Are you scared to be alone?

By Caitlin Kelly

The best-read posts on Broadside include this, this, this — which all discuss the value of  travel alone as a woman.

Some people have an absolute horror of solitude. Too scared to go anywhere by themselves, they refuse to travel without a companion or go to a movie alone or sit in a restaurant without the reassuring comfort of someone across the table.

Shared Space Signage
Shared Space Signage (Photo credit: jarkatmu)

I don’t get it.

I know a few people who loathe being by themselves for any length of time, but I wonder why that is…if you’re healthy and solvent — as being alone when you’re really sick and/or broke is nasty –what’s the worst that can happen?

I’ve traveled far and wide alone, and am perfectly happy to spend time doing things solo, whether sitting at a bar, dining in a fine restaurant, attending a cultural event.

Maybe it’s because I grew up an only child and spent a fair bit of time on my own, reading, drawing, playing with toys. Maybe it’s a hold-over from years of shared space with too many strangers at boarding school and summer camp.

I like my space! I enjoy quiet solitude.

I lived alone ages 19 to 22 (then with a boyfriend), then ages 26 to 30 (then with my first husband), then alone for seven more years after my divorce.

Was I lonely? Sure, sometimes. I got weary of eating dinner while reading a magazine and having to leave my home for company.

But if you really can’t tolerate being by yourself, what does that say about the quality of your own company?

I work alone all day and, most days, speak only to people I am interviewing by phone or, occasionally, to clients or editors. It’s a little monastic, I admit, but I guess I’ve grown to enjoy it and even prefer it. I hate being interrupted. I lose focus.

Journalism, too, is really a business for loners. We rarely work in teams, usually off on our own stories.

Here’s a recent blog post about restaurants where you can sit at a long, shared table with strangers — in NYC, Vancouver, Portland, Oregon and others.

How do you feel about spending time alone?

Do you savor and enjoy it — or dread and avoid it?


60 thoughts on “Are you scared to be alone?

  1. Likewise, I am very comfortable being alone. I can eat, fly, see a movie, travel, go to museums, shop and live alone. All of the aforementioned have been events or tasks various individuals at one point in life specifically expressed great surprise I could do those tasks alone, AND enjoy them. And, to be honest, there are times or specific activities I truly prefer to be alone.
    I have had the pleasure of being home since end of March, and this is the first time since age 14 I have not been employed by a formal organization. I have savored this time of being able focus on writing, my family and take some classes for enjoyment. When I get lonely, I reach out to a friend… however, with social media and being a mother, I don’t get lonely too often.

    I do agree if one is avoiding being alone (or being with others, on the extreme), some reflection is very necessary. Ideally, one should be capable/comfortable in both realms.

    Great reflection, as always!

  2. I actually enjoy spending time alone. It allows me to think, write, and read in peace. What would I do if I was constantly surrounded by people? I wouldn’t even know.
    And some of my interests are not shared by anyone I know, so it’s necessary that I go alone. I have a feeling when I see the Carrie remake, it’ll be by myself.

