How do I feel okay about being alone?
January 12, 2008 8:24 PM   Subscribe

How can I feel better about being alone?

Most of the traumas of my early life involved being left alone- when I was 12, I was left alone in a small town in Colorado for about a week; at 16, my mother entered a mental hospital and I spent a month living by myself. In part because of these experiences, I have a huge fear of being left alone and losing friends. I try to keep up with people, somewhat obsessively, and will generally do anything to keep friends. This has been extremely detrimental to a few of my relationships, as well as my own mental health. How can I learn to enjoy my own company more? I already do a fair amount of solitary activity- reading, writing, etc.- but I need to get to the point where any night that I spend alone doesn't end with me "staring off into the middle distance while listening to 'Great Gig in the Sky'."
posted by 235w103 to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Well, the usual answer would be 'seek counseling,' but perhaps you don't have the financial resources to do so. If you do, but are afraid your employer will find out you're seeing a shrink through your medical plan, you can always seek a clinical counselor for 'professional development.'

Anyway, one-on-one relationships are not easy, and it's great that you recognize some of your behaviors may turn people off. So that's a huge bonus.

But why be alone? My wife and kid are back home in Japan for three months. Being alone is driving me crazy. It's not natural.

But you say you read books and do writing. I also get the sense that you are not always alone. But why not listen to "Great Gig in the Sky" and stare off into the middle distance? Tonight I sat in my car in a big box store parking lot and listened to the radio - the DJ was doing a special show in the birth of rock and roll, and the music was just heavenly.

You may be bored, but don't know it. You could try learning another language, study statistics, or learn to play the piano. When I was learning Japanese at age 28 I typically studied for eight hours every single day. But I had a wife and close friends, too. I wasn't alone.

You could also try volunteering, perhaps in a soup kitchen, or someplace else where the focus is on the activity - there won't be much time for talk, but you can still form bonds and relationships with your coworkers.

Finally, I would pick up a book called 'The Essence of Zen", or try out a zen practice group. You learn to sit and you learn to breath. There is no talking. There isn't even any thinking.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:36 PM on January 12, 2008

I would suggest developing strategies so that you're around new people in useful, constructive ways that develop your self confidence. Take cooking classes. Go to a health club and play pick-up basketball. Volunteer, as mentioned above. Then when you're alone, you know how not to be alone in a good way.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:51 PM on January 12, 2008

One of my foster kids (life with much neglect and some abuse, abandonment) has a lot of difficulty being alone for any length of time. He's sort of turned it around, in a way -- he's become a social butterfly with a huge social network. I think he needs to balance it out when he's ready, but it's also a way to build on what one's life has been.

Is there a way for you to hold or balance both things at once? I mean, even though your commitment to relationships came out of trauma, maybe it's also a skill or strength in a way. (I know you say obsessive, detrimental, etc., I'm just wondering if there's a part of your trait that is not so negative.) And, at the same time, you want to develop the other side, the inner/solitary piece. Which is great, it's great to do both.

Hope this isn't too groovy. (I do live in California.)
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:07 PM on January 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

play games online. especially those that involve a clan or teams of some sort. world of warcraft comes to mind.

if you get heavily involved with online groups, they are typically there 24/7 to interact with, and self-propagate.

some people would probably be down on the whole 'interact more online', but for people who are laid up indoors (i.e. long hospital stints, etc.), or myself (moved away from most family/friends recently to decompress, so i'm alone most of the time by choice), knowing that you can jump online and a whole slew of people you know are 'virtually' there with you, is really pretty cool.

instant messenger clients are also nice for that 'i know that person is there' type of feeling. i have a ton of friends on yahoo messenger/googletalk/aim/etc that i rarely chat with, but when i see them coming online and offlline at random times, it for some reason gives me a warm and fuzzy feel, with regard to me just sitting there on my own.

take advantage of technology. we live in the communications age. no reason you have to have someone physically there with you, given all the options ;) good luck!
posted by jimjam at 9:10 PM on January 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is sad. I think you need to get used to human, not virtual human, contact. Building trust is hard, but it can be done. I spent much of Friday talking to the daughter of a holocaust survivor. Her father was raised in an orphanage, until he was turned over to the Gestapo. Learning to connect was hard for him, but he did it. PHysical contact was hard for him. But he did love his children.

Your experiences are horrible. I hope you can learn to meet people who can help you move beyond this. You've experienced a lot more hurt than I have, but also less than people like my friend's father. Making contact withthers is hard, but I hope you can do it.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 9:41 PM on January 12, 2008

What Cool Papa Bell said, find ways to be not-alone that are not dependent on Particular Persons A,B,C, or D. Go explore a new neighborhood or something.

