Takeaways From My Week Solo
Since I became a parent 11 years ago, I’ve spent a night or two at a time home alone, with the company of the family dog. So, it was with some uncertainty when I bid farewell to my family, who were heading out on a week-long trip. The same day, I had to take our pregnant dog to stay with her breeder’s family to deliver her puppies (confused? I know. It’s a long story. Look up breeding dog guardianship).
I had been mentally preparing for a week completely alone in my house for some time. Truth be told, I enjoy time alone. I’ve welcomed one night or a weekend alone in the past. Somehow, I knew this might be different, though, given the length of time and the lack of pet companionship.
The first three days were easy and enjoyable, albeit strange. It was the weekend, so I watched movies nobody else was interested in. I cooked food only I wanted to eat. I cleaned my house and had friends over. I was free to make my own choices and do things at my own pace. Day four shifted, and I began the counselor self-talk: Be mindful! Lean into what is uncomfortable! Be curious about it! What can I learn from this? [appropriate smirk here]. By the evening of day five, I had this on internal repeat, all while breathing through a mild but constant state of unsettledness. I was lonely, and I stayed in a state of loneliness until my family returned.
While my snapshot experience of being alone is far from the authentic reality of living alone, here’s what I learned that I believe to be worth consideration on the topic of loneliness:
1. Difficulty. Being alone can be hard. Loneliness affects us all, from time to time. Recent studies report one in five persons in America report feeling lonely or socially isolated. I knew ahead of time I needed to plan for face-to-face social connections with friends or family. Yet, I still felt lonely as time passed.
2. Commonplace. Periods of loneliness are a normal part of life. I was uncomfortable in my loneliness and I didn’t enjoy it, but it did not harm me. I was not in danger. A healthy level of discomfort can spur growth in new perspectives, self-knowledge, action, and resilience. It is when loneliness becomes chronic that it may have significant negative effects on our health and quality of life.
3. Empathy. New and challenging experiences can also grow us in our empathy for others. I experienced only a sliver of what it’s like to live alone and FEEL alone, but it’s opened my heart to something I can connect with at a deeper level when I encounter people who do live alone or feel alone. In this short video, Brené Brown says empathy is “feeling with people”, meaning “in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” I desire to be mindful of this experience and take deeper notice of the people in my life that are alone, on a personal and professional level.
4. Honesty and vulnerability. Past experiences that have resulted in a sense of isolation have taught me that I can let pride get in the way of honesty and vulnerability. When my life gets hard, I tend to stay quiet and unintentionally isolate. My rationale has always been that I deeply dislike pity and platitudes, and I struggle with thinking others may view me as a failure. Keeping quiet and pretending everything is fine had been my default solution. Short story: this method does not work if I want to stay healthy and connected during difficulty. So, even though this experience of loneliness was short-lived and relatively minor, I practiced honesty and vulnerability. I told people I trust that I was having a bit of a hard time. This alleviated the weight of the loneliness and avoided any sense of self-judgment or developing shame (What is wrong with me? Why am I having such a hard time? I’m ridiculous). Plus, I continue to practice, so that when the significantly difficult times come again, I’ll be primed for honesty and vulnerability.
5. Intention. Having plans and intentions for my days alone helped me, particularly for the days that I didn’t have built in structure (like work). Otherwise, I know myself well enough to know I’d end up on the couch, mindlessly watching tv for hours on end, feeling miserable, and struggling to choose how else to spend my time. Some of us are better at going with the flow and finding things to do on a whim without plans, but having intention for the day, however that takes shape, is helpful.
6. Action. I initiated most of the social interactions during my time alone. It is easy to fall into the “should” trap and believe that people “should” know that I’m home alone, so they “should” know that I may be lonely, and therefore “should” be the ones to reach out to me. This is not reality-based. We all get wrapped up in our lives and unintentionally assume everybody else is doing fine or has other people in their lives to fill the gaps. Nobody “should” assume what I’m feeling or “should” know that I want them to ask me to do something. I believe it’s my responsibility to act within the areas of my life that I can control. I was fortunate that the interactions I initiated came to fruition, but it was just as likely that my family and friends may not have been available, and I would have needed to consider other options or coping plans. I’m certain that I’d have little to no people-time had I not asked. There is no shame in saying we need and want to spend time with people. I acknowledge this sets up the possibility of rejection, but there is no possibility for connection without an attempt to seek it.
7. Gratitude. While this experience was short lived, I don’t want to let it pass by without significance. I opened my heart up to the gratitude I have for my family. I told them how much I missed them and how much I’m grateful for them. I’m grateful for friends I can be honest and vulnerable with. I’m grateful for my experience of spirituality: a loving God that is always with me , reminding me I’m never truly alone. I’m grateful I can stay home alone and feel safe and free from danger. I’m grateful for the sun that shined nearly the entire time I was home alone. I’m grateful for the brief encounters I had with people in stores, neighbors on the road, neighboring sheep and chickens, clients and coworkers. All opportunities for connection, which became small pieces of significance when I took time to notice them.
Many of us may not have healthy or reliable support systems. We may be coping with the reality of loneliness through no fault of our own. Regardless of the reason, if you are struggling with loneliness and isolation, consider in what ways you can influence and change your experience and circumstances. It can certainly be scary, particularly for those who’ve dealt with rejection, loss, and trauma. Find a class or meet-up group that interests you, be it exercise, education, or hobby. If you attend a place of worship, join a small group or service team. Volunteer for an organization that aligns with your passions. Connect with an old friend. Ask a co-worker or an acquaintance to coffee or to go for a walk. Reflect on what contributes to your loneliness and isolation. Consider counseling as a means to experience support, increase self-understanding, and problem-solve. Take the first step, whatever you choose it to be!