How can I get better at the skills of being alone?
June 12, 2016 7:33 AM   Subscribe

Earlier this year, I broke up with my partner of several years. This left me living on my own for the first time in my adult life; I've always lived with roommates, or my partner, or family. Since then, I've basically sidestepped figuring out how to live alone by being consumed by coursework and by having constant companionship from my best friend. But now I've got a break from school for a couple months, and my best friend is living in a different town for the summer, so I don't see him every day. Turns out I'm really bad at living alone. Help me get better.

Here's what I'm not bad at: keeping my apartment clean, getting laundry done, getting exercise. The basic skills of housekeeping and selfkeeping are in place, and working fine.

The biggest issue I'm facing is that right now, when I'm not with others, I feel starved for interaction, and I feel pretty giant waves of anxiety and negative self-talk. I feel like I have a lifeline in that I carry on a pretty constant conversation with my best friend via text, and I have places online where I can get support from internet friends, but those things stave off the anxiety without clearing it.

My days are structureless, and I'm not good at providing structure. There are lots of things I'd like to do while living alone this summer (craft projects, studying) but right now my headspace when I'm alone feels rather prohibitive to those goals.

So, I guess my questions are this:
1) How can I get more comfortable with being alone with myself? How can I get to a point where when I'm alone I'm not constantly counting down the minutes until I get to be with friends again, and I'm not staring at my phone waiting for the next fix of social interaction to arrive via text?
2) How can I get better at actually doing the things I want to do with this free time, so I look back at this summer and be proud of myself, rather than disappointed that I didn't take advantage of the opportunity of the last summer break I'll ever have?
posted by ocherdraco to Human Relations (24 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sort of going through the same thing (empty nest syndrome) and it's probably a total copout but I got a dog, Detective Kima. I've got conservation land nearby and I've started chatting up other dog owners I see there, forcing me to interact.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 7:49 AM on June 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

It's pretty cliche, but true: go get involved with other people. Charity work, hobbies, whatever you can handle. The trick to living alone is to still keep your connections open so it feels like a refuge not a prison. If you are a crafter maybe join a group or even volunteer to host a crafting night.

You don't need to be a hermit if that's not who you are. If you need social interaction go get some.
posted by emjaybee at 8:02 AM on June 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

To be clear: I have social interaction every day. Often several times a day! I'm trying to figure out how to better handle the time when I'm alone.

Also, pets are not an option.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:06 AM on June 12, 2016

How To Be Alone by Tanya Davis.

(Link is to a music video performance of a poem. The video is the joint work of Tanya Davis and Andrea Dorfman.)
posted by Erinaceus europaeus at 8:09 AM on June 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

The key for me is to create structure for myself and to consider it non-optional. Make a list of the things you want to do this summer and create a schedule for them. It should be reasonable so you know you can do it and full of a variety of different types of activities. This isn't the "a good person would accomplish these things and I want to be a good person and -- oh god -- just thinking about them fills me with dread" list. This is the "my life feels good when I am doing these types of activities" list.

The key for me is to get on a roll. I do well with things I will do every day or every other day rather than once a week or once a month. It lends stability and structure.

Some ideas:
-- go to a neighborhood coffeehouse three times a week mid afternoon
-- 5 pushups everyday
-- make one piece of art every day
-- do a short, easy yoga video every day
-- take a MOOC and create a schedule so that you work on it each weekday
-- every morning before breakfast take a walk around your neighborhood
-- have your favorite snack every evening

It's important to trust yourself that you will stick to your commitment to do these things. Don't give yourself the chance to think "eh, maybe I'll go for a walk tomorrow." Don't think. Just know that you are going to do it every day and then put on your shoes and do it at the same time.

Good luck and be kind to yourself!
posted by mcduff at 8:29 AM on June 12, 2016 [21 favorites]

Get out. Get out get out get out. For me the trick to being alone is that I make myself go out and do all these activities and see all these people, and then I'm so overwhelmed with all the talking and noise and stimulus that I just can't wait to get home, shut the door and be in my own space.

As for doing the things you want with this free time - you state that you are not good at providing structure, but you can adhere to other structures that already exist. Exercise classes, a ceramics course, a movie time, an evening concert. These are all set on days at specific times, you can pick and choose to your liking but then you have to go when it is available. Fill your calendar with these events, around your friend appointments, and you will soon find yourself so busy that you will crave that quiet time at home when you can just lay on your bed and stare at the ceiling doing nothing but being with yourself.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 8:31 AM on June 12, 2016

You could anchor your free time to a few key hobbies or things you want to learn... for example, learn an instrument, cook some really intensive recipes (maybe focus on a specific cuisine), read books you always wanted to, train for a 5K/10K/half marathon... etc.

