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Self-Knowledge • Know Yourself

The High Price We Pay for Our Fear of Being Alone

It’s not hard to understand the fear of being alone: the empty apartment after work, the eerieness of Sunday afternoons, the sense of exclusion during the holidays… We know the agonies of being on our own very well. 

What is far less well understood, and less eloquently or frequently described, is the enormously high price exacted on the other side of the equation. The fear, or more often simply the phobia, of being alone is perhaps responsible for more unhappy relationships, more throttling of psychological development, more claustrophobia and more pent up misery than almost any other: it is – by any reckoning – one of the single greatest contributors to human misery and the driver of some of our weightiest and most unfortunate decisions. If only we were able to get the costs of what is for the most part a simple misapprehension clear in our minds, we might save ourselves a substantial portion of our lives.

We can pick out at least seven unnecessary penalties:

– For a start, and most obviously, people who are afraid of being alone make some very wrong choices around the company they keep. They have no option but to privilege any one over the appropriate one. They have no stomach to be rightfully demanding in their criteria of entry, to insist that someone should be interesting rather than just cosy, challenging rather than just attractive, undefensive rather than merely confident. They don’t have the strength to be able to hold out – as one must – for the 20th or 200th candidate. The only souls with any realistic chance of ending up with the partner they deserve are those who have properly reconciled themselves to the prospect of never being with anyone at all.

– Being with not quite the right person sounds almost bearable but extended over time, like a proverbial pebble in a shoe, ‘slightly wrong’ ends up indistinguishable from ‘entirely horrific’. No nagging doubt one has ever entertained on a wedding day will fail, with the addition of several years, to become a cause for mind-shattering despair. Every beautiful location we travel to together will be ruined, every promising moment will be trampled upon, every success will be compromised. What may begin as slight fractiousness or tedium winds up as cataclysmic irritation, self-disgust, sexual misery, broken finances and the kind of excruciating loneliness that – ironically – merely and innocently  being ‘on our own’ would never have the power to generate. 

– Furthermore, when terrified of loneliness, we have no strength to argue for our needs within any relationship. One is always at the mercy of the one who fears loneliness less. Partners develop an advanced sense of the person who has nowhere else to go. It’s no use stamping our feet after an argument and saying ‘we’ve had enough’ when, in reality, everyone knows that we will never have had enough – so scared are we of having dinner on our own.

– What’s worse, after time in the wrong sort of company, we tend to develop learned helplessness: every reluctance we once had to be alone grows worse, even as we acquire more experience of what bad company actually means. In our comfortable but deadening captivity, the wild appears more terrifying still: we can’t now imagine ever knowing how to change the dishwasher fluid alone, walking into a party by ourselves or taking the initiative to send our nephews birthday presents, so used have we become to using the other to compensate for our weaknesses. We experience none of the bracing, but also educative pressures visited upon the single, who have no choice but to overcome their inhibitions: those brave souls who, battling against their temperaments and histories, have to learn how to garden, deal with the council, go on holidays in the mountains, endure empty weekends, call up their mother or cook a chicken – and thereby achieve the resilient competence upon which true social discrimination and liberty rest.

– For those who have too lightly signed away their freedoms, there are sure to be constant, and searing, reminders of what they have foregone. Every party and every walk down a busy street will provide evidence of what might have been, all those potentially fascinating or charming members of humanity they have now forever been disbarred from getting to know – because they were so unnaturally scared of having a bed to themselves for a few more years.

– It isn’t just other people we won’t get to know, it’s also ourselves. The constant presence of companions stops us from making friends with our own minds, and exploring our feelings and ideas in a way that only extended stretches of solitude allow. We fail to develop our identities, we grow more like everyone else. The chatter outside prevents us from being able to follow the feint but vital dialogue we might otherwise have been able to have with ourselves. We use another person to distract us whenever any slightly painful or challenging internal matter comes into view. There ends up being so much we won’t ever really feel or understand about ourselves, so many big questions about our careers and our ultimate purpose that we will ignore, because there was always someone else on hand to chat to about what to order in for dinner.

– Worst of all, we might not even be actively miserable after a while. We’ll grow used to cosy mediocrity. We won’t be curious or restless. We won’t dare – as the single must – to go up to strangers and risk our pride. We’ll stop learning. We’ll believe that we’ve answered our needs completely, but only on the basis of suppressing our knowledge of what our needs really are. We’ll have ended up in a conspiracy against uncertainty, novelty and the flux of life.

To start to correct everything that stems from this pernicious fear of being alone, we should from a young age learn that that being alone never means there is something wrong with us, just that we are being appropriately patient, until what truly satisfies us shows up (if it ever does); we have a choice; we have not been punished. Furthermore, being alone does not have to mean being cut off from humanity; the state may indeed be the surest way to commune deeply with it, to fill our minds with the ideas and visions of billions of other humans across time and space – whose perspectives are too often snuffed out when we’re under immediate pressure to respond to someone else in the room. We will never learn the true promise of community, discover our own interests or hold out for the connections we deserve until we make genuine peace with the prospect of a life by ourselves.

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