Social distancing and sheltering in place during a pandemic is a big emotional undertaking, even if you live with someone you absolutely adore.
It can be even more difficult if you’re doing it alone, especially if you wish you weren't. Like, Oh, you don’t like working from home alongside your significant other? Cool—I’m worried about not touching another human for the next three months and dying alone, but go off, I guess!!!
Being comfortable being alone is really hard—especially in these circumstances—but it’s also a skill you can cultivate (even in these circumstances). If you’re social distancing alone right now and hating it, here are some ways to navigate the biggest challenges, and some tips to keep in mind over the coming weeks.
Make a distinction being alone, loneliness, and solitude.
There’s definitely overlap between these three concepts, but they have different solutions, and it’s helpful to know what you’re working with.
Being alone, generally speaking, means being physically by yourself. (If you live with a roommate who you’re not really friends with, or you are dating someone but they aren’t nearby, you may feel like you are functionally alone right now, and might also find this article helpful.)
Loneliness is a feeling that can set in regardless of how alone you are. It often feels like not really being known: not having anyone to talk to in your city, at your new job, from your couch in quarantine, and/or not having a deep-shallow person who you can be totally yourself with and talk to about every little mundane detail of your day. Humans ultimately need some social connection to feel good and right—even humans who are comfortable with a lot of alone time—so it’s important to be proactive in addressing any loneliness you’re feeling right now.
Solitude is what Lead Yourself First authors Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin define as “a subjective state of mind in which the mind, isolated from input from other minds, works through a problem on its own.” Solitude is about being truly alone with your thoughts—so, not being on your phone or in conversation with other people, not texting or tweeting constantly, not even watching TV or reading a book.
The capacity for solitude is naturally inhibited by loneliness, which is why it’s important to think about both right now. The good news is that solitude is a buildable skill. So if you dread being physically alone (or not having your phone on you), or worry that not having a relationship or a friend group says something about you or your overall worth, solitude might be the thing to get “good” at. (More on how to do this in a bit.)
If you’re feeling lonely, tell people that.
It can be hard to be vulnerable with other people, but if there was ever a time… it's this moment, when we’re literally all vulnerable. You’re definitely not the only person who's figuring out how to be away from others right now, and telling people that can be a huge relief, make it possible for them to step in and show up for you, and demonstrate to those you care about that they're allowed and encouraged to talk about these things if they're feeling them, too.
You might be surprised by how many people will be more responsive to a clear expression of a feeling versus you trying to “show” that you’re lonely in indirect ways (“I’m so bored lmao haven’t talked to anyone in days”). So often, our needs aren't nearly as obvious as we think they are; if you haven’t used the word “lonely” yet, make a point to do that ASAP.
When it comes to communication, prioritize quality over quantity.
You might be tempted to spend a lot of time on social media, where, theoretically, there are always people to “talk to.” But passively receiving updates and interacting in small snippets with loose acquaintances takes time and energy that might be better spent deepening more established relationships (even relatively new ones). Part of building the solitude skill is learning to deal more directly with loneliness, so you can create space for yourself to comfortably be alone, in actual solitude.
Instead of logging onto Facebook or sending a mass text every time you feel lonely, think about the two or five or 10 people who really matter to you, and make it a priority to connect with them via a phone call, FaceTime, or Zoom happy hour in the coming weeks. These conversations can be short and don’t have to be deep or serious to be “meaningful.” Joking around and shooting the shit with your co-worker pals can go a long way. (And if you still have time for social media conversations after this, great!)
It’s also worth considering how creating content—status updates, IG stories, tweets, texts—can stand in the way of feeling OK with solitude. The more you post, the more responses you’re going to get... which is going to lead to spending more time on apps overall. You’re not really alone with your thoughts, observations, and experiences—aka, experiencing solitude—when you’re posting, so pausing your output for an hour or a half-day can be another effective way to practice feeling chill with being on your own.
Put self-criticism on hold.
So often, discomfort with solitude is rooted in not really liking yourself all that much, and in the fear that your aloneness says something about your worth. But not having a partner (or a strong social network, or a reliable family) doesn’t mean you’re broken, fucked up, or unloveable. Now—more than ever—is the time to keep reminding yourself of that.
The way to deal with these dark thoughts is not to try to tune them out entirely, or to attempt to quiet them through outside approval. Instead, work on figuring out who you are, and on believing, on a deep level, that you are good and whole and worthy. Getting to that point and learning to enjoy your own company probably won’t happen overnight, but you can take small steps.
Start by being soft with yourself as much as you can; when negative or critical thoughts pop up, acknowledge their existence... but don’t follow them down a rabbit hole. Take a little time to do something corny (but effective! I’m sorry!!!) like making a list of your values, interests, priorities, best qualities, and/or recent successes, even if they’re small.
Intentionally opt into solitude.
There’s no way around it: Getting comfortable being alone takes practice. I’ve found that it’s helpful to be proactive about it; making a conscious choice to be alone with your thoughts for a set period of time (with a set end time) and taking baby steps feels way less overwhelming than having it suddenly foisted upon you because none of your friends are responding to your texts.
