LEARN TO LOVE LIV­ING ALONE

A guide to em­brac­ing sin­gle life.

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - JANE MATHEWS

WORLD­WIDE, MORE THAN 300 MIL­LION PEO­PLE live alone – and these num­bers are in­creas­ing. In many coun­tries, solo dwellers are the fastest grow­ing hous­ing ­de­mo­graphic.

Even if you rel­ish as­pects of liv­ing alone, such as ­hav­ing com­plete con­trol of the TV re­mote con­trol, chal­lenges come with the free­dom – like cook­ing for one and jug­gling fi­nances.

I didn’t choose to be alone. Few of us do. I fell into it post-di­vorce – not with an el­e­gant swan dive but with a grace­less belly flop. But now I have learnt not only to ap­pre­ci­ate it, but even to pre­fer it. I am happy, but it took a while to get here.

FOR ALL ITS PRE­CIOUS GIFTS of time and space, liv­ing alone comes with snakes as well as lad­ders. Our met­tle is tested every sin­gle day. Given our num­bers, liv­ing alone should be ‘The New Nor­mal’, but it doesn’t feel like it. We be­long to a dif­fer­ent tribe. There are times I have felt sheet-of-glass in­vis­i­ble and ­di­min­ished by a so­ci­ety where I don’t seem to tick the boxes.

We have to be tough, re­silient and learn to dig deep. I have de­vel­oped a pro­tec­tive cara­pace but am aware there is a fine line be­tween self-pro­tec­tion and com­ing across as de­fen­sive. It’s a bal­anc­ing act, and some­times it gets to me. Just when I’m hav­ing a great day, some­one might say some­thing thought­less in pass­ing, obliv­i­ous to its im­pact, which sends me into a tailspin. It can get tir­ing con­vinc­ing ev­ery­one (and some­times even our­selves) that we like liv­ing alone.

How­ever, I have learnt, em­brac­ing a cer­tain ethos can help make the most of liv­ing alone. The fol­low­ing seven tools can help you nav­i­gate the treach­er­ous shal­lows as well as the joys of solo liv­ing.

TOOL NO. 1 KNOW WHO YOU WANT TO BE

Pick three ad­jec­tives that cap­ture who you want to be. They will change over time, but it is use­ful to land them, as they set a plat­form of val­ues on which to base choices and ac­tions. If you have faced some hard times, throw in a cou­ple of up­lift­ing ones such as ‘pos­i­tive’, ‘coura­geous’, ‘kind’ and ‘ca­pa­ble’. Act like the per­son you want to be and even­tu­ally you be­come that per­son. Be the light you seek.

I HAVE LEARNT TO AP­PRE­CI­ATE LIV­ING ALONE, AND NOW I EVEN PRE­FER IT. I AM HAPPY, BUT IT TOOK A WHILE

TOOL NO. 2 YOU ARE IN CON­TROL OF HOW YOU RE­ACT

There will be many times when you will need to call on your in­ner re­sources to be strong and brave. You have to ac­cept that you can’t out­run neg­a­tive feel­ings. You have to con­front them, or align your­self with these feel­ings.

When you re­act im­pul­sively you give your power away. So, when some­one re­ally upsets me, I men­tally hold up a shield with a mir­ror on the side fac­ing them, to pro­tect my­self and demon­strate that it is about them, not about me. One of the most use­ful pieces of ad­vice given to me is that you can’t af­fect how peo­ple act to­wards you, or change cer­tain events, but you can con­trol how you re­act to them. You can’t change the di­rec­tion of the wind, but you can change the di­rec­tion of your sails.

It is how you re­act to your cir­cum­stances that de­ter­mines how you en­joy your solo life. My own sit­u­a­tion has shown me that hard times toughen you up. The grit in the oys­ter makes the pearl. So, when things go wrong – and they will – imag­ine them as a se­ries of cur­tains that you sweep aside to re­veal a stronger, wiser you.

TOOL NO. 3 BE WARY OF SO­CIAL ME­DIA

With tech­nol­ogy you are never re­ally alone un­less you choose to be, but some­how lone­li­ness feels more acute and poignant in this switched on, screen-filled, con­nected so­ci­ety. I can’t be the only per­son who feels pangs of envy, sad­ness or FOMO (fear of miss­ing out) while look­ing at smug Face­book post­ings as I sit at home, alone, on a Satur­day night.

I just know that I am not that lucky per­son laugh­ing in the bo­som of a jolly fam­ily gather­ing or soak­ing up the at­mos­phere in Paris with my hus­band. Block the er­satz friends and use tech­nol­ogy proac­tively, Skyp­ing or email­ing friends or join­ing a vir­tual com­mu­nity you are in­ter­ested in. Think about what so­cial me­dia adds to or de­tracts from your life and cut your cloth ac­cord­ingly.

TOOL NO. 4 CRE­ATE AN ANTI-LONE­LI­NESS TOOLKIT

Know what trig­gers the feel­ing of lone­li­ness for you and de­velop strate­gies ac­cord­ingly. Some­times lone­li­ness lances through you, trig­gered by a cou­ple whis­per­ing to­gether in a restau­rant, or com­ing home to a dark and silent house, or when no one meets you at the air­port, or just be­ing alone for a week­end. It’s dif­fer­ent for ev­ery­one.

