When I was in college, sitting in coffee shops was one of my favorite “extracurricular” activities. With a soy mocha in hand, I would marvel as people milled about: like a chessboard of human connection, each man and woman had found his or her respective mate. Mothers playfully engaged their toddlers. Student groups gathered to study for final exams. While surrounded by such activity, my own feelings were somewhat eclipsed by the notion that my coffee shop outings fulfilled some arbitrary quota for social interaction. The truth, though, was that my loneliness was real, and no amount of superficial exposure to others could change that.
I’ve always needed a great deal of alone time to dissect my thoughts and evaluate my experiences. I possess many of the telltale signs of introversion: exhaustion from large social situations, avoidance of small talk, etc. As a child and adolescent, I felt relatively comfortable as a self-identified introvert, but I became increasingly self-conscious of this attribute as I grew older. Instead of valuing alone time, I began to lambaste myself for a perceived reclusiveness–something I had always been taught to avoid–and by the time I reached college, I was desperate to shed that identity. The problem wasn’t that I enjoyed time to myself; rather, it was that I framed this enjoyment under the context of loneliness as opposed to being alone.
None of us are immune to feeling lost: a sense of groundlessness and uncertainty are in fact indications that we’re evolving and living our best selves. When we’re feeling this way, there’s a certain solitude that is often attached to loneliness. We wake up each day and think to ourselves, “If only I were surrounded by people who truly understood me. Then I’d feel less lonely.” But seeking comfort from the others isn’t the solution, ultimately. It’s putting too many conditions on your sense of fullness. There are never enough external distractions to alleviate feelings of loneliness.
In the end, the key to feeling full (for me) was to shift my paradigm. Instead of fighting the urge to write or read on a Friday night, I began to accept it as alone time. Instead of sitting in bustling cafes, I stayed in my apartment to embrace the quiet and tranquility. “Lonely” was so often a bad word in my vocabulary, but when I opened to the possibility that I simply enjoyed spending time alone, my perspective shifted. Ironically, by allowing time to sit with myself, I became more eager to form meaningful relationships with others. It’s never an easy feat to give ourselves permission to enjoy something we’ve fought hard against, but I promise it’s worth it. Next time you’re feeling lonely, consider that you might just be seeking time alone.
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Photo: Stephen Brace