For many of us, the idea of being alone conjures up a sense of dread. Maybe it’s the sense of boredom, or the feelings of isolation, or being forced to confront our own thoughts. In fact, a recent study in the journal Science showed that people would rather give themselves electric shocks than be alone with their thoughts for just 15 minutes.
But turns out, there’s a difference between being alone and feeling lonely. Even though we may use the phrases interchangeably in conversation, psychotherapist and HuffPost blogger Ross Rosenberg, who also authored The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us, explains that they’re actually two distinct concepts.
The main distinguisher: Being alone is a physical description (meaning when we are alone, we are just not with people), while loneliness is a feeling that often is experienced as negative and painful. “You can be alone and happy, you can be alone and lonely,” Rosenberg explains. “The idea of being alone is what you make of it.”
Many people who struggle with feelings of loneliness can link their struggles to deeper roots. According to Rosenberg, loneliness is a feeling fueled by trauma, loss and grief, a lack of self-esteem, and insecurity. Those who lead healthy, balanced lives are better equipped to face these negative experiences because they have both internal and external resources that help guide them through the process — from a sense of community to a strong and positive self-concept.
“Loneliness is a normal part of the human existence,” Rosenberg says. “We all feel lonely, but chronic, pathological loneliness is a deeply embedded pattern that is self-reinforcing. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Healthy, resilient people respond to normal loneliness by resolving it. Unhealthy people become overwhelmed by it.”
Personality type is also a big factor when it comes to who experiences discomfort from being alone. Introverts — who lose energy from being around others — may find alone time more desirable than extroverts, who instead gain energy from the company of others.
“If you’re an extrovert, you are comfortable and feel compelled to be around other people. It is just the way you are genetically set up. If you’re an extrovert and you’re not around people, you feel uncomfortable and if you’re psychologically healthy, you use internal and external resources to be around people,” Rosenberg explains. “If you’re an introvert and you like being alone, that’s also completely psychologically healthy. You can be very secure and self-confident and still be very nervous around crowds of people, but you have friends and loved ones, and those are the resources that make an introvert feel just fine when they’re alone.”
At the end of the day, whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, all humans experience feelings of loneliness. And many do so during the times they are physically alone. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are seven ways people who struggle with “me” time can learn to like it, and maybe even love it.
Consider the root causes.
Take the time to ask yourself where the discomfort of solitude comes from. Is it true feelings of loneliness or something else? If it’s the former, explore what that means for you and come to the realization that loneliness usually can be traced back to an unpleasant experience or past memory. To truly understand what makes being alone so painful, you must recognize that it comes from a deeper situation — no matter how uncomfortable it may be to do so, Rosenberg says.
Just do it.
With any uncomfortable situation, sometimes you have to push past the negative thoughts and hesitations and just take the plunge. The same goes for being alone. More often than not, the result will be far more positive than you anticipated.
“It’s like jumping in the pool when you know it’s cold,” Rosenberg says. “Everyone knows that once you jump in the pool and get past the coldness, you’re going to have a blast and not even notice it’s cold anymore. You have to tell yourself that that shock to the system is only fleeting and that you’re going to enjoy yourself.”
It’s all about addressing what are called “cognitive distortions,” or things that tell us that the pain is not going to be worth it. “We have to actually tell ourselves the opposite,” Rosenberg says. “We have to do reverse self-talk.”
Explore new hobbies.
Some people who find that they don’t like spending time alone are simply bored when they do so. By spending the majority of their time entertaining others, they haven’t learned how to entertain themselves. To remedy this, you must retrain the mind by developing habits and hobbies that can consume your attention, inspire your creativity and spark your imagination, Rosenberg says. It may not come naturally at first, and it will likely require experimentation with different activities, but you get that much closer by taking the first step.
Deepen your relationships.
It might sound counterintuitive, but the strength of your relationships can speak bounds to how secure you feel when spending time alone. A lack of depth and connection can make you feel less heard, understood, appreciated or secure in the fact that you do have someone to call should you need to.
“To solve that problem, deepen your relationships, take risks,” Rosenberg advises. “Knowing that there are people out there that love you whom you can call will solve your feelings in one of two ways: You’ll actually call them, or you’ll just know that you can call them and that will make you feel better. It makes you feel less lonely in your world, and paradoxically, you don’t need to call them because you know they’re out there.”
Opt for a change of scenery.
If you hate being alone because you feel stir crazy at home, a change in location could do the trick. Rosenberg suggests doing something new like visiting a museum.
“Do something you’ve never done,” he advises. “Step out of your comfort zone physically. At the very least, it will make time pass quicker, and you might find that you actually enjoy yourself.”
Think back to your childhood.
A critical component of feeling comfortable spending time alone is the ability to self-soothe, a coping technique learned at a very young age. According to Rosenberg, people with the ability to self-soothe mostly likely had a healthy early childhood, where their parents met their needs unconditionally and in a timely way. And unfortunately, people without this kind of upbringing may struggle more with self-soothing because it isn’t something that can often be learned after adolescence.
“If the world around you feels trustworthy, you experience the world as safe. But if you have an early childhood experience when your parent could not or did not meet your nurturing and safety needs, you don’t feel secure in your world — and as an adult you have to keep trying to bring people into your world to soothe that feeling,” he explains.
Ask for help.
Through this self-exploration process, if you find you experience less the physical discomfort of of being alone and more the consistent feelings of loneliness, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. According to Rosenberg, psychotherapy is one of the best ways to address chronic loneliness that is debilitating and self-perpetuating. Talking through the parts of life that engender those feelings is critical to discovering the many mindful benefits that solitude can offer.