The Subtle Art of Being Alone
Sitting on a round Spanish table eating my Spaghetti Bolognese on a humid night in Girona, I had never felt more self-conscious or alone. I had been travelling around Europe for 6 weeks with my best friend, but after a few tense days, we had chosen to go our separate ways for a short time to clear our minds. In retrospect, being alone in Girona for that time really allowed me to see the city and take everything in from a different perspective. At the time though, thoughts of loneliness and self-judgement spiralled around my unsettled mind. I had gone out for dinner that night with the specific intention of feeling comfortable eating alone. Book in one hand and travel journal in the other, I was armed for success. As I sat there reading Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, I could barely concentrate with the incessant thoughts racing around my head. I became acutely aware of everyone around me. If they happened to glance in my direction I automatically adjusted my posture to my ‘I’m super comfortable and eat alone all the time’ pose. My friendly waiter made a point of chatting to me every time he walked past my table. Instead of making me feel more comfortable, a voice of judgement resounded in my mind, ‘he’s only talking to you because he feels sorry for you, because you’re alone’. I shovelled the spaghetti unceremoniously into my mouth and hastily left the restaurant, ignoring my craving for the gelato I’d been planning to have for dessert. As I walked home ashamed of my failed effort, I regretted the decision to leave my friend so soon and resigned myself to the idea that maybe I just wasn’t one of those people that’s good at being alone.
For most of my young life I was surrounded by people. My family was the type to all be in the one room of the house all of the time, enjoying each other’s company and bantering constantly. My university life was very similar, living in share houses with friends, I never had to worry about being by myself. It wasn’t until I began my Physio career in Sydney, a city where I knew few people, that I first realised that being alone was a chore that I didn’t enjoy. I have a specific memory of being on my Physio orthopaedic rotation, having a discussion with my senior who had recently moved to Sydney herself. We talked about being invited to parties and events where you only knew one or two people and the confidence it takes to approach others to start a conversation. I decided that my goal was to feel confident and comfortable being my myself, whatever the situation.
It’s been a long journey of learning to really be with myself, but here in 2018 I can truthfully say that I am 100% comfortable being alone. What truly precipitated the change for me was the ending of a relationship with a boyfriend. We had been living together with another housemate and there was rarely a time that I had to be alone with myself. My two best friends occupied most of my social circle, with catch-ups and events multiple times per week, and my workplace was a large hospital where the only place you would be by yourself was in the bathroom. There was rarely a moment in my life where I had to go outside my comfort zone, and I liked it that way.
Our break-up was sudden and happened in the middle of the night, resulting in my rushing to my besties house, never to spend a night at our house again. The timing of this event was terrible, with one of my closest friends having left just a few days earlier for a 6-week trip to Canada, and my other friend, who’s house I was staying at, was due to leave for a trip to America in two days’ time. After she left I had never felt more alone in my life. Everything that I had come to rely on had crumbled away in an instant and there were times where I lay on the ground, gripping it tightly to find some sort of stability and reassurance that I wasn’t going to fall. Whilst this was undoubtedly one of the most drastic challenges I had faced, being homeless, broke, and temporarily friendless all at the same time, I honestly am so grateful for the experience now looking back.
Slowly but surely, I remembered all of the things about myself that I had forgotten. I wrote a list of all of the activities that I enjoyed, and I slowly went about doing them all – by myself. I took myself out for brunch, to the movies, to the park. I went to art galleries and on long walks around the city. I listened to podcasts and read books, sang loudly in the shower, and watched Netflix in bed. All of the things that up until this point I had relied on others being available to do the things I loved with me, I now conquered on my own. I won’t lie to you, at the beginning it was anything but easy. It was terrifying and hard, and I felt like my heart was being ripped from my chest every-time I thought about the last time I had done these activities with my now ex-boyfriend. But there was no other choice - the only way was forward, and so I continued on. When my friends came back from their holidays the relief I felt was immense, and I found a balance between spending time with them and doing things on my own that I enjoyed. I began to have moments where I actually preferred being alone, saying no to invitations when I felt I needed space for myself to recharge and recalibrate.
Over one year on and I am more myself than I have ever been. I have developed a deep understanding of who I am, and a knowing that I will be okay no matter what happens. I now cherish the moments that I get to spend on my own, using that time to check in with myself and understand what it is that I need. In our society today, we are so connected to one another through a multitude of mediums that we often forget to sit with ourselves for enough time to understand our deepest selves and to know what we truly want. Even though being alone can sometimes be uncomfortable, you will never regret getting to know yourself more.
If I can impart one pearl of wisdom on anyone who happens to be reading this, it would be to relax, smile, and simply be where you are. Don’t let it take a dramatic life event to precipitate spending more time alone. Instead ease into it and trust that one day you’ll get to a point where you are truly comfortable and may even enjoy the subtle art of being alone.