There’s no correct amount of solitude, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but cultivating a relationship with yourself is the same as any other friendship
I’m awful at spending time alone. Most of my time is spent with my partner and small friendship group, however when I do spend time alone I always find myself wishing there was someone else there with me and feeling lonely. How can I combat this?
I’d really like to feel comfortable in my own company, especially considering my social circle is quite small.
Eleanor says: People can get oddly moralistic about sending time alone, like there’s a set amount that’s Good For You. Too little and people assume you’re running from yourself (Schopenhauer: man can be himself only when he is alone); too much and you look like a solipsistic ass who thinks their own company is superior to everyone else’s.
In fact the “correct” amount of solitude is probably like the correct amount of work or sex: barring some radical extremes, it’s whatever makes you feel proud and content. So if you try to change this and find you can’t, don’t worry too much – there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with wishing for company just as there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with longing for pastures when you’re in the city, or music when there’s silence. Each of us needs a different amount of these things to make our minds feel fed and still.
You asked how you could start to combat this. I think the metaphor you used of spending time “in your own company” is illuminating. Solitude really does feel like company when it’s going well – your inner voice starts to feel like a dialogue, you learn things about yourself just like learning to read a friend. But we’d never expect to enjoy anyone else’s company just by turning up and sitting in silence, and often, that’s exactly how we expect to enjoy our own. The partner goes out or the regular routines are off for the night and we sit still in a big boring absence, wondering when it’ll start to feel like Walden.
Instead, try to build your relationship with yourself as you would with anyone else. Give yourself fun things to do together. Decide on a start time for a commitment like a class or a meal and chat afterwards about how it was. Do something abjectly silly to see if you can make yourself laugh – anything that mirrors how you’d build a relationship with a friend. Having activities for your personality to bounce off will make solitude feel more like being in your own company and less like just being alone. It helps to keep hands occupied and screens off (but background audio can help the mind wander).
One of the joys of this approach is you get to see sides of yourself you normally wouldn’t. When we’re with other people all the time, we only experience the parts of ourselves that emerge with those people – the traits forged by our particular dynamic. It can be fun to do things alone that bring out other parts of you – if you’re always responsible, do something silly; if you’re always high-energy, try to be still. You might find you hate being those ways, but it’s useful to play with the possibility that you can.
Finally, try to treat this like any other skill: start small, don’t be defeated when it doesn’t happen all at once, and write down why you want to be better at it so you can revisit those reasons when your motivation starts to flag.
Try not to think of solitude as just time spent with yourself. Try to think of it as something liberating: a chance to be what you aren’t around other people, and a chance to do whatever you’d like.