The Upside of Spending Time Alone

23 Apr 2012

If you wish everyone would just go away and give you some space, you may be onto something. VIVA investigates the benefits of being alone

Spending time alone is rarely at the top of anyone’s to do list. We’re too busy figuring out how to get the Spinneys shop done in time to tidy the house before friends come over, or how to hold that emergency business meeting while also seeing the kids before they go to bed. No, we rarely, if ever, plan out a block of time to spend by ourselves. And usually, that wouldn’t seem like such a bad thing. Earmarking time to be totally alone seems to single you out as a loner, a depressive, or someone planning an intricate bank heist, and we’re constantly bombarded with information telling us how important socialising is. But if you’re spending the majority of your time in other people’s company and are starting to forget what it’s like to be by yourself, you could be missing a trick, according to an ongoing Harvard study, which shows that people are more likely to form lasting and accurate memories if they believe they’re experiencing something alone. Psychologists also suggest that failing to spend enough time on your tod could also lead to a lack of self-awareness.

“Everyone enjoys being social or spending time with their partners, but if you do this too much, your personality might be sliding out from under you,” explains Dubai based lifestyle coach Livia Anzaldo. “Without a little time to read, follow a passion or a hobby, and, most importantly, reflect on your experiences, you will end up leading a life with no ‘you’ in it. Time spent in solitude will give you the opportunity to get re-acquainted with yourself.” She continues, “It will provide you with a great opportunity to unwind and put your mind on cruise control, help you to put off your problems, your friends, and your colleagues momentarily, and feel at ease with yourself, not to mention less stressed. By reflecting on where your life is headed, in the absence of other people’s influence, you will be free to re-evaluate what’s important to you, be it your job, your friends or your loved ones, and to set yourself on the appropriate course of action.”

It is exactly this ‘loss of self’ which busy women are in danger of experiencing when they don’t carve out portions of time to spend alone. Of course, this is far easier said than done. I know one friend who is lucky if her children don’t follow her to the toilet, while another is at the beginning of an intense relationship which leaves her little time to eat, let alone spend time reflecting on her life choices. But, warns LifeWorks Dubai clinical counselor Dina Zalami, failing to take time away from other people could lead to instances of depression, affecting not only our mental health, but the relationships we are working so hard to maintain.

“A lack of alone time can lead to losing touch with ourselves and the more we lose touch with who we are, the more of a dissonance we create in ourselves and therefore the more prone we become to experiencing symptoms of anxiety and/or depression,” she explains.

Of course, if you are in a relationship and especially if you have children, escaping to a quiet spot somewhere for a moment of clarity and calm is not going to be that easy, or, says Zalami, easily accepted.

“People get offended by a partner who wants to take time for him/herself when they perceive this as being about them (i.e. their partner not prioritising them, or wanting to avoid them). Therefore, it is useful to talk openly with your partner about the need for everyone to have some solitude to achieve better mental health. Reinforce that the time you need is about you, and not about your relationship’s inadequacies.”

Making it clear to your partner, friends or colleagues that spending time alone needs to be a priority for you won’t be easy (no one wants to hear that you can’t come out because you’re actually washing your hair), but scheduling time for yourself doesn’t need to take huge chunks out of your day; Anzaldo explains that you can use short periods to gather your thoughts. “Everyone, regardless of personality type or gender, would benefit from taking from 10 to 20 minutes every day in silence and in private to either breathe or meditate,” she says. Sitting quietly in the morning (by yourself, not surrounded by other people or with the TV on in the background) can set up your mood for the rest of the day – particularly if you won’t have another chance to get a decent chunk of you-time before the day’s out.

Although temporary bliss can be achieved by taking small blocks of time alone, should we be aiming for more serious slices of solitude? According to Anzaldo, there are no hard and fast rules and it is all down to the individual person.

“We need to develop a personal guru in ourselves and trust our intuition more in identifying when it is time to socialise and when being on our own could be more productive, recharging and an opportunity for self-reflection,” she says.

So, when you’re being harangued into going out when you’d rather be watching a DVD box set, or your children are following you around the house again, set some boundaries and know that taking time to gather your thoughts and reconnect with yourself will ultimately make you a better person, a better friend, and a better parent. The perfect excuse to stick your slobbing out clothes on, put your feet up and do nothing. Just be. Alone.

Just me, myself and I
Features writer Harriet Sinclair took up the challenge of spending one week alone and one week in full-on socialising mode, to see which suited her better.

Week 1: Time alone
I like people. I like people so much that I spend most of my time surrounded by them. But, although I love my social circle deeply, there seem to be few moments when I’m totally by myself. Alone. And so I accept the challenge to avoid socialising for a week and spend some time in my own company. I must admit, my first evening of scheduled ‘me’ time is something I’m rather looking forward to. I sit down with a rare home cooked meal and get round to watching Downton Abbey – a series everyone seems to have seen but me. By the end of the night, I’m relaxed, calm, and have a new crush on Matthew Crawley. On the second night, I go for a massage, which is great; though I have to lock myself in my room when I get home as all my flatmates are having a meal together. I cheat a little on the third night and end up calling my best friend in the UK. I figure this doesn’t count as actual socialising, since I can’t see her face, and by the end of the phone call I feel amazing. Day four sees me deciding that alone time doesn’t mean staying in, so I venture out for a meal with my book for company, do some serious shopping, and book in for a snowboarding lesson at the weekend. Seems like this alone time malarkey may be good for me, but by the time the weekend rolls round, I must admit, I am bored. The snowboarding lesson is super, but the rest of the weekend is not. By Saturday night, Lady Mary and co (Downton again) are almost like real people to me, and I am genuinely worried that I may be going loopy. Is it just me or does Hugh Bonneville become attractive after a while?  Oh dear. I need to go out…

Week 2: Social time
After a week spent with just my thoughts for company, I feel like I have cabin fever and greet even the most mundane opportunity for socialising with the excitement usually reserved for birthdays and weddings. My first night out (a simple trip to the cinema with friends) fills me with so much glee, I can’t stop talking. I talk all the way to the cinema, I talk during the trailers and – oh sin of sins – I talk through the movie. I suspect my outing with these particular friends will be my last (sorry, guys). By night two, I feel far more accustomed to the company of other humans, and relax and enjoy an evening with a big group of friends. I get all the goss from them, but find the company of so many people chattering away almost overwhelming after a few hours. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m pleased to get home and chill out by myself at the end of the night. The third and fourth days go by in a blur as I have a birthday dinner followed by a night out with the VIVA team – both of which I enjoy immensely, though I’m shattered by day five, so opt for a DVD night with my other half. Finally the weekend arrives, though I’m not looking forward to it as much as I usually would – my Friday and Saturday are both filled with people and I don’t feel like I have the strength to talk to anyone. By the end of the week, I am fantasising about sitting on my sofa by myself. The week was loads of fun – I got to catch up with tons of people – but since I had no time by myself to reflect on any of the conversations I’d had, it really took some of the joy out of it.

The result: If you’re sitting by yourself every night, chances are you’ll end up feeling insular… but too much time with people is just as draining. From now on I’ll be reserving one night a week to watch Downton Abbey alone, then I can catch up with the girls the next evening to discuss whether or not Hugh Bonneville really is attractive...

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