Another strategy is to think about it as time spent being fully yourself; think, "oh good, I can do what I want." So, keep a tiny list of things that only you like to do. When my live-in bf was out of town, I'd rent chick flicks. When you're around other people, your attention is going toward the social dynamic, and you're probably giving priority to activities that you both want to do, maybe at the expense of things you like but others don't. At a certain point, this causes you to lose touch with yourself in small ways. You can remember who you are when you're not being influenced by another person: what you like to cook, what time you like to go to bed, and then use that to be more yourself around others. It's a useful time for re-centering.
posted by salvia at 11:50 PM on January 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

I agree with most of what everyone else has said above, but I thought I'd add another angle:

What is it about ending up "staring off into the middle distance while listening to 'Great Gig in the Sky'" that makes you uncomfortable? Maybe it's shorthand for something else, but it sounds to me like a sense of melancholy, which, in and of itself, I don't think is something to run away from. If that lonely melancholia is something you feel a sort of shame about, then it'll create a vicious circle of self-directed ill-will that bleeds into your relationships with friends and partners. Rather than just trying to distract yourself from that lonely feeling (which is also good advice), or trying to avoid it through company (which sounds like your current strategy), you really should try to come to terms with it as part of who you are. (I couldn't come up with a way of saying this that sounds less cliché -- a more cliché version would use the word 'embrace').

The loneliness when you're alone isn't itself the problem. The problem is how your fear of the lonely feeling is affecting how you act toward friends and acquaintances (and, before that, how you think about yourself). It sounds like you get this, but regularly relying on specific people's company to keep you away from some bad feelings is often just too much for all but the closest friendships to bear, and even then it only works if you're asking them for help and company to get over a recent event. You've noticed the discomfort this otherwise causes. If the obsessively doing anything you can to maintain certain friendships isn't working, I wonder if it's because you give the impression that their primary value to you is as a way of staving off loneliness, independent of what it is that makes them unique. (Make sure that you do care about them as individuals).

Another angle: What happens if you (arbitrarily) decide to mark a certain day in advance as a day to spend alone, turning down any offers to do anything social that night? Make it a weekend night, even. Does that create a different feeling? I ask because the phrasing of your last sentence suggests that you think of any night you spend alone as representing a sort of failure (which is more or less the case if, as you describe, you're constantly trying to ensure that you don't spend a night alone). I wonder if making the loneliness something chosen might automatically remove some of the bad feelings surrounding it.

I'm rambling, the end of the middle paragraph is sounding a little harsh, and I'm surely not taking into account how your childhood experiences are coming into play here, but some of this might be good advice anyway.
posted by nobody at 1:21 AM on January 13, 2008 [4 favorites]

if you live in nyc i'll have a cup of coffee with you... don't be alone.
posted by eedele at 4:15 AM on January 13, 2008

Can I suggest something in addition to the excellent suggestions to seek out regular contact with other human beings so you aren't over dependent on particular people?

It could be helpful to face your fear of being alone.

Next time you are alone, and it's not by choice, give yourself a set time to just be alone with your fear. And I mean, like, five minutes not five hours.

Sit still and try to listen to what's going on in your head. Ask yourself what is the worst possible thing that could happen if you are abandoned by your friends and forced into aloneness.

Listen to what the voice inside you says. Ask yourself if that's rational or reasonable. Perhaps it will be, perhaps it won't be. Is there anything you can do to avoid that terrifying aloneness? Or is it out of your control? What could you realistically do if the worst does happen?

Then give yourself permission to go out and make contact with someone - even if it's just a trip to a coffee shop to say hullo to the barista. It could also be helpful to plan the contact before you do the sitting down and facing-up-to-it thing.

FWIW I too am terrified of being abandoned and alone and get really miserable if I don't have contact with other folk every day. My personal internal voice screams OHMYGODYOUREGOINGTODIEALONE. NOBODYWILLEVERLOVEYOU. So... there you go.
posted by t0astie at 4:40 AM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

When I was living by myself and got too lonely I'd do something so I could be alone in a crowd...not to socialize, just to have others around. Something like grabbing a book and reading at Starbucks, taking a walk around the neighborhood, or going grocery shopping. Maybe that would work for you. Knowing that you could have people around if you wanted it or needed it might make being alone more bearable, and also give you a way to have contact without relying on your friends too heavily.

Good luck.
posted by christinetheslp at 4:45 AM on January 13, 2008

This is a little like posttraumatic stress syndrome for you. Your brain has learned to associate being alone with some pretty significant trauma and stress.