  3. This resonates with me so very well. I was an only child; I went to art school where I hid myself away from everyone with just my music, my sketchbook, easel, or my camera, and my creativity; and now I’m an independent contractor where I spend several hours a day, driving, alone, in my car, as I go from school to school to work with their journalism departments.
    And traveling, that’s the best time to be alone! The first time I went to Italy, I was hellbent on finding the Harley Davidson store in Rome. So I grabbed a map, my wallet, my camera, and I set off to the other side of town. I had a general idea as to where I was going — I knew it was close to the Villa Borghese…which I had been to about 3 weeks earlier…but I wasn’t exactly sure. But what was the worst that could happen? Oh, I did forget to mention though, I didn’t speak Italian at the time, and this was in 2005 — before the wide onset of smart phones, and phones we could use when traveling abroad. So, I get to the Harley store — which is also right next to the Lamborghini store! — and there is a sign on it. I can’t read it…but it has dates, conveniently spanning the particular date I was there, and the shop was locked up tight. They were on vacation. Oops. About that time, some Roman cops pulled up to check on me…they suggested I not be there alone. Yay. What the hell did I get myself into? So I started walking back…past the US Embassy, past the adorable US soldiers outside of the US Embassy, past some sketchy characters, and then I happened upon The Hard Rock Cafe. Perfect timing…since I’d been in Italy for about a month at this point, and I hadn’t had a cheeseburger since I’d left the States. Let alone a chocolate milkshake. And fries. Oh my goodness…it was perfect. It came out to be about a $50 meal…but it was great. The waiter was very upset at the fact that I had a table for two and I was alone. Why? If I want to eat alone, I’m going to eat alone. If I want to sit and sip my chocolate milkshake while people watching, I’m going to do that. You can learn so much about culture — especially foreign culture — when you just sit, quietly, and observe. Study. After stuffing myself with yummy American goodness, I started out again…heading toward the metro. I finally got to it, jumped on…acted like I knew exactly where I was and where I was going. Not a single person bothered me.
    So it dawned on at that very moment. Being alone, is all about the confidence. If you want to go out alone, you need to own it. If you own it, you won’t look out of place in the least. So, the second time I went to Italy, I embraced that theory in every city we went to. If I could break away from my study abroad group, I was gone. I saw so many different places, faces, artworks, street performers, food carts, etc. that nobody else saw. I saw a guy in Venice playing music on his little glasses of water. When I showed people the pictures and the video of it…they were insanely jealous and wanted to know where to go to see him. I had no clue…I was just roaming around! Same thing with the little shoe cobbler that made my beautiful black pumps…no clue where his shop was. Though, for selfish purposes, I do wish I could remember, I really could use another pair of handmade Italian leather stilettos.
    I’m rambling…and reminiscing… Thank you for the lovely thoughts. I fully agree — time alone is a beautiful thing.

  4. I enjoy quiet time and being alone, but I’m still nervous when I go into a restaurant alone. I don’t know why. I can go anyplace else–a museum, a library, a store–but there’s something about sitting in a restaurant alone. I feel as if everyone is staring at me and I don’t know what to do with myself until my food comes.

    I remind myself that I’m a writer and a people-watcher and this would be the perfect time to study people. If I can convince myself, I’m home free. But I can’t always.

    I’ve traveled alone many times but have never had the guts to go alone to places I’ve never been before. Maybe some day.

    I have never lived alone, but have been alone for days at a time. Those days I relished because they were rare. I haven’t thought about living alone, but I think I could do it as long as I wasn’t too far away from friends and family.

    1. I hear this from many women — the restaurant thing. I always take a magazine, book or newspaper. If people are staring…let ’em stare!

      I’ve traveled alone to many new places, some in my work as a journalist. I spent four months traveling alone in Portugal, Italy, France and Spain when I was 22. I have so many great memories of that time. I’m eager to head off and so some more.

  5. I think it depends on how my day’s going. I grew up with 4 sister and so at times I really gravitate towards loud, people filled spaces. Then there are times I enjoy walking on my own and wandering…thinking to myself. Or having a complete void in my brain. Even I am not present! ahah.

    The most alone I have been was on the farm with no one withing a 10km radius for 3 days. There is only so much talking to the dog you can do before you start to get a bit restless. I only managed 3 days…and was meant to be alone for a week. I ended up staying on the coast surrounded by friends and had a much more enjoyable time!

    Again coming from a large family I feel most “settled” when there are people near by.

    I love reading though, and that’s my complete alone time…even if there is chaos around me I get sucked into the moment, and a good book is my escape (hell hot yoga as well…surrounded by bodies but no speaking).

    When I lived in Toronto on my own, I would walk for miles. Or I would sit in a coffee shop and write. Just to be near people. It made me feel less alone.

    1. As you know, I grew up in Toronto. I’ve been told by people who move there that it’s a tough town in which to make friends.

      Until you’ve got a good solid network, it’s comforting to have people around. I get that.

