After living away from home for almost two years now, I have become more aware of how often I find myself physically alone. I came to realize that making time to see friends is not the same as waking up every day to see my family or constantly interacting with the same group of people in high school. Being in college means that I could spend hours upon hours on a regular day without having any meaningful interactions with others, and in these moments, I find myself falling prey to loneliness. Regardless of what stage we are at in our lives, everyone at some point has spent lengths of time being alone. However, being alone does not need to equate with feeling lonely.
Spending time away from others provides us with the opportunity to learn more about ourselves and gives us time as well as space to grow. This allows us to focus on self-care, gives us a chance to explore our interests, and increases our productivity in school or the workplace. Rather than filling up our schedules with plans in attempts to counter our loneliness, we must use our alone time to form a deeper relationship with ourselves so that we can also form deeper relationships with others.
We must make a distinction between being alone and feeling lonely. The physical act of being alone does not automatically equate to the feeling of loneliness. You could find yourself physically alone and feel lonely, but you could also be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. This loneliness may stem from many different factors including one’s stage in life, socioeconomic status, gender, and personality. Research has shown that loneliness can have negative effects on one’s overall health. In older adults, loneliness is associated with impaired daytime functioning, reduced physical activity, lower subjective well-being, and poorer physical health. It is with good reason that we try to avoid loneliness. Conversely, it is possible to be physically alone and feel as if you are in good company. We need this alone time to build a secure relationship with ourselves.
In our attempts to avoid loneliness, we may find ourselves trying to spend every waking moment with others, never leaving time to be by ourselves. The social stigma around being alone and being seen alone is also a reason why many people are afraid to spend time with themselves. During my freshman year of college, I remember being afraid to eat a meal alone. If my roommate or friends were not with me, I would not think to sit in the dining hall in fear of being seen by myself. Research has shown that this fear, along with the thought that people are constantly watching and judging, explains why we may feel apprehensive about enjoying these solo activities. Overthinking how others are perceiving us and worrying about being judged can stop us from doing things that can otherwise be enjoyable, even if done alone.
We, as humans, are social creatures, but we also need the time and space to focus on ourselves. Spending time alone is crucial for a well-functioning social life in which we are able to contribute to relationships as much as we are gaining from them. If we are constantly using our energy on others, we become dependent on them to feel fulfilled. This over-dependence on others can make it difficult to be alone and often leads to feelings of loneliness.
The first step to combating loneliness is spending time away from others to become familiar with being alone yet present. Physically being alone, however, is not an instant cure for loneliness. Even when physically alone, I often find myself scrolling through social media and not giving myself the opportunity to only be with my thoughts. When we allow ourselves to be fully present in our solitude, we can learn more about ourselves through self-reflection. Taking time to understand our thoughts, feelings, and experiences gives us insight into what kind of person we are and what we need to feel fulfilled. This leads to the next step of finding activities that we enjoy doing by ourselves. For me, going on long walks on a nice day or cooking a meal are activities that I can enjoy alone and allow me to reflect. Even though I am physically alone when doing these things, I still feel that I am in good company because I have created a comfortable and engaging environment for myself. Once we give ourselves the time and space to form a deeper relationship with ourselves in which we understand our needs and desires, we can strengthen our relationship with others.
I did not appreciate it at first, but college has given me the opportunity to spend time by myself and learn more about who I am as a person. Loneliness can be unavoidable at times, but it helps to feel assured in your relationships with others. Just remember to first give yourself the time and space to secure your relationship within.