The Terror of Being on our Own
In the privacy of our minds, one thought – highly shameful by nature – may haunt us as we evaluate whether to stay in or leave an unsatisfactory relationship: what if we were to end things and end up in a place of appalling loneliness?
We’re meant to be above such pragmatic worries. Only cowards and reprobates would mind a few weekends (or decades) by themselves. We’ve heard of those books that sing the praises of solitude (the divorcee who relocated to a solitary hut on a bare Scottish island; the one who went sailing around the world in a dinghy). But we can admit that we’re not naturals at this sort of thing: there have been empty days when we almost lost our minds. There was one trip that we took on our own years back that was, behind the scenes, a psychological catastrophe. We’re not really in a position to wave away the dangers of being left alone on our rock.
But without wishing to play down the dangers unduly, there are nevertheless one or two things we might learn to weaken our fears. We can begin with a simple observation: it’s typically a lot worse to be on our own on a Saturday than on a Monday night; and a lot worse to be alone over the festive period than to be alone at the end of the tax year. The physical reality and the length of time we’re by ourselves may be identical, but the feeling that comes with being so is entirely different. This apparently negligible observation holds out a clue for a substantial solution to loneliness.
The difference between the Saturday and the Monday night comes down to the contrast between what being alone appears to mean on the two respective dates. On a Monday night, our own company feels like it brings no judgement in its wake, it doesn’t in any way depart from the norms of respectable society, it’s what’s expected of decent people at the start of a busy week: we get back from work, make some soup, catch up on the post, do some emails and order a few groceries, without any sense of being unusual or cursed. The next day, when a colleague asks us what we got up to, we can relate the truth without any hot prickles of shame. It was – after all – just a Monday night. But Saturday night finds us in a far more perilous psychological zone: we scan our phone for any sign of a last minute invitation, we flick through the channels in an impatient and disconsolate haze, we are alive to our own tragedy as we eat tuna from a can, we take a long bath at 8.30pm to try to numb the discomfort inside with scalding heat on the outside; and as we prepare to turn out the light just after ten, the high-spirited cries of revellers walking by our house seem to convey a targeted tone of mockery and pity. On Monday morning, we pass over the whole horrid incident with haste.
From this we conclude: being alone is bearable in relation to how ‘normal’ (that highly nebulous yet highly influential concept) the condition feels to us at any given point; it can either be a break from an honourably busy life, or sure evidence that we are an unwanted, wretched, disgusting and emotionally diseased being.
This is tricky but ultimately very hopeful, for it suggests that if only we could work on what being alone means to us, we could theoretically end up as as comfortable in our own skin on a long summer Saturday night filled with the joyous cries of our fellow citizens as on the dreariest Monday in November, and we could spend the whole holiday season by ourselves feeling as relaxed and as unself-conscious as we did when we were a child and hung out for days by ourselves, tinkering with a project in the floor of our bedroom, with no thought in the world that anyone would as a result think us sad or shameful. We may not – after all – need a new companion (something which can be hard to find in a panic); we just need a new mindset (which we can take care of by ourselves, starting right now).
To build ourselves a new mental model of what being alone should truly mean, we might rehearse a few of the following arguments:
– Our Solitude is Willed
Despite what an unfriendly voice inside our heads might tell us, we are the ones who have chosen to be alone. We could, had we so wanted, been in all sorts of company. Our solitude is – though it may not feel like it – willed rather than imposed. No one ever needs to be alone so long as they don’t mind who they are with.
But we do mind, and we have some very good reasons to do so. The wrong kind of company is a great deal lonelier for us than being by ourselves, that is, it’s further from what matters to us, more grating in its insincerity and more of a reminder of disconnection and misunderstanding than is the conversation we can have in the quiet of our own minds. It’s not that we have been rejected by the world; it’s that we’ve taken a good look at the available options and have – with wisdom – done some rejecting ourselves.
– Beware the outward signs of Companionship
It seems, from a distance, as if everyone is having an ecstatic time. The Party (what we imagine in our darkest moments to be the unitary joyous social event from which we’ve been blocked) grips our imaginations. We’ve passed the restaurants and seen the groups leaning back on their chairs and laughing uproariously, we’ve seen the couples holding hands and the families packing up for their glorious holidays abroad. And we know the depths of fun that are unfolding.
But we need to hold on to what we recognise in our sober moments is a more complicated reality: that there is naturally going to be alienation at the restaurant, bitterness in the couples and despair in the sunny island hotels. We picture intimacy and communion, deep understanding and the most sophisticated varieties of kindness. We are sure that ‘everyone’ is having precisely what we understand by true love. But they are not. They will for the most part be together but still alone, they will be talking but largely not heard.
Isolation and grief are not unique to us; they are a fundamental part of the human experience, they trail every member of our species, whether in couples or alone, life is a hellish and anxious business for all of us; we’ve chosen to experience the pains of existence by ourselves for now, but having a partner has never protected anyone from the void for very long. We should take care to drown our own individual sorrows in the ocean of a redemptive and darkly funny universal pessimism. No one is particularly much enjoying the journey; we are not built that way. As we should never have allowed ourselves to forget in front of the steamed up windows of restaurants, life simply is suffering for most of us for most of the time.
– We get statistics wrong
To compound our errors, we are the most hopeless statisticians. We should pin a notice to our kitchen wall reminding us of just this fact. We say that ‘everyone’ is happy, and ‘everyone’ is in a couple. But we haven’t taken the first steps towards properly evaluating what is going on in a factual sense. We are letting self-disgust, not mathematics, decide our vision of ‘normality’. If we really surveyed the question, if we grew wings and went up and examined the city, swooping in on this bedroom here and that office there, those families in the park and that couple on a date, we’d see something altogether different. We’d see millions of others like us and far far worse: this one crying over a letter, that one shouting they’ve had enough, this one complaining that they can’t be understood, that one weeping in the bathroom over an argument. It is regrettable enough to be sad, we don’t need to compound the misery by telling ourselves – through an absurd misunderstanding of statistics – that it is abnormal to be so.
– There is nothing shameful in what we’re doing
Our images of being alone lack dignity. We need better role models. Those on their own aren’t always the cobwebbed hunched figures of our nightmares. Some of the greatest people who have ever lived have chosen, for a variety of noble reasons, to spend a lot of time by themselves. For our own self-compassion, we need to keep the difference between enforced and willed solitude firmly in consciousness. Here is a world-reknown scientist, spending twenty years on their own to finish a book that will change everything. Here is one of the most beautiful people nature has yet produced, alone in their room, playing the piano. Here is a politician who once led the nation, now preferring their own company. Those who are by themselves don’t comprise only the desperate cases, they number many of those one would feel most privileged to meet.
– Understand your past
The sense of shame you experience at being in your own company is coming from somewhere very particular: your own childhood, and in particular, from an unloveable vision of yourself that you picked up in the early years. Somewhere in the past, someone left you feeling unworthy and now, whenever you suffer a reversal, the story is ready to re-emerge, confirming what you think is a fundamental truth about you: that you don’t deserve to exist. It’s not essentially that you’re afraid of being lonely; it’s that you don’t like yourself very much – for which the cure is immense sympathy and psychotherapeutic understanding but not, it seems, the company of a partner you no longer care for or respect.
Once we can like ourselves more, we won’t need to be so scared of friendship with ourselves; we will know that others aren’t laughing at us cruelly and that there is no delightful party we’ve been barred from. We’ll appreciate that we can be both on our own and a fully dignified, legitimate member of the human race. We’ll have conquered the terror of loneliness – and therefore at last be in a position to assess our options correctly and chose freely whether to stay in or leave a relationship we’re in.