By Michael Kimmel | Life Beyond Therapy
I have lived alone many times, in many places, e.g.; Dayton, Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; Paris, London, New York City and San Francisco. I have also lived with many other people (not simultaneously) in places like New Haven, Connecticut; Panorama City, California; Yonkers, New York; Bath; England; Arhus, Denmark (that was a commune, but, I digress); and Valencia, Spain.
My point here is not to dazzle you with my international living situations, but to note that I have lived for many years on my own and almost as many years with a lover or friends.
Living alone, at age 22, in Dayton was awful. I was so lonely. It was my first job after college. I didn’t like Dayton, my job (personnel in a department store) or my apartment. After a few weeks there, I called my dad and begged him to let me come back to the little town where I grew up and work for him at his drugstore. I thought I wouldn’t be lonely there … at least, not this lonely.
Dad saw this request as the trap it was. Wisely, he said, “No. You need to stay in Dayton and get used to living on your own. This is part of growing up and it’s time you learned how to do it.”
Oh, how I hated him! I cursed him during those lonely nights. I cursed him until I begrudgingly realized that he was right. Living alone was something I needed to learn — a useful life skill — and despite my aversion to it, why not learn it now, rather than later?
I learned how to be alone. How to live alone. How to count on myself. How to make friends in a strange city. How to go to a bar/movie/restaurant on my own and be okay with it
As a psychotherapist, it is clear to me that many of my clients have not yet learned how to be alone. They equate being alone with loneliness. Nope. They’re not the same. Being alone is a situation. Loneliness is an emotional response to that situation. After all, you can be lonely in a crowd of people and perfectly content staying home alone all day.
In some social circles, being alone is looked down upon and pitied: you’re a loser. But anyone who’s ever been in a relationship knows that craving some alone time is a part of the deal. And many unhappy, long-term relationships are sustained by a fear of being alone. So, we stay with our partner and are miserable because the thought of being alone scares us so.
If you can’t be alone, you’re usually desperate to be with someone. This is what people describe as “clingy” or “needy.” Not very attractive, is it? Yet, this is just what we are tempted to become if we cannot be alone.
So, if you don’t like being alone, how can you get better at it? Start small. If you are terrified by the thought of spending time alone, respect that. Take little steps: go to a movie alone, take a walk on your own or simply stay off your phone for an hour. When feeling lonely comes up (and it inevitably will), instead of running from those feelings, get to know them. Look in the mirror and ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?” and listen to the answer you get.
This kind of fear can run your life. Don’t let it. Ask the person in the mirror, “What can I do for you to make you feel better right now?” This is one way to learn self-soothing skills. Being able to comfort yourself is a highly valuable life skill, whether you’re alone or not.
When you learn how to be alone, you’ll feel more solid and grounded, more faithful to yourself. Your self-knowledge and self-esteem will grow as you learn to love yourself (even your less-than-wonderful qualities) and you’ll never need to be with someone else out of desperation. You can choose to be with a friend or lover, depending on if it suits you (or not).
When you know how to be alone, you have many, many choices of how to live your life — all of them good, solid and strong.
— Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBT clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.