Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us experienced the brutal effects of social isolation. Feelings like depression, anxiety and/or low self-esteem were the result of the relational disconnection, or, loneliness that came with quarantines and lockdown after lockdown. That was hard. Not being able to hug our loved ones, dress up and go out for a meal with friends or, at one point, even go out for a simple walk-and-talk with anyone outside of our own household often left us feeling desperately alone. In short, as a human species in natural need of human touch and/or real-life emotional connection with people who don’t live with us, this pandemic has made life on Earth feel alien.
And yet, many of us also learned new things about ourselves during all that time spent away from those who would have otherwise been part of our regular social rotations. It should be mentioned, though, that for many, that was hard, too. It wasn’t always easy to sit with ourselves, facing unpleasant feelings and/or truths that we were often too busy to face due to the distractions of family, friends or everyday life tasks; hectic school mornings, work meetings, hair appointments and other errands often called us away from them. No doubt, there were many people who welcomed such distractions. They were a convenient way to avoid reality - and as we all know, sometimes, reality bites. Nevertheless, all that social isolation was a chance for us to re-examine the people and things that were most worthy of our time and energy. Some things fell away, some passions grew stronger, and some stayed the same. In addition, many of us found that seemingly endless time spent around roommates or loved ones at home drained us of our energy, making us long for the rejuvenation that only true solitude could bring. The bottom line is, we recognized the importance of being alone.
Right now would be a good time to make an important distinction, mind you, between two similar yet incredibly different concepts. There is big difference between being lonely (ie., when you’re socially isolated) and the physical state of being alone - particularly when we choose to be. The former is detrimental to our health and well-being (prolonged feelings of loneliness have been linked to the anxiety and depression mentioned earlier, as well as elevated blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease and even early death) whereas the latter is not. On the contrary. You need to spend time alone in order to live your best life. Yes, you read that right!
First, let’s briefly discuss why we sometimes avoid being alone. In our society, there seems to be a kind of stigma around being alone, particularly when we are doing things that are often perceived as social activities, on our own. These may include eating out at a restaurant, going to the movies, attending a concert or, heaven forbid, hitting a bar for karaoke night - alone. The reason for this has to do with how so many of us have been conditioned to associate being alone in these situations with negative stereotypes. For instance, if you’re eating alone, you must be a loser. If you’re considering heading out solo to watch your favourite band play, its probably because you don’t have any friends. Are you really about to brave that karaoke night on your own? Don’t do it, you’ll embarrass yourself, and karaoke is embarrassing enough (it isn’t). In our younger years, if we weren’t seated amongst a gaggle of girlfriends or hootin’ and hollerin’ it up with our buddies in the cafeteria at lunchtime, many of our peers would assume we didn’t belong anywhere. We were lost. What’s worse, we were probably unlikeable. I can think of at least one awkward episode of Full House that would prove that assumption correct in the tricky world of junior high school! The trouble is, though this assumption continues to circulate among the masses, young and old, it’s actually INCORRECT. Not only is it incorrect, it’s harmful to all involved - to the judgers as well as the judgees. We need to spend time alone in order to find ourselves, especially if we happen to feel lost.
Being alone gives us the freedom (freedom!) to explore new things and even re-explore old things without the judgements and pressures of other people, even those who are well-meaning. Whether we like it or not, or whether we even realize it or not, when we are judged for the things we do or say, we become self-conscious. At that point, our attention shifts from the task at hand to worrying about how we are being perceived by others. When that happens, we’re pulled away from activities that we might have otherwise enjoyed and concern ourselves instead with what others think of what we are doing, and how we are doing it. Not to mention, engaging in activities on our own also lets us enjoy them by additionally freeing us from the added worry about the needs of others (kid-free, all-day museum jaunt, anyone?). So, doing things alone can really open the door for true personal exploration, and enjoyment, without distraction. Clearly, being alone definitely isn’t something anyone should avoid.
Even when we are feeling lonely, magical things can start happening. According to studies, the human brain actually changes when we are feeling socially isolated. The activity in the neural circuits associated with imagination ramp up, which can seriously light our creative fires. Left alone, without the interference of other minds, our own mind is free to roam as it pleases. It can daydream, and travel off to places where new ideas or even goals may be realized. Such ideas and goals, when conjured up by ourselves and ourselves alone, can give us a sense of confidence and control. It’s nice to know that there is a positive side to feeling disconnected from others.
So the next time you visit the shop, try coming alone! As you wander around, you’ll be free to think and feel and get inspired by whatever pops up for you, without distraction (other than a friendly hello!). Despite the fact that human beings are social creatures who rely a great deal on connection and cooperation with others in order for the species to survive and thrive, it would really serve folks to carve out time to do some things on their own. Though the pandemic has forced us into social isolation at times, at least we know that being alone, particularly when we feel we need to be and choose to be, can give us a lot of good stuff. It can create opportunities for us to really get to know ourselves as we spend time on our own interests and let our own, unique talents blossom. In turn, this gives us more energy to happily and genuinely participate in settings where we are called to be social. When we model being on our own as a positive thing, to quote Nelson Mandela, “we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”
Go ahead and show up alone once in a while. It’s good for you. It’s good for all of us.
Written By, Karina Doob