I can’t tell you what your solitude practice should look like, but I can tell you one thing that has been helpful for me whenever I’m avoiding myself: putting my phone in airplane mode, setting a timer for an hour, and reading a book. (I know I said above reading a book doesn’t count as full solitude, and while it’s still technically receiving an input, I find it’s better to start with something that feels fairly doable and will give me a lot of bang for my buck instead of chasing the perfection of complete and utter solitude and immediately giving up because I went too hard.)
I knew how easily I could get distracted while reading, so I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t pause to look up a definition or reference online (and then start responding to texts without even realizing it). It was just me and my book for a whole-ass 60 minutes. The hour always flies by, and the practice has had a really positive impact on my life—not only did I read more, but my brain no longer felt like it was on fire. With each session, I felt like I was strengthening my being-alone muscles.
Pick up a few meditative habits or hobbies.
Meditation is a great way to get more comfortable with solitude (and I highly recommend the Headspace app if you want to give it a try). It’s also not everyone’s cup of tea, so a meditative-esque activity can be a helpful stand-in, and isn’t as intimidating as just sitting and doing nothing might feel right now.
Find something fairly repetitive, but still enjoyable and energizing. For me, that's doing puzzles, embroidery, cross-stitch, and hand-lettering; for you, it might be painting with watercolors, making pasta from scratch, or knitting. The idea is to keep your hands busy, but your mind free. If you want background noise, put on some music, but try to avoid other entertainment (Netflix, podcasts, etc.) and don’t document/share your progress as you go. Just be with yourself.
Put together a list of purposeful things to do by yourself when you get bored.
It’s so easy to wrack your brain trying to think of something to do, then pick up your phone out of habit, see you have an Instagram DM, and spend 90 minutes scrolling before you know what's happening. An easy way to avoid this is to just make a running list of things you're saving for later and come back to it if you’re feeling idle. Outside of practicing solitude, think about movies, TV shows, podcasts, games (the New York Times puzzles and games are good one-person options!), and books… and don’t forget about workouts, small home improvement projects, and fun dumb shit (like learning a viral TikTok dance or going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole).
Come up with a self-care accountability system.
In difficult times, it can be hard to remember to do basic tasks like showering, eating, drinking water, and moving your body. It’s even more difficult when you don’t have anyone to say, “Buddy, have you eaten since yesterday morning?” Create calendar notifications or set alarms to help you stay accountable for daily tasks. (I love the habit tracking app Done for this.)
Ask someone to check in on you.
It’s not weird or silly to want a daily, “Hey, are you alive?” text or phone call in these scary times. If you’re asking a neighbor or someone you’re not particularly close to to be the one to check in, make it clear to them that you’re just hoping for a very top-level welfare check, and that you aren’t expecting them to be your emotional rock right now. (This might sound something like, “I’m a little freaked out by living alone during all of this, and would feel a bit better if I knew someone was keeping an eye out. Could I ask you to [call me/knock on my door/text my sister] if there’s ever an instance when you haven’t heard from me all day?”)
Keep an eye on how much you’re drinking.
As VICE previously reported in relation to this pandemic, people often use drinking to replace relationships or to numb negative feelings… two things that you might be inclined to do right now. If that’s the case, it might be a good idea to start tracking how much you’re drinking and/or pause for a “Why am I actually doing this? What am I hoping to accomplish?” gut-check before each drink. (And if you’re thinking “if I wanted to do that reflection, I wouldn’t be drinking!” I strongly recommend reading that link above.)
If you’re worried about what you’ll do if you get sick, come up with a plan.
The situation with regard to COVID-19 testing and treatment is changing daily, so planning anything right now is a challenge. What you can do, if you feel like it would put your mind at ease, is make a doc with some rough plans that you can update as needed.
Some things you might want to think about as part of this process:
- Locate the closest hospital and write down the emergency room phone number. (If possible, figure out where the entrance to the emergency room is. If you can’t tell, make a note next to the ER phone number to ask, should you need to call/go in.)
- Figure out how you’d get there if you needed to. Would someone be able to drive you?
- If you have health care, is your insurance card in your wallet? (If you don’t have the physical card, at least write the member number, group number, and other details on a piece of paper and put that in your wallet. Many insurance companies also offer a digital copy of your card on their online portals that healthcare workers can use, if you screenshot it on your phone.)
- Who are your emergency contacts? Who is someone local (a neighbor, a landlord, a co-worker pal) who should have your emergency contact’s information (and vice versa)?
- Do you have a pet that would need tending to if you were hospitalized? Who would look after it? How will they get your key?
The goal of this doc is to feel less stressed, so if you’re finding that creating it is super overwhelming, it’s totally fine to work on it in super small doses or pause and revisit it when you’re in a better place emotionally.
Finally, know that you don’t have to like this.
Being by yourself when you don’t want to be… sucks. It’s totally reasonable to wish things were different, or to fantasize about going to stay with friends or family. Give yourself permission to be sad and angry, and don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re struggling. Try to remember that it's not forever, and that even if you're by yourself, you're not alone in this.
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Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People, coming May 2020. Follow her on Twitter.