The Art of Being Alone
Going to a restaurant alone has always been one of my biggest fears. When I lived in Paris, a city notorious for being one of the most socially difficult to integrate, my fate seemed sealed. I only knew all of two people and my Anglophone Quebecer accent prompted a lot of sneers and puzzled faces from Parisians. Which clearly, wasn’t helping my pursuit of a social circle, or even more importantly to me, a dining companion.
I would walk by cafes and restaurants, longingly staring at the steak tartare or croissants, wondering if I would ever sum up the courage to just walk in and enjoy one of these French delicacies, on my own. At a table for one.
Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer and decided to challenge myself to try out a cute Japanese restaurant I’d been eyeing. A tiny dinner spot tucked away on a small winding street around the corner from the closet I now called home. This restaurant had no bar to sit at, and all the other patrons were perfectly coupled off. Then there was me, seated alone at a table with an empty chair in front of me. I let the feeling sink in. My first instinct was to scream internally, “THIS IS HORRIBLE.” Feeling as if the restaurant went completely silent and everyone turned to look at me, the freakish loner. All of a sudden I was blatantly aware of everything and everyone, my actions, my feelings and most importantly where was I suppose to look? In typical me-fashion, I burst out laughing a couple of times at how awkward this whole scenario made me feel.
Psychiatrist Abigail Brenner states, “For many of us, alone is a negative state of being. Society doesn’t help us with this either; being alone often carries a social stigma, implying isolation, being on the outside. This perceived sense of aloneness seems to suggest that being by one’s self is not volitional, that it’s not a choice we make but rather, an imposed state where a person is not socially engaged in the way that is somehow expected. Even further, it may imply that there is something wrong or defective with a person who remains alone.” Brenner confirms the notions that there is no surer way to make people feel sorry for you than to be seen doing activities alone. Not only does it inspire pity, it’s often perceived as antisocial and strange. But if you ask me, there is no better way to develop self-reliance, independence, and confidence than to nurture and cultivate the most important relationship you’ll have in your life, the one with yourself.
Think about it, when is the last time you did something completely alone?
Most recently, I went on a trip to a music festival in St-Martin on my own. Granted I was working my pop-up shop on the beach half the time but the other half I had to find ways to enjoy my own company. This concept did not come naturally for me. I forced myself to try enjoying my solitude and worked on calming my perpetually racing mind, and a few days in, my perspective shifted, and I discovered it was kind of cool.
I spoke to people I probably never would have spoken to and learned a ton from them. I spent time observing myself and my negative thought patterns until I just let go and put myself on the line and just opened up to people and the experience. I did get the occasional, wide-eyed “you’re-here-alone?” look of disbelief or the “where’s-your-boyfriend” comment, but otherwise, people were impressed and even a bit curious.
Do I love traveling alone? Not sure the word is love but I’m a firm believer in facing the things that scare you most. It’s bittersweet, emotionally painful at times, but being on your own in a foreign place is one of the best ways to get to know yourself and grow. You’re forced to face your fears alone, question your choices, rely solely on your ability to make decisions and judgment calls. No one is going to tell you what to eat or when or what time to wake up at or when you should leave the party. Complete freedom to listen to your intuition and inner voice and discover your likes and dislikes.
It took me a week to emotionally recover from that ten-day trip to St-Martin but it was worth every single akward moment, mostly for the change it effected in me. It left me feeling exposed, vulnerable and raw because I had to address certain parts of myself I had ignored for a long time.
It also gave me a chance to rewire how I viewed myself and to be whoever I wanted for that short period. I realized so much of my self-concept had been based on how my friends and peers view me. I’ve been through so many phases, and experiences that have allowed me to grow and shed layers and yet other people hold on to that dead skin as though it’s me. This past self is a part of my story, but it’s not who I am, and it’s so hard to let go of thinking you’re a certain way when that’s all other people see or want to see. I believe loneliness allows you to get to know yourself and be whoever you want at that moment. By having to make those everyday decisions as simple as what you want to eat or where you want to go or how you deal with any challenge, life throws your way you learn self-reliance, self-acceptance and you have the opportunity for self-realization.
I recently read a story about Simone De Beauvoir and how two years after she started dating Jean-Paul Sartre she felt herself lose her identity and sense of purpose. As a remedy, she took a job in the South of France for a year to be on her own. She would go on these long walks on weekends, for hours on end. They would get longer and longer, growing 8 hours and then 10 hours, and so on. She would hitch hike, end up in weird places, keep trekking, but always alone with nothing but her thoughts. Many of her friends urged her to stop because it was dangerous and in their eyes, she was losing her mind but honestly, it makes perfect sense to me; a cure to her identity ailments. To just walk with no purpose or plan or goal or companion. Going on long runs by myslef have given me a similar sense of self-connection. Your mind goes places you don’t give it a chance to when you are distracted by constant interruptions. Not to mention you can truly look around at the world and take in the present moment.
When you are alone, you start to hear yourself, pay attention to the self that isn’t concerned with pleasing people or worried about being ridiculed. You get to choose what you do and when and how.
Being alone is not only a key element of creativity, but it is an essential requirement for spiritual growth.
One of my best friends Lesley is an avid solo traveler. I always ask her a million questions on how she deals and she says as much as she enjoys it, there are moments when she still struggles. A man out of the blue at an art gallery in Portugal called her out on it and something he said stuck with me. He told her how obviously uncomfortable she was with being alone in public and that she just needed to accept her role as observer. It doesn’t matter that she wasn’t engaging with anyone and no one cared that she was there alone, so there was no need to be self-conscious. People are too absorbed with their conversations and insecurities to even notice. This phenomenon of overestimating how much people are paying attention to you called the spotlight effect, coined during an experiment by Gilovich, involves Barry Manilow t-shirts in the year 2000. It suggests that everyone is the center of their universe and while it feels as though everyone is watching, in fact, most people are obsessing over themselves. Especially today with selfies and social media, no one is watching you so might as well enjoy that time alone and welcome the opportunity to live in the moment.
Here’s some homework to help you reap the benefits of solitary adventures:
Go for a walk with no destination. Try living in the moment.
Take yourself out on a date. Coffee, dinner, movie, museum, concert. See how you feel. Observe others. Tell me where you put your hands because I still can’t figure that one out. But really, where do you put them unless you’re holding a drink in one and your phone in the other? Help.
Turn off your phone. Start with 1 hour, then two then 4 and see if you can work up to a couple of days of being detached. It’s madness how productive you’ll be. There’s something to say about uninterrupted thinking. And no cheating with iMessage and FB chat!
Travel alone. There’s nothing quite like being in a foreign country and having to fend for yourself. Just be careful about drunk wandering alone at night, I recommend taking cabs home and saving the solo walks for daytime.
Artwork by: Lesley Schouela
The self-love project is an ongoing series of articles written by Alice Kass founder Sabrina Cassis for the latest issue of WRG magazine, that explores the relationship we have with ourselves through a variety of different lenses. A mix of self-reflection and collaborative projects, the self-love project seeks to bring to light the importance of a mind-body-soul connection and spark an open dialogue on what it means to be a woman today.