      1. Definitely. Oddly enough, all my time sitting at the local coffee shop…I made friends there with a really fun, intelligent group of 20 somethings. They were my sanity from corporate life.

        Here in Perth, I am home on my own alot.

  6. One of the very, very positive aspects in my mind of company is having people to bounce ideas off of. After 4 years of a relationship, I started realizing that when I am overwhelmed or dead tired and can’t figure out how to solve problems, I have someone whose opinion is always available. It really does make me feel safer in the world–just not knowing I don’t have to think everything through entirely on my own. Two heads really are sometimes better than one. I’m sure some people just get bored with their own company, but I think people who are genuinely afraid of solitude want the reassurance of someone else’s perspective.

    1. Interesting.

      I agree that having no one to share ideas with can be isolating — Jose and I ask one another for advice a lot, and I appreciate that we work in the same industry, so he gets much of what I deal with and why. One of the most difficult pieces of being a writer is not being able to bounce my ideas off others; I do, sometimes, but also am quite protective of my intellectual property, as is prudent.

  7. I savor alone time to think, write and do it all again 🙂 Never have I looked at a day and said, oh now, how will I pass time… Still, I do wonder if I will have enough time to think and write as much as I would like to. While I enjoy people just fine, I can go for long periods without really seeing any. I like that about myself because I’ve seen others who cannot spend a moment alone and it’s really strange to witness. Growing up with many in family could have caused me to seek more quiet, solace, thinking time. Whenever I am around people who cannot stand to be alone, I find myself wanting to pull them off me, as though their stickiness won’t go… lol Then I see others who are at the other extreme and need no people at all, nor do they want them and I wonder if they ever long for a comforting word or touch of a good friend. I guess I’m pretty balanced after all… LOL Thanks for your piece and your couch 😉

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      I also shrink away from people who are excessively needy or demand my constant attention. But I also know some people who seem to have no need at all for others, and wonder why that is.

      I think being alone is necessary for reflection. How can anyone think deeply if someone is always yammering in their ear?

  8. I have no problem being by myself. I live alone– well, not entirely alone. My faithful dog Reggie is a terrific companion, but he hasn’t yet learned to enjoy a good movie or glass of wine.

    I enjoy my own company. I think that’s how you really get to know who you are. On my shelf is a copy of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech, Solitude of Self. I’m paraphrasing here…she says that to be solitary is to explore what it means to be human because that is how we can find the miracle of our uniqueness.

    1. I bet Reggie is big movie fan. 🙂

      I’d like to read that book. She sounds wise (as we’d expect!)

      I think some people are afraid of solitude because…what if they don’t like what they hear or see in their own company? Having other distractions all the time (including technology and social media) seems like clutching a big security blanket. The way people CANNOT let go of their phones now strikes me as sad and weird, as though only through others’ attention are they real or valuable.

  9. I admit that there are times when I dislike being alone, but those times reflect my most insecure times within myself. They are times when I feel LONELY not just alone, and that can be very hard. But most of the time I enjoy being alone. I will leave the house and work in a coffee shop sometimes if the silence becomes too heavy, but other times I relish it. My favorite thing in the world (which I don’t do often enough) is to walk into a movie theatre and buy a ticket to the first movie playing, doesn’t matter what it is, and sit in the theatre waiting for the movie to start even if I’m there early. There’s something about the silence of the theater crowd comes that gives me the freedom to just be. I also love to sit in a darkened theater before the technical rehearsals begin, when it is just me and the lights and the theater ghosts. I only struggle with being alone when I feel like it is not by choice.

    1. So true.

      I love going to movies, and Jose does not, so I often go my by myself. I enjoy the communal experience (when people are quiet.)

      I don’t enjoy Monday mornings because Jose is gone again for the week’s work, and I’m on my own for another five days at home. I miss his company. I may rent a co-working space one day a week just to break that routine.

      1. That seems like a great option. I like working where there are people even if I don’t want to work with the people. I think that’s why I do a lot of my grading/writing (or at least editing) in coffee shops. If I lived in NYC I would definitely look into a co-working space.