It seems like you want to be busy with your time, so what is it you've always wanted to do but maybe never had the time or focus to do? Throw all your energy into them in a structured planned way.
posted by watrlily at 8:31 AM on June 12, 2016

If it suits your lifestyle, fostering a dog and provide structure (walk schedule) and interaction (dog park).

Podcasts feel like having friends over- starting a podcast can make it easier to go for a walk or start an art project.

And finally, not everyone likes being alone- it's ok if you are learning that you don't, and if you choose to find constructive relationships to fill that time. The internet tends to skew a little toward introverts (being a largely written medium) so online advice can sometimes skew towards implying that preferring near-constant company and interaction is a weakness, and enjoying solitude is a strength- but I think both are equally valid ways of being.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:33 AM on June 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


When you go to class all day every day it's hard to adjust to not having that social interaction.

My thoughts are thus:

1. We are smart and smart people get bored. "Projects" need to challenge you enough to get you in the flow of them and get you concentrating on them. Crosswords, puzzles, tests are great for this.

2. The internet and texts are literally addictive little endorphin-tossers. Turn your phone off and block all of your "check 300 times a day" websites and it will be miserable for a while but it does help.

3. Be not in your apartment -- sitting at home alone is pretty bad and social interaction is pretty good.

4. Let me know if you come up with any other tips! I am not a big "being alone" fan TBQH I think it is overrated as some kind of Emily Dickenson "oh now I shall write the Great Novel" kind of Noble Hard-Working Thing! Some people do better with social stuff and structure and that is cool and ok I think.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:39 AM on June 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Here's what I'm not bad at: keeping my apartment clean, getting laundry done, getting exercise. The basic skills of housekeeping and selfkeeping are in place, and working fine.

Also wow you are doing pretty good at being alone!

The other thing is that SUPER BUSY GRAD SCHOOL kind of kicks the can of trauma/stress until you have time to deal with you're probably mourning. Give yourself space and time to do nothing and to mourn. You had a rough thing happen to you during a stressful time in your life and you are going to be "less" productive while you heal. But being sad, moping, listening to sad music, all of that is productive. It is the stuff of being a human. <3

Hang in there, I love you! <3 <3 <3
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:43 AM on June 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Oh, and the Joanna Newsom album Have One On Me is a really interesting, important, complex (triple) album -- getting through it 5 or 6 times is a good project!
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:45 AM on June 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

ROUTINE! I don't know about you in specific my my anxious mind thrives on routine. I live alone and have a partner in another city. I am often alone and mostly like it but it took a long while for me to be comfortable with it (I was just always propelling myself from one thing to the other). A few things that helped

- staying offline first and last thing of the day. Like, literally set a timer and don't do internet things for 45 minutes on each end. Don't feed your "need new stimulus!!" craving with low-value internet food (or even high value internet food) Read a book or do your bills or just sit on the couch and do another thing
- meditation/mindfulness, learning to be quiet and do basically nothing but be in the moment for a little while. five or ten minutes. I asked for and got some good suggestions in this thread. The big deal, for me, is not that you won't have negative thoughts, of course you will, but that you can learn to nudge them out of the way as non-constructive and realize that putting them off (for five minutes, for ten minutes) can help you feel more control over it.
- attainable goals, set up a thing you want to do that will take more than one sitting to do. Dedicate some time each day to that thing. Do the thing even if you don't feel like it. Anxious brains really feel like they need a SPECIFIC thing and can get whiny about not that thing (often low-value internet food) and may need some gentle redirection into "No we're practicing the ukulele now). Give yourself 15 minute chunks of things don't overcommit.

If you can't really make progress with any of these things, just get out of the house. There's no reason not having your best friend around means you can't interact with people. Set a social day for a few days in the future and (I've found) it will help the empty days before it seem less daunting. Above all, find ways to check in with your best friend that are metered and useful. Like maybe stretch out the time between contacting them. Maybe reconnect with some other friends in asynchronous ways (I am partial to writing postcards) and get out of your own head and do something for other people. Set a few goals and develop a system (other people, blog, whatever) of being accountable for those things. Whatever motivates you (money, food, accolades) see if there's a way to get you some of that if you do the things. Be your own Shamu. It can feel goofy but the meta-goal is to stop pissing away your life being non-constructive and so work towards, in small steps, ways that help.

