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How to Live Alone Without Losing Your Shit

A psychologist walks us through the daunting realities of flying solo.

by Austin Williams
Mar 27 2017, 12:00pm

I have a pretty sick apartment. High ceilings, laundry in the building, spacious rooms (I have a couch in my bedroom) and a crazy view of the George Washington bridge over the Hudson. But like any decent New York City apartment, it's physically, financially, and virtually impossible to live here alone.

It's a two bedroom, converted to a three, that I split with three other guys (pray for the two of them who have to share a room). If you count two of their girlfriends, who at times seem incapable of finding their way back to wherever it is they actually pay rent, there's a grand total of six people living in this space—all sharing one bathroom.

I spend a fair amount of time wondering what it'd be like to live alone. While many 24-year-olds in other cities have this strange, restrictive fear of adulting via living by themselves, the slow burn of gentrification here in Harlem is the only reason I still live in a frat house. I'm baffled by people my age who don't want a place of their own.

"Human beings are relational creatures," Daniel Gaztambide, supervising psychologist at Mount Sinai St. Luke's Hospital in New York City explains. Apparently, some of y'all are on some Peter Pan shit and don't want to grow up because you're afraid you'll never see another person again. Fascinating.

"Even the most distant, abhorrent, most unpleasant person in existence has an underlying yearning for some type of connection," Gaztambide says, "and throughout life, we learn different ways of making those connections happen, and different ways of coping when we're not connected."

So, this one is for my fellow young professionals out there who, like me, are on the verge of taking the big leap. Affirming any and all claims that millennials are inherently softer than the relics who came before us, Gaztambide walks us through how to survive the daunting task of living alone.

Step One: Get Out of Your Head
Just as I often wonder what it'd be like to walk through my apartment without stepping on a roommate or a girlfriend, once you live alone, you might spend much of your downtime daydreaming about what the next stage of your life will be—filling that empty space with a spouse, kids, and maybe a heavyset Frenchie.

But once you have your own home, it's important to not spend too much time drowning in your own thoughts.

"When we use our imagination to think of something that we want to do or that we want to achieve, it can be a playful way of planning," Gaztambide says. "But if you're sitting on your couch just planning without really moving or taking steps, that could be a problem."

If you spend all of your alone time excessively daydreaming about what it'd be like to not be alone, you may be, as he suggests, "fantasizing because you're too anxious to actually do it."

Solitude can be a catalyst for anxiety if you're already an anxious person. When we're alone and our minds are wandering, we all do that weird thing where we have an imaginary argument with someone in our head. Maybe a co-worker or a family member. We spend hours thinking of smart-ass quips we could have or would have said during a debate that happened weeks, months, maybe even years ago. Gaztambide considers this type of rumination to be the evil, more petty cousin of daydreaming.

You're not crazy if you do this. As you spend more and more time in solitude, though, it's important to not get stuck in fictional scenarios. A quick fix would be to focus on people who don't live in your head or your home—these people are commonly known as friends.

Step Two: Don't Date Your Phone
I've basically dated a girl over FaceTime before. So I understand the tendency to forget that the people who you never see in real life aren't actually your friends.

When you have your own place, and your best friend no longer sleeps in the next room, I imagine it becomes even more difficult to not gravitate toward digital interactions—tweeting your followers, live-streaming your day, or Skyping whomever. But if the internet is your only connection to the world outside of your empty apartment, there are fundamental human experiences you'll miss out on. Experiences that are much more satisfying than whatever is on your phone.

"When you engage someone in a face-to-face relationship, there's something very radical that happens," Gaztambide explains. "We pick up on certain facial cues, signs of emotion, and the dynamics of somebody's speech—and naturally, without thinking about it, we put them together and mimic those reactions."

That mimicry tightens the bond we organically have with that person. "We get into a process of talking, responding, and reacting that we're pre-wired for."

A part of that bond is lost when that face-to-face interaction is two dimensional. "You may be looking at an iPhone screen, or if you're on Skype, a computer screen—clearly it's more distorted," Gaztambide says. "While it's certainly interactive, it's limited in some fundamental ways."

If you're privy to Black Twitter and you've ever wondered why so many of these fly out stories end so disastrously, with one partner doing a total 180 on the other the second their flight lands, it's because you don't actually fucking know the people that you meet online. They are strangers until you have that "radical" experience of sitting with them in person and finding out how low- (or high-) key crazy they are.

There are tangible physical health benefits to understanding the importance of IRL relationships. Gaztambide recalls a study of three groups of college students and their social media habits. "They had a high-use group, and two low-use groups—low-use extroverts and low-use introverts."

Of course the high-use group did the worst, but low-use introverts didn't do much better. They both showed "higher levels of distress" than low-use extroverts. So when you're home alone, putting your phone down isn't enough to get through the day. This brings us to our next step.

Step Three: Leave the Fucking House
To ensure your survival while on your own, this is the easiest way to not lose your mind. It's harder to lose yourself on the internet or overanalyze your loneliness when you're outside. When you're outside, you have to think about real things. How to not step in dog shit. How overpriced lunch will be. Or who puts together the playlist at H&M.

You can be amongst a sea of people, distracted from your fear of solitude. But you have to come home sometime, right?

Once you're back inside after a long day of avoiding your fake friends online and imaginary arguments in your head, there's still one problem with living alone—you turn into a total wimp when you hear a bump in the night.

Step Four: Don't be a Wuss
When we're by ourselves in an empty house or apartment, every single one of us thinks there's a murderer in the next room—it's in our DNA, apparently.

"A lot of people have that fear of being alone at home, hearing a noise, and thinking someone's there," Gaztambide says. According to the doctor, this is a universal human fear. "Imagine our ancestors walking around and they hear a rustling in the bushes. If their response is 'what's that rustling in the bushes? Let me go check it out'—they're dead. Because it's a bear."

"Evolutionarily speaking," he adds, "it was to our advantage to respond to that ambiguous stimuli by walking away—that person gets to pass on their genes, and so we continue on with what helped us survive."

Just like non-stop daydreaming, arguing with yourself, and being glued to your phone, sitting up and muting the TV to listen for a serial killer when you hear what could either be heat moving through the pipes or a psycho slasher coming for you is a perfectly normal inclination.

Speaking as someone with too many roommates, though, what absolutely would be insane is if you avoided these things altogether, as you opt to live with your friends your whole life.