“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” — Blaise Pascal
Iwoke up this morning and did something I haven’t done in years, maybe even a decade or more. Rather, I didn’t do something — check my phone the moment I woke up.
I decided to try one of those Tim Ferris-like morning-routines. It’s been about 5 hours since I woke up and I have yet to have any contact with the outside world via digital technology.
What did this process teach me? It’s probably too early to say, but I can tell you what I felt.
At first, uneasiness. Your fear of being alone with yourself isn’t palpable until you really try it. I distinctly felt this sort of loneliness from being “disconnected” from the world, even for just a few hours. It wasn’t so much the mental chatter that bothered me, but the feeling of isolation.
But then, the feeling of uneasiness dissipated and was replaced with something else.
What, you ask?
A few things.
First, presence. Maybe Eckhart Tolle and the Buddha aren’t as wrong as I thought. I’ve often scoffed at the idea of complete presence. While I won’t renounce my possessions or give up desire anytime soon, it felt good to be more in the present moment, which is difficult to do when you’re “connected” on “social” media.
I walked to the coffee shop and it was as if the volume of my surroundings went up by 10 levels. I could hear the birds chirping, all of them. The fact that birds existed became apparent to me. I never notice them. Before I left my apartment, I actually kind of enjoyed some banal tasks like doing my dishes.
Second, genuine thinking. See, most of the time, because you’re so scared to be alone with yourself, you never actually think. You think you’re thinking, but you’re actually just letting mental chatter loop in your head without exerting any control over it. I consider myself a thinker — I read a ton, write to distill my thoughts, and talk about ideas constantly.
But being alone for this long of a period allowed me to articulate my thoughts in a much better way. If a certain feeling arose, I could name the emotion and process it. I thought about my past, present, and future strategically, both long and short term, without strain.
It felt nice to disappear from my own ego for a bit, but this isn’t so much a post about mindfulness as it is a post about learning how to be alone.
Let me explain.
Today was a culmination of the what I’d been experiencing the past few months. I have a Google Drive with ideas for articles. One of them was “how to be alone.” At the time I selected that topic, I chose it because I didn’t know how to be alone. I wanted to first learn it, then teach it, as I do with everything I write.
See, I had to learn how to be alone because life gave me no choice. After a series of moments and scenarios, I found myself in a new city, separated from my wife, without the family I’d had for the past four years, essentially all alone.
I still remember the trip I took mere days after I left my ex’s place for good. Went to visit a friend in D.C. to clear my head. He had to work during some of the days, so I was left to venture the city alone — something that would be extremely fun to do now because I now know how to enjoy myself alone.
Then, though? I felt crippling loneliness. I don’t actually remember any time in my life where I’ve felt worse, totally broken. I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture and posted pictures of exhibits on social media, pretending like I was having a good time, but the pain I felt was so palpable I literally had trouble reading the captions underneath the exhibits. My loneliness consumed my mind, heart, and soul. For a few weeks after my separation, I knew what it meant to be a shell of one’s self.
The Mirage of Identity Many of Us Build
Before this, my life was great, or so I thought. I thought I was “personally developed,” but until my marriage and family disappeared, I didn’t realize how much of my identity and development had nothing to do with … me. Instead of a self-image, I had a mosaic of codependencies I didn’t know existed until they were gone.
I’m not the type who’d ever do this, but I can now see why someone would commit suicide after finding themselves in loneliness for too long. It’s, perhaps, the most debilitating state one can find oneself in.
Loneliness can only occur when you don’t know how to be alone, though. Loneliness presupposes that you need the company, attention, validation, acceptance, and love of anyone other than yourself.
Is it okay to want these things? Sure. I want them. We all do. But to need them and make them a core pillar of your existence sets you up for a huge fall. It certainly did for me.
So the goal isn’t to be alone but to learn how to be alone. I didn’t want to have zero social and love life forever, but not having them for a brief period of time was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Some of the most valuable lessons are the most painful.
In the past few months, I’ve rebuilt my life to an even better position, like those broken vases that are stronger than the original when glued back together. Not better in that being single and living in a new city is better than having a family. I loved having a family.
But now, I can have one and will have one again with the proper sense of self — independent of others first. Being alone forced me to look at my life clearly, be honest with myself, and create an identity that fully belonged to me.
Here’s what I did and what I subsequently learned.
The first day I moved into my new apartment, I cried. Hard. I don’t cry.I’d love to say it was cathartic. Nah, it was just sad. To dig myself out of sadness and apathy, I tried anger. I tried becoming my own drill sergeant, and literally yelled at myself out loud.
“This is your fucking apartment now! Deal with it.”
I walked to my daughter’s new room:
“This is your daughter’s new room. Deal with it! This is where you will raise her!”
I tried to maintain the sergeant’s tone but my voice cracked with sadness and my lip quivered when I said it, tears dribbling out. Shaking. Imploding. Immolating.
That was maybe the second saddest moment to date, after the one where I was about to leave my former home and my three year old said, “Where are you going?” I could tell from her tone, she knew I was leaving.
Anyway, the first few days and weeks were spent in a sort of malaise, really. I published articles from my archives because I couldn’t bring myself to write anything good. I still wrote, but I went through the motions so everything sucked.
The malaise didn’t end until I reached the point of acceptance.
The first step of learning how to be alone is finally accepting it without fighting it. You spend too much of your life imagining your life differently than the way it currently is. In one form, visualization is fine, but in the form of hiding, it only compounds the problem.