And ultimately, it's fine to do nothing over the summer, you just want to find a way to be able to do it happily.
posted by jessamyn at 8:47 AM on June 12, 2016 [20 favorites]

A bunch of people have mentioned it already, but I've found that getting out of the house is the best thing to do when I feel lonely or generally blah. Even if I just go read in a cafe or something, it breaks the cycle of bad feelings for me.

While I've mentioned reading: I guess it's kind of cheesy to say, but reading an absorbing book makes me feel less alone--it's like someone's telling me a story, or I get to imagine what it's like to have another life. Maybe now that you've got a break from schoolwork, use it to pick up some good absorbing reading material? When I get into a book I can forget to check the internet/muse on my sad social life for at least a little while.

Good luck; I'm sure you'll make it a great summer break!
posted by ferret branca at 9:14 AM on June 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think turning the radio on helps when you're home alone. It's nice to have someone in the background chattering about the local news or the weather or baseball while I'm cooking or doing something else with my hands that doesn't require 100% of my conversation. It feels less lonely somehow.
posted by colfax at 9:43 AM on June 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

For me, it's signing up to stuff in advance that forces me to have structure. I am very good in putting future moiraine in classes and goals that can't be gotten out of easily. For example, daily gym classes at 9am so I have to get up by 8:30am. Half marathons - I have to train for these darn things so I HAVE to go on a run and follow run schedules
posted by moiraine at 10:11 AM on June 12, 2016

I don't live alone but I have terrible anxiety and being alone with my thoughts means hearing a lot of negative self-talk and a lot of rumination. I listen to podcasts constantly. I particularly like interviews and conversational-style shows, which is all of the fun parts of chatting with someone but none of the mental drain.
posted by radioamy at 10:40 AM on June 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

One of my main hobbies is painting and drawing (which usually I do by myself as most of my artist friends are far away right now), and I like to listen to 'paint and chats' or 'sketch and chats' on Youtube. I find it comforting to hear someone talking while I work. Similar to having the radio on, but more conversational and on topic for what I'm doing. It scratches the itch for me of working around other artists, without the effort of actually having to maintain a conversation, haha.

I've also been taking at least a movement-based class 5 times a week, dance classes, yoga, and beginner acrobatics. It gets me out of the house and around other people, and I've started to make friends with some of them, which is a plus.

I lived by myself for a year, and after I got used to it, I really learned to like it! Give yourself some time, and do all the things you can't do when other people are in the house -- walk around naked, listen to music whenever you want, binge watch terrible shows or movies. . .there are lots of upsides to solo living.

The other thing, and I promise it's worth it, but it is hard. . .start meditating. I'm not going to say 'learn to meditate' because that's not really how it works. It's just something you do, and if you stick with it, it gets less difficult and you'll find it gives you a pretty good coping mechanism for dealing with unhelpful thought patterns. If you make this a regular habit, like brushing your teeth, you'll learn to calm down your mind and turn down the volume of the negative self-talk when your going about your day. It helped me soooo much, even though I hated (hated!) it when I first started.
posted by ananci at 11:01 AM on June 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

Nthing cristinacristinacristina.....I remember seeing an activity chart at your place; I would add the fun stuff to it.

posted by brujita at 11:01 AM on June 12, 2016

Some great ideas here (I am taking notes, myself! :) ). Especially thoughts on planning activities / structuring the day and most especially avoiding or minimizing use of the internet as a cop out :/

I agree with internet fraud detective squad, station number 9, though. This moment of people living completely by themselves is a total historical anomaly. We're social creatures, as a species - not really set up for that (most of us). I mean yeah there's a continuum of preference, but it's not pathological to dislike unending solitude : / I think you should probably just admit that you hate being alone and set yourself up with roommates in future.

For this summer - consider taking a trip, if that's feasible. Find someone to sublet your place and go somewhere. There are group tours for single people. Also, it's possible to travel/meet people on the cheap, by hostelling (even if you're not 20, though comfort with people that age is useful). Maybe a good challenge in terms of forcing you to find things to do day to day, and also a chance to meet new people.

Or, might be late for it, but you could try booking yourself into work abroad. Don't know what other skills you have, but I do believe I heard some FANTASTIC singing from you. Cruise ships need singers. Or, throw yourself into a local scene. Just do it. Any way you can. It'll be fun and musicians are usually pretty social.

