LEARN TO LOVE LIVING ALONE
A guide to embracing single life.
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.