healthy combination of alone time and human connection and keep the walls from closing in?
Stop with the stories
Acknowledging we’re lonely may be a little embarrassing to admit, like somehow we failed, or people don’t like us, or we’re not the popular ones and other people are having more fun than us. Don’t be silly. Just quit that thinking already! Know that you’re not alone in feeling alone. It’s hard not to imagine that during this unprecedented time of social isolation, that all of us aren’t experiencing some degree of loneliness. There is no shame in admitting that. Loneliness is a natural human emotion, reminding us of our need for connection the same way boredom reminds us of our need for stimulation. It’s important to keep things in context. For example, all those super happy pictures you see on your social media feed are not reality. People tend to only post their best selves. Remember that. And maybe take a social media break.
A healthy dose of self-esteem is a sure anecdote for loneliness. Our connection with others starts with ourselves and being confident in who we are. Knowing we have value in and of ourselves, regardless if there are people around helps to lessen feelings of loneliness.
Here’s a self-affirmation journaling exercise that might help: take a moment to think about all of your positive traits, all the things you like about yourself. The color of your hair, your funny laugh, the way you rocked your last Zoom presentation, the fact that you can make a great pasta or banana bread.
Then write five of those things down. Make a list.
Then, write a short paragraph about each of those five things. For example:
- “I’m really good at puzzles. I just seem to have a knack at knowing how the pieces come together. It’s fun. I feel a real sense of accomplishment when I complete a puzzle”.
- “I’m really grateful I have such nice friends. They are always there to support me. I hope I am a good friend too.”
- “I like the natural curl pattern of my hair. I love trying new hairstyles. They look good on me.”
- “My partner is kind and makes me feel safe and that makes me happy. I’m grateful for our relationship”
Here’s why writing it down is so important: it allows our brains to process and absorb all this delicious positivity, much like eating a sandwich satiates hunger. Writing down self-affirming thoughts reminds us of all the good times and that even when things are bad, there’s still goodness.
Pick up the phone, send a text, check on an elderly family member, call a buddy just to say “hey how y’uh doing,I was just thinking about you.” Making someone else’s day helps us feel both connected and valued.
- Schedule regular time for connection. It’s important not to let loneliness linger. Put dates on your calendar for virtual happy hours, group chats, even if it’s a regular check in call with your mom or sister or former college roommate once a week. Make sure to check in with someone on a regular basis.
- Form a COVID-free “bubble.” Consider pairing up with another family or group of neighbors or friends who have all tested negative for COVID, and limit your social interactions to just that group or ‘‘bubble.”
- Get a pet. Or a hobby. Adoptions at animal shelters are up.
- Connect with nature. take a socially distanced walk, soak up the sun, the breeze, the sound of water and air. Take off your shoes and feel the grass under your feet. Then, imagine taking that walk with someone you care about. Think back to fond memories and the things in your life you’re thankful for and savor them.
Music and singing—by yourself in the shower or with others virtually— reduces stress and feelings of loneliness. Watching a virtual performance can make us feel less alone as we experience emotions and shared appreciation for beautiful music and art. Here’s a cool example of a virtual choir.
The surest cure for loneliness is love. And I’m not talking exclusively about romantic love, but self-love, love of life, love for family and friends, love of food and art, love that helps us feel secure and connected. So look for the love in your life. As psychologist and New York Times best-selling author Rick Hanson writes:
“Love helps us feel safe, whether as a scared child getting a hug or as an adult walking with a friend through a dark parking lot. Love is deeply satisfying. And love draws us immediately into a sense of connection.”
-Rick Hanson, Ph.D, “Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength and Happiness”
I’m hopeful social distancing will eventually end, and we can ditch the masks and embrace, celebrate, and socialize face to face again. I know I look forward that. In the meantime, I can’t help but look back and wonder what role spending so much time alone played in my own life. From an early age, words were my constant companion, often falling asleep with books, as stories kept me company. In turn, I grew up, studied journalism and spent a lifetime writing and telling stories of my own. For me, being alone wasn’t such a bad thing because along the way I learned (and am still learning) to embrace solitude as an opportunity to listen to the murmurs and whisperings of my soul. It’s during quiet moments of self–introspection that I’ve come up with creative ideas, puzzled through a problem, or just rested my mind.
That’s not loneliness, it’s solitude.
I’m also mindful about striking the balance between alone time and human connection, by scheduling time for Sunday suppers with my family, tacos on a socially distanced patio or rooftop with friends, and virtual meet ups with co-workers.
As we face this unprecedented time of isolation, the next time you feel lonely, like you’re missing out on the party, change the story. Remind yourself of all the positive things in your life, lean towards love, especially self-love, and reach out. There’s a pretty good chance someone out there will be glad to hear from you.
Let me know how you’re coping in the comments below.
Roxane Battle works to raise awareness and destigmatize mental health issues. Prior to coming to Sanvello, Roxane spent 20+ years as a television journalist, including work as an award-winning news anchor and reporter at NBC Minneapolis, CBS, and FOX.
As a sought-after speaker Roxane presents on change, resiliency, and finding joy during times of transition. Roxane was named an Architect of Change on mariashriver.com and has been featured in Working Mother and Ebony national magazines, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and St. Paul Pioneer Press.
A Minnesota native, Roxane earned her undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She completed her master’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia
Her self-help memoir, “Pockets of Joy: Deciding to Be Happy, Choosing to Be Free” (Whitaker House 2017), became an Amazon best seller in multiple categories.
Roxane lives near the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes and has an adult son. Follow her on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook: @roxanebattle