“The future of our nation causes Americans more stress than any other topic.”
My boyfriend and I had an apartment together for about a year when he decided to move out, and I found myself living alone for the first time ever.
I’d been through breakups before—I’d even been through moving in with a partner and moving out before—but this time was different. This time, there were no other roommates to distract me, no family members to offer a listening ear. It was just me, alone with my thoughts. And I decided to start listening.
I am an extrovert. I thrive in sharing my feelings with others, and moments of silence are not my forte. When attending a church service with my family at age two, my response to the quiet prayer was to grab a hymnal, stand on the pew and start belting “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” I was scolded regularly for talking in class well into my college years. And coming from a family of eight siblings, crowds were not just a way of life, but also a comfort zone.
In the pain of my breakup, I felt myself relying on my extroverted tendencies as an attempt brush off my feelings. I packed my schedule with projects and parties, chats with friends and an unhealthy amount of social media usage. When I was home alone, the TV was on, and I would stare at my phone for hours until I fell asleep. In those first few weeks, I did everything I could to avoid being sad. But it was only when I stopped distracting myself that I was able to move on.
It can be very easy to lose touch with your inner self when you’re constantly surrounded by people. “If you want to find out how you really feel about something, you have to seclude yourself to some degree,” says Susan Cain, creator of Quiet Revolution, in her 2012 TED Talk. Cain encourages extroverts to integrate more alone time in their lives to achieve a mental balance. The truth was, I didn’t want to know how I really felt. I would have much preferred faking it until I made it, ignoring the problem until it went it away on its own. But deep down, I knew I needed to focus on myself. I knew that my emotional pain, just like any other pain, would need to be addressed in order to truly heal. And when I signed a lease on a studio apartment, I knew more alone time was coming. So I leaned into it.
“Just having other people around—even wonderful other people—can sap some of your cognitive and emotional resources,” writes social scientist and psychology professor Bella DePaulo, Ph.D. The distractions of other people, even if you love them, can be very emotionally taxing. And if you’re already depleted, how can you heal in times of stress? Referencing a theoretical article by Christopher Long and James Averill, DePaulo explains that disengaging with other people creates a sense of mental and physical freedom that can make you happier, less self-conscious, and even more creative.
DePaulo has devoted years to the study of alone time, writing books on the topic such as “Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After”. I spoke with her about how in our tech-heavy, hyperconnected world, it’s difficult to find alone time at all. “Anyone with [the] internet can be connected at any time, so living alone is not the same as being alone,” DePaulo explained. In fact, being alone takes some effort. In her research, DePaulo has traveled America interviewing people about how they find time for solitude. For many, it was simply creating a routine, like taking a long bath, waking up early, or even just walking their dog. “One person I spoke with saves one day a week for herself,” DePaulo recalled. “Sundays are her day–she does not see anyone else on that day.”
I did my best to create my own version of solitude, one that felt right for me. I started taking myself out to lunches, going on long walks around my new neighborhood, listening to sad music when I felt like it, and just taking time to think. I didn’t force myself to be social when I didn’t feel up to it. I didn’t try to silence my inner monologue. Instead, I treated myself like I would a good friend: I listened.
By reflecting on my relationship I was able to make peace with its end, and embrace my newfound independence. And on those nights when the worries in my mind were louder than ever, I addressed them each with an optimistic rebuttal. If I was nervous about work the next morning, I’d give myself an internal pep talk. If I felt lonely, I’d remind myself that I alone was enough. It was empowering.
This wasn’t just a simple choice, it was hard work. I had to modify my lifestyle and adopt the belief that just sitting with my feelings was worth my time. That I was worth my time. Almost immediately, I could feel my sense of self-starting to rebuild. I remembered who I was before my relationship, appreciated how much I’d grown, and began to lay the foundation for the person I would become.
I thought back to Cain’s TED Talk: “We have known for centuries about the transcendent power of solitude,” she says. The problem is, the world we live in doesn’t encourage much of it. It’s so easy to be constantly connected, and society tends to reward extrovertedness which can come at the cost of our self-reflection. But in times of emotional struggle, it’s especially important to carve out that alone time to retreat, unplug, and find out what you really need. Sure, time does heal all wounds, but just a little self-care can speed up the process and leave you with fewer scars.