Work out what makes you feel lonely, then set about de­vel­op­ing tac­tics to avoid those sit­u­a­tions, or brace your­self and de­ploy your anti-lone­li­ness toolkit.

Think of lone­li­ness as a door that opens onto other things that will make you feel bet­ter. What’s be­hind that door is very per­sonal, and what

works for one per­son won’t work for an­other. Only you know what works for you. Here are some thought starters:

• Ac­cess a mem­ory that makes you feel happy to your core.

• Have a go-to book you know you will get lost in. (I’m par­tial to Tintin!)

• Iden­tify a spe­cific TED talk or pod­cast that gives you a lift.

• Go to an art gallery.

• Fin­ish some­thing.

• Learn some­thing new from YouTube.

• Im­merse your­self in na­ture as best you can. Get out to the coun­try or go to your lo­cal park.

TOOL NO. 5 TOUGHEN UP WITH A TOTEM

We soloists are trapeze artists with­out a safety net. Crit­i­cism and hurt­ful com­ments can quickly knock us off bal­ance, and I am con­stantly sur­prised and dis­ap­pointed by how many of those there can be. Some come from strangers, oth­ers from friends or fren­e­mies. Most of these peo­ple don’t live by them­selves and don’t have an inkling of how they hurt us. That’s fine; life goes on. Hard times have a way of of­fer­ing an op­por­tu­nity for growth, even if it takes years to learn the les­son. Maybe for them as well.

We have to de­velop thick skin. Wrap your­self in a metaphor­i­cal cloak and watch the hurt re­pelled. I have learnt lessons in re­silience from wild an­i­mals and have adopted them as my un­of­fi­cial totems. One is ­bi­son. Here’s an in­ter­est­ing fact. When a bad snow­storm hits, bi­son are the only crea­tures that in­stinc­tively turn around and walk into it, know­ing it is the quick­est way through.

Re­search (and com­mon sense) shows that a pos­i­tive mind­set leads to pos­i­tive out­comes. Think about how you want to frame your day as soon as your feet touch the f loor in the morn­ing. The ex­perts have proven that it is hap­pi­ness that makes you suc­cess­ful, not the other way round.

TOOL NO. 6 FIND YOUR IKIGAI – YOUR PUR­POSE

In Ja­panese cul­ture, ev­ery­one has an ikigai, or rea­son to get up in the morn­ing. It’s a healthy pas­sion for some­thing that makes us feel life is worth liv­ing; a pur­pose, in other words. Find­ing or, more ac­cu­rately, un­earthing it helps give you di­rec­tion, like putting a des­ti­na­tion into Google Maps.

Not all of us have a huge mis­sion. In their book The ONE Thing, au­thors Gary Keller and Jay Pa­pasan ad­vise: “Think of it sim­ply as the ONE thing you want your life to be about more than any other. Try writ­ing down some­thing you’d like to ac­com­plish and then de­scribe how you’d do it. … Pick a di­rec­tion, start march­ing down that path and see how you like it. Time brings clar­ity and if you

find you don’t like it, you can al­ways change your mind. It’s your life.”

Of course things get tough. For ex­am­ple, my heart still con­tracts a lit­tle when I hear my­self squeak­ing a ‘thank you’ at the su­per­mar­ket check­out, not hav­ing spo­ken to a soul all day. When you have one of those mo­ments, re­pel and re­buff neg­a­tive thoughts with a dy­namic force. We need to di­min­ish their power or they will es­tab­lish a strong­hold. You choose the thoughts that cir­cu­late in your mind.

TOOL NO. 7 BE YOUR OWN GOOD COM­PANY, MO­TI­VA­TOR AND CHEER­LEADER

You spend more time with your­self than any­one else, so make sure you are good com­pany. I am lucky enough to en­joy my own com­pany, but if you don’t en­joy yours, what can you do to make it bet­ter?

There are times when I think that no one would miss me if I dis­ap­peared in a puff of smoke. That makes me feel lonely. Ra­tio­nally, I am sure they would and to re­mind my­self I keep a big scrap­book with lov­ing cards, let­ters and emails from friends and fam­ily. I am im­por­tant to them. I have it in writ­ing.

Peo­ple rarely give com­pli­ments or praise, so fill the vac­uum your­self. Don’t wait for oth­ers to say ‘well done’. Pat your­self on the back reg­u­larly. You are do­ing so well just putting one foot in front of the other.

When things threaten to over­whelm and you feel your lit­tle solo row­ing boat is tak­ing on wa­ter, keep things in per­spec­tive. What­ever trou­bles you are go­ing through only rep­re­sent a tiny dot on your line of life. In one year, or five, it will mat­ter less, or not at all. You are stronger than you think.

This is an edited extractfrom The Art of Liv­ing Alone and Lov­ing It by Jane Mathews, out now from Mur­doch Books.

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