      2. I actually live in a small town north of NYC but we’ve had this space for a few years. I prefer it to a coffee shop — I don’t want to hear a lot of noise or worry about needing to vacate my seat. But I would edit there — not write.

  10. Solitude is great, if it’s your decision, of course. I’m OK with it, (but I’m not even sure if lollygagging around on the Internet even qualifies.) I eat out alone quite a bit, and in some places it feels more awkward than others, but as far as being comfortable with my own company, it seems like it gets easier the older I get. There were times when I was much younger that I couldn’t stand it.
    My question to you was, do you make a distinction between the fear of solitude and the fear of looking like you can’t get a date, so to speak? Is New York City more hospitable to the lone diner than, say, downtown Des Moines?

    1. I’ve never worried about that…I really doubt most people even notice us as much as we seem to think they do! My solution — in all but the most formal places — is to sit and eat at the bar. I always find someone fun to talk to there.

      I also think NYC probably is less conventional in expectations of “normal” behavior…filled with tourists and interns and people new here,. i.e. lots of people are not “coupled up” nor even want to be. And even people in happy couples want to be alone sometimes….don’t they?

  11. I certainly enjoy my alone time. For someone who seems to constantly be on the move and always around people in some capacity, spending time by myself helps me reflect and relax. Admittedly, I get lonely from time to time but I have a good group of friends who I can usually reach out to and someone would be available for a pick-me-up. My puppy does his part but human interaction is needed for the lonely times — when I don’t want to be alone. 🙂

  12. I can be alone in a crowd of people. I observe and listen. That is part of my personality as an artist and a writer. One of my favorite things to do is going shopping alone and then having lunch at a nearby cafe alone. But at night, I am so grateful to have the companionship of my husband. I need to think and work and can’t really do that without absolute peace and quiet.

    1. I’ve very rarely gone shopping with someone else — groceries with Jose. But I prefer to do it alone.

      I do enjoy Jose’s company ay night; after an entire workday alone, I’m hungry for some company.

  13. Caitlin- I think you summed it up nicely, “if you really can’t tolerate being by yourself, what does that say about the quality of your own company?”

    During my 10 years abroad, I was always traveling alone, except times when my daughter joined me for Christmas break travels. I learned to give my self some slack- if I was in a new city, I might take a day to luxuriate under a down comforter and not bind myself to a schedule of “must do” items. When I felt rejuvenated, I was a much better tourist or people-watcher, and I took more time to enjoy and remember. That was the best gift to myself as a solo traveler.

    One happy result was the time I found the most wonderful market on snowy night in Paris. Leaving my hotel late one evening, I could smell a breeze of something cooking and followed the scent to a huge copper kettle in an open-air market, bubbling with creamy potatoes, onion, and ham. Perfect for a cold night! If I had been with others, I doubt anyone would have gone out at that hour- and I would have missed that serendipitous experience!

  14. I am nervous about traveling alone but whenever I’ve done it I have a great time and end up quite proud of myself. I do regret never living alone except for the two weeks prior to getting married when I had rented an apartment. It was wonderful having an entire apartment to myself. I have a friend who travels to Europe for vacation once a year by herself and it looks like an amazing experience.

  15. Today’s students have an unbelievably tough time being alone in the digital age, because to be truly alone, you’ve got to disconnect.
    As for me, my favorite time this summer was a solitary weekend trip to Belgium. I did have my phone as a research and map tool, but for the most part, I had a paper map. It was an invigorating experience, and gave me plenty of time with just my thoughts and sensory observations.

    1. Indeed you do! I wonder what sort of psychological sequelae will result from the inability to digitally wean.

      I’m a map girl…Sounds like a great trip…it’s fun (unless you’re ill/broke) to explore one one’s own.

  16. i love my time alone and value it very highly. i do enjoy people but also need this solitary time to regain my balance and recharge. recently i heard the author of “quiet,” on npr and checked it out. it’s all about being an introvert in a world that prized extroverts. found out i’m really an introvert who gets along in this extrovert world but always saw myself as an extrovert, very eye-opening. one of the true introvert traits is the need/desire to have solitary time to recharge.

