How to be alone


I have lived alone many times, in many places: Dayton, Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; Paris, London, New York City and San Francisco.

I have also lived with many other people (not simultaneously) in places like New Haven, Connecticut; Los Angeles; Bath, Wooton Woodstock and Whytham Abbey (all UK); Arhus, Denmark (that was a commune, but, I digress) and Valencia, Spain.

My point here is not to dazzle you with my international living situations, but to note that I have lived for many years on my own and almost as many years with a lover or friends.

Living alone, at age 22, in a conservative, Mid-western American town like Dayton, Ohio was awful. I was so lonely; it was my first job after college. I didn’t like Dayton, my job (personnel assistant in a local department store) or my tiny, one-bedroom apartment.

After a few weeks there, I called my Dad and begged him to let me come back to the little town where I grew up and work for him at his pharmacy (he’s a chemist). I thought I wouldn’t be lonely there…at least, not this lonely.

Dad saw this request as the trap it was. Wisely, he said, ‘No. You need to stay in Dayton and get used to living on your own. This is part of growing up and it’s time you learned how to do it.’

Oh, how I hated him! I cursed him during those lonely nights. I cursed him until I begrudgingly realized that he was right. Living alone was something I needed to learn – a useful life skill – and despite my aversion to it, why not learn it now, rather than later?

I learned how to be alone. I learned how to live alone: how to count on myself. How to make friends in a strange city and how to go to a bar/movie/restaurant on my own and be OK with it

Thanks Dad.

As a psychotherapist, it is clear to me that many of my clients have not yet learned how to be alone.

They equate being alone with loneliness. Nope. They’re not the same. Being alone is a situation. Loneliness is an emotional response to that situation. After all, you can be lonely in a crowd of people and perfectly content staying home alone all day.

In some social circles, being alone is looked down upon and pitied: you’re a loser. But anyone who’s ever been in a relationship knows that craving some alone time is a part of the deal. And many unhappy, long-term relationships are sustained by a fear of being alone. So, we stay with our partner and are miserable, because the thought of being alone scares us so.

If you can’t be alone, you’re usually desperate to be with someone. This is what people describe as ‘clingy’ or ‘needy.’ Not very attractive, is it? Yet, this is just what we are tempted to become if we cannot be alone.

So, if you don’t like being alone, how can you get better at it? Consider these ideas:

Start small

If you are terrified by the thought of spending time alone, respect that. Take little steps: go to a movie alone or have lunch on your own someplace you really like. If you find that even these small steps are terrifying, then perhaps they aren’t small enough. Don’t judge: just notice. And take easier steps, like staying off your phone for an hour or just walking down to the local shops on your own. Make it do-able so you can succeed!

Try mirror work

When feeling lonely comes up (and it inevitably will), instead of running from those feelings, get to know them: look in the mirror and ask yourself, ‘What am I afraid of?’ and listen to the answer you get.

Learn to self-soothe

Another way to use mirror work is to soothe yourself. You can ask yourself: ‘What can I do today to help you (the person in the mirror) feel better?’ or ‘What can I do right now to make you feel better?’ It sounds a bit trite, but, it really works!

Become your own best friend

A really good mate would encourage you, support you, cheer you on, right? Well, if you have a friend like that, good on you! If not, become that supportive, kind, nurturing person. When you feel bad, don’t berate yourself! Instead, give yourself credit for doing something – anything! – on your own. Encouragement leads to bigger and better steps; being mean to yourself only makes you feel worse, and certainly doesn’t encourage you to try again.

Begin to connect with other people

For some of us, this is the scariest stuff. We are so afraid that others won’t like us or that we aren’t ‘good enough.’ Well, the truth is that other people will judge us (as we do them), but many people may actually think we’re okay. Try this as a mantra: ‘I may not be perfect, but I’m good enough.’ or ‘Today, I’m going to go to the local shop/pub/whatever and just smile at three people.’

You don’t have to talk to anyone, just smile at three people. Eventually, you may even want to say, ‘Hello’ to someone. Start small: you needn’t be ready to discuss the pros and cons of queer theory on first meeting. Keep it simple: as the late, great E.M.Forster said, ‘Only connect.’

These are just a few suggestions, when you get to know yourself better (hint, hint), you’ll have more ideas that work specifically for you.

Being able to comfort yourself is a really valuable life skill, whether you’re alone or not. When you learn how to be alone, you’ll feel more solid and grounded, more faithful to yourself.

Your self-knowledge and self-esteem will grow as you learn to love yourself, even your less-than-wonderful qualities. And you’ll never need to be with someone else out of desperation. You can choose to be with a friend or lover, depending on if it suits you – or not.

Michael Dale Kimmel is a psychotherapist and counselor based in San Diego: His book, The Gay Man’s Guide to Open and Monogamous Marriage, is out now.

See also

Open relationship or monogamy: How gay couples can decide what’s right for them

Pansexual, non-binary, queer … why we shouldn’t be afraid of labels

Three questions all couples should ask themselves on a regular basis

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