The good news is this is something that can be unlearned. A start mignt be to realize that although what you experienced was unpleasant, you did survive it and you did somehow manage to cope.
posted by konolia at 5:33 AM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

i would certainly seek counseling, if you can. that must have been a terribly frightening experience, and i'm sure your mother's illness didn't help. it would be natural for that to have marked you deeply.

that said, if counseling is outside your budget, all the above advice is good--being a mentor or working for a nonprofit are great ideas, and becoming a regular at a coffee shop or bar really does give you a sense of belonging--but here are two more:

get a pet. a dog or a cat, whichever you like. it sounds silly, but they have real personalities and you really do bond with them.

take some above advice a little further: go somewhere alone for a week. take a camera and keep a journal. write down every thought, every fear, every method you use to address the fear, and if/how well it works. by the end of the week, you should feel somewhat better and have some strategies to help you in the future.

good luck. counseling really is probably the most effective step, though, so look into it. there may be low-cost or sliding-scale mental health resources in your area.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:40 AM on January 13, 2008

I take Ving Tsun kung fu, and part of what I love about it is the rudimentary human contact it provides. Unlike yoga classes in which it seems like everyone is isolated in their own little boxes and people rarely talk, in kung fu drills you face each other and interact physically, essentially using each other as work-out equipment. Often people have low-key conversations during their workout, because, hey, you're facing and touching another human being, and it just makes sense. While there is the opportunity to socialize, there is certainly no pressure to, and even if you barely speak to another student, you will have at least physically interacted and felt surrounded by a supportive presence. And, you'll learn kung fu.
posted by hermitosis at 7:30 AM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

two things: start making notes about when you last called people and things like that. it will show you who you've been perhaps pestering too much and who you should say hi to again. this is especially handy with people you are just getting to know. you don't want to call five times in two days after one date. I know patience is difficult but try it.

secondly, get an ipod and start listening to some podcasts when you feel lonely and abandoned. something like this studio 360 episode keeps me occupied when I am walking somewhere and have nobody to talk to for a moment. you want to keep your brain occupied and stop it from mindlessly wandering around. that's when you go off the reservation.
posted by krautland at 7:57 AM on January 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

You might find this interesting to read.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:21 AM on January 13, 2008

This is probably not the best advice you will get but it's the best I can do. If you are an adult having abandonment issues, you are not alone. As far as feeling 'alone', there is nothing really to get yourself feeling "okay" about until you safely tell the people in your family how much they hurt you when you needed them as a child. People are supposed to protect their children and not leave them alone. They way you were treated was very unfair and you didn't deserve to be treated that way. Your feelings should be important to you, even if they aren't to anybody else. Things will be hard and you will be lonely but please remember there are more people than you can imagine who are feeling exactly as humiliated as you feel...and they are unable to imagine a way out. It just takes time and perseverance on your part, as you search for peace and leave the bad days in the past. I'm not going to suggest journaling or counseling or exercising or stuff like that because if you decide to do one of those but don't follow through then you will have a whole new excuse to feel awful about yourself and your situation. All you are trying to do is get along here. I suspect you are also depressed, which is a good reason (besides all the obvious other ones) not to get into drugs or alcohol use...people have made some seriously awful choices when they are depressed. Go to the library, where you can sit amongst all the other people being alone for whatever reason and look at books and reflect on the greatest gift we can give ourselves or receive from anybody: being here now. It's okay to feel alone as long as you don't forget how much company you have got.
posted by mamaraks at 9:00 AM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Here's a thought to entertain: Unless you're stranded on an island in the middle of nowhere you're not really "alone." Even then you could always name a volleyball Mr. Wilson and not be alone then either. What I mean to get across is, look around you. There are people all over this world 24/7...some of them very close to your coordinates on earth. Talk to them.

I don't mean for that to sound demeaning at all. I struggled with the same issues as well, until I realized it was simply just a mental block...and not a tall one either, I could step over it easily "if I chose to." The reality is, and you won't like to hear this but its true, that everyone you know and have become friends with has a potential of going away. I think I'm getting a crash course on this yearly now because I work on a campus and the friends I make graduate and move halfway across the planet for a new job. (I keep in touch with maybe a 3rd). But even though these friends go...I don't feel alone. I know that each day there's a potential to meet someone new.

You're going to have to be tough on yourself to break out of the line of thinking you're in. The abandonment is real, but at the same time its not what defines you as a person. Look beyond those fears and enjoy the moments you're in. You're bound to find close friendships that last a lifetime. Also try tricking yourself into enjoying the time spent in solidarity (a lot of people would cherish that, in a prince and pauper kind of way).
posted by samsara at 10:56 AM on January 13, 2008

How can I learn to enjoy my own company more?

Smile at yourself in the mirror. Try to get out of your comfort zone and do new things around the house. Be out in sunlight if possible. Find some interesting hobbies that you can do by yourself. Reading, writing can get very boring very fast. Try some physically demanding hobbies like hiking and mountain biking.
Finding your own motivators to go and do is something that will take inner strength. It sounds like you need to get to know yourself more... And there is nothing better than sitting with a pad and pen in silence. It can lead to anything.
posted by KB.Boston_implant.By way of NY at 4:14 PM on January 13, 2008

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