    1. I always refer to myself as a gregarious introvert because while I fit in nicely in a room full of people and can be very social (I used to be in sales) I must have time alone to recharge. It’s not negotiable.

  17. I have to have time alone and lots of it or I am a terrible to be around.

    The most important line for me in my husband’s dating profile on Guardian Soulmates almost six years ago was the one that said his ideal match would ” … understand the need for space of one’s own. ”

    I remember thinking, ” Finally, someone who won’t glom on to my life leaving me no breathing room and he understands the need for time alone. ”

    I wrote about how much he meant those words and what he did to show me in the post below.

    As for movies and meals out, I don’t mind doing either alone, although a meal out is almost always a bit nicer when shared.

    1. Interesting…Jose and I are very much like this as well. I get irritated when people won’t stop talking. It’s exhausting. I love a great conversation, but also like my space. I need time to think, to noodle, to putter. People who can’t bear to be alone, or leave others alone, are wearying to me.

      1. Noodle and putter, that’s me too although in the UK you would be more likely to hear someone use the word, pootle as in ” I’m just pootling about or I’m going to have a little pootle around.”

  18. I am and always have been comfortable with doing things on my own, including travel, dining, movies, etc. and, like you, don’t get people who aren’t. These days, when creative time is so scarce, I have grown to really value my solitude (as opposed to feeling lonely). An ideal afternoon is several hours of writing with classical music playing softly in the background, and my dog sleeping at my feet. The only thing that would make it better is if we lived in a more spacious, more natural environment. I just blogged about my fantasy of moving to a rural environment or small town, somewhere with less distractions, buildings and noise. I also love the company of my wild and crazy family but that’s different. I love it when I’m with them, but afterwards I need to decompress.

    1. I suspect anyone drawn to journalism is a looks like a people-focused business, and it is, but in short, limited bursts (interviews) with most of our time spent alone or with the computer. I like that mix.

  19. I’m at the extreme end of the introvert scale, so I require time alone, and lots of it. The wordless contact of strangers – accidental brushing, glancing eye contact, interruption of trajectory and thus, rhythm when walking – builds up like a layer of grime i desperately need to get off regularly. Travelling alone for 6 months has been an eye opener in this regard. While I got plenty of time alone, I then realized that I also needed human company to interact with in small doses (something I never anticipated before this crazy journey). That was a mystery that took a fair bit of head scratching to work out.

    These days I am travelling with someone who values their alone time as much as I do, so it’s possible to be alone, together. Match made in heaven?

    1. Interesting. I traveled alone for four months when I was 22 and was sometimes excruciatingly lonely. But I also enjoyed my time and my experiences unfiltered and uninterrupted.

      Jose and I are happy to go off on our own when we travel. It took a while for him to be OK with that, but it works.

      1. I’ve had periods of being extremely lonely in the last few months. It took me a decent while to actually identify that feeling though, as it’s not one I’m familiar with, as I’ve been fairly solitary my whole life.

        Do you find that periods of being alone enhances your mutual travel experience?

      2. Absolutely. Jose adores playing golf (almost invariably a lot cheaper and therefore more affordable/tempting to do a lot when we are away from suburban NY) and I have begun playing at as well. But given the choice of a flea market or antiques mall, or a great lunch or museum…I’d take those instead. We are fine spending a day apart then coming back with fresh news — and lots of photos/stories to share and compare. I’ve read of couples who have never (!?) spent a night apart. I’d suffocate.

  20. I find I need some alone time at reasonably regular intervals just to allow my own thoughts space in my head. Without it I can get to a point where the thought of dealing with one more person, even a good friend or family member is more than I can stomach. I grew up looking after my younger sister while both our parents worked, so alone time was not an option before she was asleep or one of them was home. Throughout my childhood, the only place I could go for any privacy in my parents’ house was the WC. I used to take a stack of books with me and sit on the closed toilet lid and let the world retreat to a safe enough distance that I could relax.

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