Alone, not lonely: how to reframe your isolation mindset

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In the hyper-connected world we live in, solitude is deeply undervalued. And yet thanks to a rapidly escalating plotline that would be more at home in a sci-fi movie than real life it’s now becoming the norm. 

Around 20% of the world’s global population is currently under lockdown due to coronavirus, including a significant number who are living entirely alone. For this demographic, those hilarious “I’m isolating with my wife and child!” memes hold no meaning. 

Instead, an unknown period of alone time awaits, in a situation that is forced by pinballing world events. Even for those of you who are quite comfortable flying solo, it’s a challenge.

It is, however, still possible to make meaning out of this time, and use it as a period of self-investment. Here’s how:

Lonely versus alone

The first step is to consider the difference between being lonely and alone. Loneliness is a state of mind that is not necessarily connected to being socially isolated. 

Of course, you may feel lonely because you’re physically alone. But equally, you may be surrounded by people in life, yet still feel isolated and unhappy. 

As happiness expert Gretchen Rubin explains in Psychology Today: “Loneliness feels draining, distracting, and upsetting; desired solitude feels peaceful, creative, restorative.”

The question is how to re-calibrate your inner bubble so that you move from one state to the other. This isn’t purely internal, either: there are practical steps you can take to kickstart the emotional process. 

Develop a routine

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Routines are a really good way of anchoring yourself in the present: in times of massive insecurity, they give back an element of control.

“Humans are habitual creatures, our habits create our mood and our mood considerably impacts our daily life,” says writer Jasmin Oliver, in this Medium article. “Our daily routine is the heart of our habitual character. Without routine you will find unproductivity, impulsivity, and feelings of confusion.”

Psychologist Bella DePaulo has written extensively about living alone, and the benefits of single life. She’s currently self-isolating in California, and – while she admits it’s harder than she imagined – routine is helping. 

“I find cocooning comforting and familiar,” DePaulo writes in Psych Central. “My everyday routines are about what they have always been, except that they are no longer punctuated with the occasional lunches or dinners or other get-togethers.”

If you’re feeling a bit queasy about being home alone, dig deep with your routines. Make sure you make time for all the essentials every day, including sleep, cooking and eating, exercise, social activity (of the virtual persuasion), work and, of course, the old Netflix/Margarita combo – needs must, after all.

Work on a project

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Solitude comes with a lot of powerful benefits (resilience and productivity among them) but probably the foremost perk is the ability to recharge and find head space. 

Being alone is a rare quality in these frenetic times we live in, and it won’t go on forever. Hard as it is to imagine at this point, life will return to normal as scientists and doctors make headway in the fight against coronavirus. 

In the meantime, however, if you’re living alone, this period is alight with possibilities. While others are playing referee to a gang of shrieking kids, you can make the most of the time to recharge your batteries or make headway on that project you’re forever sidelining.

Want to repaint your living room? Go for it. Got an urge to build a remote control car? The world is your oyster. Fancy making a start on that novel you always dreamt of writing? There are so many creative writing tutorials out there, just waiting to inspire and delight.

You could go one level beyond and use this exercise by Instagram therapist Lisa Olivera to consider (more deeply than you ever have before) who you are in life, and whether you’re properly asserting what it is that you want. 

Shakespeare and Sir Isaac Newton are just a few honorary names who came up with game-changing work in periods of self-isolation. Where will your project lead you?

Reach out to your community

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We’re primed to gallivant through life in packs, but that pack mentality isn’t exactly conducive to sensitivity. In fact, one Harvard study found that periods of solitude are likely to make us more empathetic towards others. 

In part, this may be because we need restful time alone to be able to connect more fully, and be better social animals when we do interact. And in part, it’s because when we operate outside a social setting, we lose the “we versus them” mentality.

 “When people are experiencing crisis, it’s not always just about you: It’s about how you are in society,” Jack Fong, a sociologist at California State Polytechnic University, tells The Atlantic.

“When people take these moments to explore their solitude, not only will they be forced to confront who they are, they just might learn a little bit about how to out-maneuver some of the toxicity that surrounds them in a social setting.”

One way to shift your mindset in isolation is to consider your role within your community. Can you arrange a biweekly Skype with that friend who’s feeling depressed? What about delivering groceries for your elderly neighbour? You may have to be socially distant, but you can strengthen your ties more than ever via local support groups and video apps. 

Not only will this tap your reserves of empathy, the act of being kind will make you feel better, too: it will help you to look out (rather than inwards at your own problems), and reinforce your self-image as a good, useful person.

Be more present with yourself

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We define ourselves by social markers, which is why time alone (even when it’s imposed) can have a really profound effect. 

“Without solitude, it is easy to feel pushed around by life, like we’re always just reacting to the latest thing, or like we’re not in control, because, in some sense, we are not,”  says Matthew Bowker, a psychoanalytic theorist and solitude researcher Medaille College.

“Or, we can end up feeling fake, like we are just ‘going through the motions,’ which is a kind of emptiness. I think this emptiness is part of why so many people are depressed, or experience something like depression, today: We don’t have enough time, throughout our lives, to be with ourselves, and so we feel that something important inside us is getting lost.”

Time alone – true, uninterrupted solitude – is a chance to strengthen your sense of identity in a way that is not influenced by any other people at all. It may not feel comfortable at first. You may really try and resist it, or feel deeply anxious (check out a quick grounding technique for those moments here). But if you can push through, you can rediscover your purpose in a way that’s pretty powerful. 

And if that all sounds like mumbo jumbo to you, remember this. Time alone can feel really unnerving, especially when you don’t have an end point in sight for it. So, resist the temptation to look ahead. Stay in the present, stay busy, help others, be kind to yourself and know that –  even with all the weird things that may be churning up inside – you’ll emerge stronger on the other side. 

Images: Artem Beliaikin, Christin Hume, Freddy Castro, Leonie Wise and Ümit Bulut on Unsplash

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