Do you enjoy your own company? It’s a simple enough question, but before 2020, those of us who usually packed our calendars to their limits may have been stumped on the answer. But this year, we’ve had to confront head on our relationship with time spent alone.
For some, the solitude this year has been excruciating, breeding loneliness and carrying a serious impact on our mental health. Others have found alone time empowering – enjoyable even.
“I now love doing things on my own. I’ve learned to occupy myself and not be afraid of being on my own, whereas I previously used to just dread not being around people and not being around friends,” one 28-year-old, from London, tells HuffPost UK. “So while this year’s had its fair share of disasters, I’m actually quite grateful for what it taught me.”
So, how can more of us embrace spending time alone? And can doing that mitigate feelings of loneliness? We chat to our guests about this in the latest episode of our Am I Making You Uncomfortable? podcast – our last of 2020 – where we learn there’s a big difference between loneliness and being alone.
Disability advocate Shani Dhanda shares her experience of shielding this year and her advice for getting through periods of isolation, while Francesca Specter, founder of Alonement, talks about the benefits of choosing and celebrating time alone, for those of us who have access to that privilege.
We also hear from our listeners, who share their changing relationships with alone time throughout the pandemic. Here are just some of the things we learned.
Be proactive about it
You can’t expect to suddenly enjoy alone time, you have to be proactive about it, says Specter. A key part of this is scheduling solo activities in the same way you would a meet-up. Carve out time to watch your favourite show with your favourite snack, try out a new hobby, or visit a cafe alone. “A date with yourself is a date, that’s a valid plan that you can have in your diary,” Specter adds.
Forward planning may be particularly helpful if you’re planning to spend Christmas alone – or with just a partner or one friend – when you’d normally be in part of a big busy gathering. This might mean planning your menu, or scheduling in a festive run or bubble bath to start the day differently this year.
“That feeling of anticipation is important,” says Specter, adding that it can turn apprehension into excitement. “Being able to rewrite the rule book and break
away from tradition for one year is no bad thing, because there is opportunity.”
Don’t rely on your phone
Dhanda says spending a lot of time alone while she was in and out of hospital as a child prepared her for shielding during the pandemic. She didn’t have a phone to keep her occupied – and advises finding other ways to entertain yourself, rather than losing hours to unfulfilling scrolling.
“I didn’t have a mobile phone to keep me occupied, but I was really creative and loved making things,” she says. “It’s great to know the things that you enjoy, but be open-minded as well to trying your hand at different things. Whether that means baking all day long, gardening, reading, there’s so much out there.”
It’s okay to have a prop
The current tier rules in England mean you can no longer visit pubs, restaurants and cafes with those outside of your household in most areas of the country. This could make it the perfect opportunity to try solo dining, whether you live alone or just need a break from your partner or housemates.
Asking for a “table for one” can feel intimidating, but Specter recommends avoiding emotive qualifiers such as “just” – e.g. “just a table for one, please” – when entering the venue. You have as much right to be there as a couple and acknowledging this to yourself from the off will feel empowering.
“Another thing I do that I would recommend is to take a prop, and that can be a newspaper or a book or a Kindle,” she says. “You will feel a bit more relaxed knowing there’s something there, even if you don’t look at it.” When you’ve nailed one solo dinner, the rest will become easier, Specter adds.
“Having dinner alone is wonderfully immersive. You notice the kindness of the waiting staff, the deliciousness of the food, the atmosphere of the restaurant, the people around you,” she says. “And once you’ve been able to enjoy that, despite the discomfort and the apprehension, you will go back.”
Ask yourself why you might be struggling
Despite coining a term for positive alone time, Specter says she still has days where being happy in her own company is a challenge.
“I think it’s about addressing that and thinking: ‘Why am I struggling to spend time alone today? Is that because I’ve got certain feelings I’m trying to avoid and I’m trying to escape them by being on WhatsApp all night?’” she says.
Working through these feelings is the “entry ticket” to enjoying your alone time, Specter adds, so don’t ignore them.
Request alone time in a busy household
During our podcast episode we hear from a mum of three children under four, who says she’s felt lonely this year, despite constantly being surrounded by people. She tells us about the benefits of finding alone time even in a busy household – and how, conversely, this can actually reduce the loneliness of parenting in particular.
“When you’re just talking to toddlers, it can be a lonely time. I get followed everywhere, whether it’s the toilet, the shower, while I’m shoving biscuits in my face... So the same time as being surrounded by people all the time, it is possible to actually still feel lonely or at least want to be alone,” she says.
“I got better as the year went on at saying to my husband, ‘I’m just going to go
for a walk for 20 minutes, I’ll be back.’ And I think that made me a better, happier mum.”
Think about the payoffs
If you’ve got easy access to loved ones, you may be wondering why you should bother embracing alone time. But Dhanda says it’s helped her during moments where isolation has been necessary.
Specter adds that embracing positive alone time following a break up – and coining the term ‘Alonement’ for this approach to life – improved her mood and self-belief.
“I became calmer. I became more confident. My self-esteem absolutely soared and it benefited me on a professional level because I was then able to spend that time journaling to work out what I wanted on a day-to-day level.” she says. “I also found myself more able to give to other people, because I had fulfilled my own needs.”
Both of our podcast guests stress that loneliness is not the same as being alone, and just because you’ve started to embrace alone time, it doesn’t mean you’ll never be lonely again.
“It’s about being mindful of it, looking out for the signs and taking action about it so that you won’t feel that way, as much as you can,” says Dhanda.
Taking action to tackle your loneliness might mean telling a trusted loved one how you’re feeling, connecting with others online or reaching out to a charity for support (there’s a list of organisations at the bottom of this article that may help). You can also read our guide to dealing with pandemic loneliness.
Specter adds that making face-to-face plans where possible is key – and it’ll also add meaning to your alone time. “Without that balance, my solitude almost lacks flavour,” she says. “I’ve overdosed on it.”
Useful websites and helplines
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
Covid-19 is more than a news story – it has changed every aspect of life in the UK. We are following how Britain is experiencing this crisis, the different stages of collective emotion, reaction and resilience. You can tell us how you are feeling and find further advice and resources here.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.