The lessons I’ll detail next are most important, but some of the steps I took were:
- Health – I lost 20 pounds. My comfort as a “family” man led to laziness. I figured I could still move my body even if I didn’t really feel like it. Lesson in there. At first, I definitely did it because I wanted to boost my confidence and start dating asap, but it’s since turned into a real exercise in spirituality and wellness.
- Connections — I slowly started connecting with people. I had a few old contacts in town and rekindled relationships with them. I joined local clubs. And then I just started chatting people up and meeting others like a normal human being.
- Purpose — Once I felt back to normal, I went on an absolute tear with my writing. I poured my energy and spare time via that solitude into my craft.
My first instinct was to rush and fill the void, but instead, I chose to work on myself. It’s not as if I’m “cured” or anything like that, but now I’m focusing on becoming a whole person, irrespective of how many people are in my life — both in-person and digital.
I learned many lessons.
The Co-Dependency Trap
When you develop too many co-dependencies, you lose boundaries. Having boundaries is both better for you and the people you interact with. See, people don’t want to walk all over you, but if you create a dynamic that allows for it, most people can’t help themselves. It’s human nature.
This applies to men, women, people of all genders. The partner without boundaries will sabotage both themselves and the relationship. Two partners without boundaries equal an absolute mess of comingled pain.
I’d let an already bad relationship devolve into rubble because I was afraid to be alone. Since I was afraid to be alone, I didn’t set any boundaries, which just worsened the problem.
When you don’t set boundaries and you’re afraid to be alone, you become needy. When you’re needy, it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more you need something, the more it eludes you.
The solution to the problem isn’t to become cold and never let people into your life. It’s to let them in your life with boundaries, with self-respect, with conditions.
People stay in bad relationships — romantic, friend, family, and business — because they feel they owe something to the entity of the relationship. Good relationships have a clear set of lines that, if crossed, will end the relationship. This isn’t about being cold. It’s about having self-respect. If you create a situation where nothing the people in your life can do would cause you to leave, you’re a doormat. And you will get walked over.
Again, this is good for everyone involved. Secretly, people want boundaries. They want to know they don’t have dominion over your identity.
So now, I don’t have this checklist of rules and hoops to jump through, per se, but I’m not going to let sunk costs — time investments — dictate whether or not I’m willing to stay in a relationship or not.
And when boundaries are crossed, I’ll address them right away. Most people don’t provide enough warnings to others. It’s okay to tell someone that what they’re doing isn’t cool, and if they continue to do it you’ll walk. Doing that early and often creates the type of relationships that are better for everyone involved.
Do You Know Yourself, Really?
Often, you’re a mystery to yourself. You don’t really know what you like, what you want, who you are, where you want to be, etc because you don’t know how to be alone and create a life of your own first.
You can’t know what you want until it’s independent of what other people want. This doesn’t mean you don’t take others into consideration, but rather that you don’t depend on others for your thinking.
Had I built an independent identity of my own, then got into a relationship, then built a family, I’d have boundaries, healthy expectations, and real bonds. Instead, I rested a pillar of my ego on the idea of being “a family man” ….not a man who has a family. Did you catch that?
Think of how many of your beliefs, tastes, desires, goals, and dreams have almost everything to do with what other people want and almost nothing to do with what you want.
When you learn how to be alone, you become the center of your universe. People can orbit around you if they want, but if they don’t it’s fine. This, again, doesn’t mean become egotistical and have unrealistic standards, but when you figure out who you actually are, you’ll know who vibes with you and who doesn’t. They’ll know, too. And if they don’t, you’ll make it clear to them.
I took this time to…don’t barf… “find myself.”
Through alone time, research, experience, etc, I developed some new values, core beliefs, and things I’d be willing to accept in my life going forward. I feel like I can actually love now because “real love is detached.” Because I’m okay on my own. Because I can not only tolerate being alone but thrive doing so. I can now have real relationships without those insidious mental strings of codependency.
When you’re uncompromising about the principles you live by, that’s when you’ll attract everything you want into your life, including the right people.
The Law of Attraction: People Edition
I’ve started to connect with other people a lot more, both on and offline. Now, I interact with people in a more sincere way.
Since I want people to be in my life, but don’t need them to be (as much, again I’m not cured) I feel like I can actually see and accept people for who they really are.
See, when you need people to be in your life, you distort who they are in your mind. You idealize them, put them on a pedestal, ignore flaws and red flags — both in yourself and other people. That’s important. Maybe they’re not the right person to be in your life, but also maybe you’re the one who isn’t right on their own yet. It’s okay to admit that and work on it.
When you come from a core of being okay with yourself, people not only notice it, but they treat you better. People don’t want to be put on a pedestal. So when you do it, you’re making them do something that’s incongruent with what they want, they resent you for it, and either unconsciously or consciously punish you for it.
Learn how to be alone. Learn how to understand that you’re good enough just as you are. Spend time alone.
All of this…this personal journey thing. It all leads back to the self. Everything does.
We chase what’s out there, not realizing we already have everything we need.
Your default state is joy with yourself at all times, like a child lost in the moment, unaware that there even is a world beyond their own perception. It’s no coincidence that kids are magnets. They’re going to play with that little piece of string whether you like it or not, whether you care or not, whether you approve or not.
Maybe try being like this on for size. See what happens.