Re your question, I will offer:

- keep the radio on at home, or listen to podcasts
- hang out in coffee shops so you're alone but at least hear people around you
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:08 PM on June 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

As I spent the day alone today, I thought of another tactic that can help when you just need to sort of put one foot in front of the other: make everything take forever. That is, at some very real level you're counting down the days until summer is over and you feel weird w/o your best friend etc. So make the things that you formerly might have done "efficiently" take up time instead of trying to save all this time. Examples

- Make food from scratch instead of starting from pre-prepared stuff (bake bread, learn a new muffin, chop all those veggies, pare ears of corn, grow some herbs)
- If you've liked coffee, get REALLY into coffee, and try out a few different ways of making it, make your coffee (or tea) time into a real hang-out-and-treat-yourself time. Special chair, special music, appreciate it.
- Walk someplace and put your phone away. Don't be constantly narrating your life to your loved ones (nothing wrong with doing that, but this is an exercise). Stop and smell flowers, say hello to dogs and cats, chat more than usual with storekeepers.
- Primp. Take more care than usual in your appearance. Hands and feets. Hair and skin. Not because there is anything wrong with how all those things are now, but because you have the time and you can spend it on yourself doing nice things for yourself (if you hate this stuff obviously skip this step) that has longer rewards. If you have an exercise routine turn it into an exercise and bathe and be rejuvenated routine.
- back burner shit. Everyone has it. Make a little list of crap and do some little projects. I had a tough year last year and was in triage mode for a few months. With the return of better health and a better mood I've been looking around my place and thinking "gee, that shelf got dusty and sort of out of kilter" and I could spend a whole hour listening to my favorite music and making it look nice. That's a good feeling and sets up Future Me (who doesn't always have time for this shit) to be in a better place. Plus it helps keep some of the negative thoughts at bay because you're working on things.
- break things up into little tiny pieces and do one at a time. Back to prolonging things. Maybe you don't feel like you can do the whole thing right now, but a little thing and holding space for moving on to the rest of it, that's fine. A lot of internet people like things they can binge-do but you don't have to do it all now. A nice planned out little-bits-at-a-time project can make you optimistic about the future (and the present as a mode to getting there) not stuck in time til summer is over.
posted by jessamyn at 12:24 PM on June 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Consider meditation of some kind, to calm your mind. I know the feeling of anxiety that crops up when your time is entirely your own. I think it helps to have a calming technique.

When you feel yourself getting anxious, just pick SOMETHING and do it. If you have a list, as others have suggested, randomly pick something off the list.

Give yourself ten minutes to wander around your house and NOT do anything. Often these are the times when I notice things that I really want to do.

I like to think about my dream day -- if I could do anything I wanted all day, what would I do? Some variation of these things are often attainable, or even your exact dream day if you don't have ambitious/expensive tastes. And I catch myself imagining sitting on the porch with a paper and a cup of coffee, and meanwhile I could have been doing exactly that for the past hour and there is nothing stopping me.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:08 PM on June 12, 2016

when I'm not with others, I feel starved for interaction, and I feel pretty giant waves of anxiety and negative self-talk.

Can you elaborate a bit on the nature of the anxiety and negative self-talk? I mean is it about being alone, or other stuff? Struggling with wanting company and having issues with structuring time are one thing (well two things), but if this is less about that, or e.g. feeling less cheerful when alone for long periods* (which is what I dislike about it) and really about using social interaction to avoid a deeper agitation, I guess a partial answer is to confront the underlying anxiety. Is this something ongoing, or related to the breakup? Whatever it is, getting hold of it with the usual methods (therapy, etc.) is worthwhile.

(Quick hacks for me in anxious times: swimming, breathing, and honestly the odd valerian root tablet.)

*Are you saying you cannot bear any time alone, at all? I'm sorry if I misread your question earlier, if that's the case.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:20 AM on June 13, 2016

Thank you all. All of this is so helpful.

you're probably mourning.

Having just spent most of today crying, I think this is the root of it. I've been so busy, and so surrounded by friends, that I haven't had a chance to really grieve what I've lost. Knowing that that's what I'm working through makes me less anxious about being alone. I actually need some alone time to process this more fully.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:16 PM on June 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've had a lot of this, too, and when I opened this window intending to respond to you a week ago, I was thinking that I was going to say something like this: your first project is definitely to become someone who can do nothing in particular and end the day feeling relaxed.

After you've got used to this, then your projects will get easier, because you're doing them to get them done, not to keep all the nagging fears off your back.
posted by ambrosen at 4:27 AM on June 17, 2016

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