Sometimes Your Choice Is Between Being On Your Own and Feeling Like a Misfit
The company of others can unintentionally knock your self-esteem
I’ve written a few things about spending time alone so I guess it’s quite a big deal for me. We’re all different. Everyone has their own tolerance levels for the amount of time they can cope with in their own company. It’s just that mine are pretty high.
Reading other people’s takes, it would appear there’s an art to doing it right and gaining benefit from it, but for me, it just comes naturally. I like it.
I don’t need it to be part of a journey of self-discovery or period of reflection, it needs no justification in my eyes. I can find it restorative, comforting and useful but mostly, I just view it as a natural state of being. No better or worse than the state of not being on my own. It’s neutral.
For some reason, this is hard to understand for some and so the likes of me find themselves under constant pressure to ‘stop sitting around by yourself’ or ‘go and have some fun’ — by which is meant being alone is a bad choice. It’s assumed that to be on your own is to be feeling sad and to be doing nothing of worth. It’s often viewed as a character flaw or a sign that there is something wrong with you.
Which is all a bit arbitrary, isn’t it? What is this based on? Why should anyone feel obliged to socialise to satisfy others? And what makes people so sure that company unfailingly trumps solitude?
It’s a far too one-note viewpoint on a complex and personal part of human nature. There could be any number of reasons why you want time alone — you’re in the mood to read, you need peace and quiet, you’re too tired to be all chatty.
But it goes way beyond just your current mood. There are just as many deeper, valid reasons to be selective about who you spend time with. It may well be the inverse of socially accepted assumptions, but it’s more than possible that being with others can make you feel bad — even when their intentions are good.
For example, if there’s a time of year that is traditionally associated with families (e.g. Christmas) people will, kindly, invite you to join them. Their hope is that you can enjoy all the closeness, warmth and fun that they share together. They don’t want you won’t miss out on what they are lucky enough to have.
But the reality is, often, quite different when the kindness misses its target. Far from being able to feel at home, it can make you feel the odd one out. A charity case, even. Should you be estranged from your family or maybe want one of your own, it only serves to remind you of what you don’t currently have. That can be truly painful.
The same can be said of spending time with couples when you’re single. You don’t get to experience any of the benefits of a relationship just by being around someone else’s. It does little for you and, at worst, makes you feel a lesser person.
But, regardless of the setting, what really matters is being in your comfort zone. Or maybe, more importantly, what happens when you’re out of it. You’re rarely at your best when not feeling at ease. You’re not yourself, you can feel vulnerable and putting on an act can be exhausting.
There’s just so much to have to consider. If you don’t wish to discuss your private life, your conversation can appear evasive. And if you are on the outside of the group, you won’t feel you have much influence or control. You might even shrink yourself down, personality-wise, in order not to be a pain or get in anyone’s way. If you feel your hosts are doing you a favour, you worry about being a burden.
None of these things are good for your self-esteem. None of them much fun, either. Going against your better judgement (you usually do instinctively know it won’t be good for you) and socialising just to avoid being viewed as a killjoy loner is surely not worth it.
Not least because, in all probability, you’re not. A killjoy, or a loner, that is. Of all the people that I’ve met who are happy in their own company (including myself), none of them lack social skills. None of them are misanthropes. In fact, many of them are big readers or fans of the arts. They take a keen interest in the human condition and can be lively conversationalists, given the right subject to talk about.
Sure, recluses exist, and they’re entitled to do what they want with their time. But they’re not to be mistaken with all other introverts or people who like to spend a little time inside their own minds.
We do like to be with others. But finding your own people is not to be underestimated. They are those who you have a connection with. Those you have something in common with. Those who understand you without trying to change you. And those who make you feel less alone — not more. These friends may change depending on where you are in life currently, what your circumstances are. But that’s no trivial matter, it’s important. It’s about what you need at this time.
As a society, I believe we’re starting to come round to three radical ideas. Firstly, that it’s fine to dump toxic people without feeling obliged or guilty. Secondly, that being alone and feeling lonely are different things entirely. And thirdly, that we have the right to decide for ourselves how we should live our lives.
In amongst these concepts, is a happy medium for those who enjoy a degree of solitude. We can start to emphasise the validity of our choice, defend ourselves against pointless ridicule (e.g. billy-no-mates as it’s charmingly referred to here in the UK!) and refuse to conform.
But, on top of that, I would like to see more acknowledgement of the fact that, not only are some people toxic, but that so are some situations. That’s not necessarily a criticism of the other people involved. It’s just that sometimes being around certain groups are going to bring up feelings that you’d rather avoid. Or you know you’re going to feel like an oddball through no fault of your own. Or you want to keep your personal life private but know you’re going to be questioned.
It doesn’t matter what your reasons are. For many people there is a dignity in spending time alone and a low level humiliation in socialising, if the conditions are all wrong. It’s fine to go with your instincts and decide for yourself what you want to do with your own time.
Choosing to be on your own, at any time, has merit. It can be for self-protection, for time to think or just for fun. But it’s NOT the lesser choice. We should try to respect that — in ourselves as well as others.