ELLE (UK) - - Contents - Otegha Uwagba is the founder of Women Who and the au­thor of Lit­tle Black Book: A Tool­kit For Work­ing Women

Otegha Uwagba ex­plores the joy of time spent alone

One of the most en­joy­able meals I’ve ever had was eaten en­tirely on my own. At the height of last sum­mer’s World Cup-in­duced foot­ball fever, I fled to Barcelona for a four-day solo trip, seek­ing refuge from Lon­don’s beer-soaked streets. Sit­ting down to din­ner on my first night – at a restau­rant I’d cho­sen with­out hav­ing to con­sult any­one – I could barely sup­press the shimmy of ex­cite­ment that threat­ened to up-end my mother’s child­hood rule of ‘no danc­ing at the din­ner ta­ble’. You see, while eat­ing out with friends is un­doubt­edly one of life’s great plea­sures, it’s al­most al­ways a ne­go­ti­a­tion of sorts. Lux­u­ri­at­ing in the free­dom of be­ing able to or­der ex­actly what I wanted, I went all out, or­der­ing plate af­ter plate. Would the lady like to see the dessert menu? Why, yes, she would, and she’ll have the crème brûlée, thank you very much.

The older I get (I’m 28), the more I’ve come to ap­pre­ci­ate soli­tude, and even to ac­tively seek it out – which is some­thing I’d never have en­vis­aged in my early twen­ties, when trav­el­ling as part of a gag­gle of rau­cous women was my usual modus operandi. In re­cent years I’ve been known to de­cline movie in­vi­ta­tions for no other rea­son than I pre­fer go­ing to the cin­ema alone (no need to share your pop­corn), and I en­joyed more than my fair share of solo pic­nics dur­ing last sum­mer’s heat­wave. As for hol­i­day­ing by my­self, I find the headspace and en­su­ing clar­ity I gain from a few days spent away from friends and fam­ily to be en­tirely trans­for­ma­tive. And it ap­pears that – par­don the pun – I’m not alone in that, with the num­ber of women in the UK look­ing for solo hol­i­days hav­ing risen over the past three years. In 2O17 alone, 42,OOO women booked hol­i­days on their own, com­pared to 23,OOO men, which flips the stereo­type of the in­trepid solo ex­plorer be­ing a rugged male fig­ure rather neatly on its head.

Em­brac­ing soli­tude has made me both hap­pier and saner. I’ve be­come far more aware of my own value and less will­ing to tol­er­ate toxic be­hav­iour from friends or lovers, safe in the knowl­edge that I am per­fectly com­fort­able be­ing on my own and don’t need to sus­tain re­la­tion­ships out of ne­ces­sity. As a long-term sin­gle­ton, I take pride in the fact that learn­ing to be happy on my own will likely stand me in good stead in fu­ture re­la­tion­ships, given that I’ve watched one too many friends dis­ap­pear into the clutches of co-de­pen­dence once they’ve shacked up with a guy. Be it mooching around an art ex­hi­bi­tion or star­ing out of an air­plane win­dow, those soli­tary mo­ments have also given me a chance for in­tro­spec­tion. I feel like I know my­self now bet­ter than I ever have – and I ac­tu­ally like my­self more, too. Not that the ben­e­fits of soli­tude are ex­clu­sive to sin­gle­tons: one of my edi­tors de­scribes a re­cent solo trip to Italy with­out her boyfriend as feel­ing like ‘the ul­ti­mate lux­ury’, re­count­ing how sur­prised she was by the num­ber of friends who told her they wished they were do­ing the same.

But don’t just take my word for it: var­i­ous stud­ies have shown there to be enor­mous psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional ben­e­fits to oc­ca­sional soli­tude. When I ask Jack Fong, a Cal­i­for­nia-based pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy, why that is, he ex­plains that ‘soli­tude forces peo­ple to con­front them­selves and de­velop an un­der­stand­ing of the self’. Dr Matthew H Bowker, a spe­cial­ist in psy­cho­anal­y­sis, says much the same, sug­gest­ing that ‘with­out soli­tude, we can’t re­ally know our­selves, and so we can’t act in ways that ex­press who we re­ally are’.

Both pro­fes­sors cite the pres­sures of mod­ern life as an added rea­son that soli­tude is in­creas­ingly es­sen­tial. ‘We now live in a so­ci­ety of greater dis­trac­tions and “clut­ter”,’ Fong tells me. ‘We’re a cap­tive au­di­ence for the me­dia and ad­ver­tis­ers to bom­bard us with ex­pec­ta­tions to do this, be that, work on this, ex­pect that…’

Of course, em­brac­ing my more loner-ish ten­den­cies hasn’t all been smooth sail­ing. Be­ing a lone wo­man can, it seems, still be a source of sus­pi­cion, or at the very least con­fu­sion. On an­other re­cent solo hol­i­day, this time to Mex­ico, fel­low trav­ellers I en­coun­tered seemed so per­plexed upon hear­ing I was trav­el­ling alone that I even­tu­ally re­sorted to say­ing I was ‘meet­ing up with friends later in the trip’. Speak­ing to a friend who I’ve al­ways ad­mired on ac­count of her DGAF at­ti­tude when it comes to fly­ing solo, she sug­gests that per­haps this stigma stems from ‘women be­ing taught that our virtue lies in our abil­ity to not just find com­pan­ion­ship, but to main­tain it’. Still, if you’re feel­ing like you’re just not cut out for this, fear not. Bowker ar­gues that ev­ery­one can learn to en­joy soli­tude – with prac­tice. The more I travel alone, the more com­fort­able I feel do­ing it, and the more of it I re­solve to do.

Of course, there’s a huge dif­fer­ence be­tween choos­ing soli­tude and hav­ing it thrust upon you against your will – that way lone­li­ness lies. But as Black-ish ac­tress Tracee Ellis Ross has said, ‘It’s all a choice. My work as an adult has been mak­ing friends with the lone­li­ness, and ac­tu­ally com­ing to terms with the fact that I love it. And I now call it choice-ful soli­tude.’ Pro­vided you can strike the right bal­ance, you might just find em­brac­ing your in­de­pen­dence to be the most en­rich­ing thing you’ve ever done. And, who knows – maybe you’ll re­alise that, some­times, the very best com­pany is no com­pany at all.



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