In Defense of Being Alone (and How It's Different from Being Lonely!)

I am the first person from my high school to apply to and ultimately attend Kenyon College. I had known early on in my high school career that I wanted to leave the Northeast for college because I needed a fresh start. Understanding that while I was going to forge my own path, I would also go into college not knowing anyone. It was much needed for me, but that didn’t make the thought any less terrifying!

I remember what it felt like observing all the people together on campus for the first time when I moved in last semester: old friends eagerly saying hi to each other, new friends trying to make a steady conversation and get to know each other. I didn’t know what to do, but I do remember distracting myself by feeling preoccupied with how I was going to set up my dorm room. By the time my mom got into the car and drove away from campus, I got this sinking feeling in my stomach, knowing that I’m actually alone.

The start of freshman year is always a weird, uncomfortable experience, but you can almost always take solace in the fact that no one knows each other. However, all of a sudden it felt like I was the only person without a group of friends to hang out with. I would walk to the dining hall and find clumps of people together making impromptu dinner plans and, meanwhile, here I was all by myself. I would walk back to my dorm from class and find classmates together walking along Middle Path. Meanwhile, I felt like I was trying to sustain myself on awkward small talk with people in the elevator in my dorm building. Fortunately, I did settle into campus and found a wonderful, eccentric group of friends and I was able to connect with my floormates, all of whom taught me the importance of putting myself out there and getting involved. However, the cycle ended up repeating itself.

woman in white long-sleeve shirt looking out a rainy window Photo by Leonardo Pavão from Pexels

Kenyon College changed its policy for the spring semester of the school year and would not allow first-years to return to campus unless they request a special exception. While I was lucky enough to return to campus, the majority of my friends and classmates could not. The beginning of the spring semester, for me, was characterized by the snow everywhere on campus and the bitter cold, forcing everyone to hibernate inside during an already isolating year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

How did things turn around so quickly though? In the midst of both of these experiences, where I had never felt so alone before, I had considered coming back home or even deferring until I called a close family friend, Preet. Both times, I called Preet and told her that I had felt so alone, and she promptly asked me, “Are you alone or are you lonely?”

I paused and then responded with, “What’s the difference?”

She took a breath and said, “Sweetheart, you can be alone and not feel lonely. And on the other hand, you can be surrounded by a crowd of people and feel so lonely. You may be physically alone right now, but you are not lonely. Think of the connections you do have: you have your mom, you have me, and you have your friends from back home. Even as you are trying to make friends now and build these relationships with them, you always have someone to talk to, even if you have to reach back to find them, because you connected with them. When you truly connect with people, it is very difficult to feel genuinely lonely.” I was struck by Preet’s words. I instantly felt better once I remembered the amount of people I could reach out to, but I still had the problem of knowing what to do or how to feel when I’m alone in the meantime.

After some careful self-reflection and plenty of experimentation on things to do, here are three of the biggest reasons why I think being alone is good, even enjoyable:

1. You are free to pursue your hobbies and passions.

We are always so bogged down by our daily commitments whether it be classes, work, community involvement, athletics, etc. In these cases, the opportunities to be alone and have free time come very far and few in between. In the wise words of Parks and Recreation, “treat yo’ self!” Was there a novella you were working on over winter break? Start working on it again! Have you always wanted to pick up watercolor painting? Try it! When you get to be alone, you can resume activities that you enjoy and don’t have to deal with anyone else’s feelings about it, especially if you are a college student or live on your own.

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2. You get to genuinely listen to the voice inside your head.

I find that when you socialize with others it makes it easier to not listen to the voice inside your head. Whether you like it or not, we all have that little voice. The next time you are alone, for however long that is, take some time to listen to that little voice and hear what it has to say. Believe me, I understand that listening to the voice inside your head can be difficult or make you feel bad about yourself, but try your best to be diplomatic with it. It is easier said than done, but when you listen to that voice, free from distractions, you can learn the difference between what is real from what is not true.

In my experience, when you practice some techniques like mindfulness, meditation, or journaling your inner thoughts stream-of-consciousness-style, this can teach you to be kinder to yourself (I’m talking to all of you inner-critics out there!). Besides this, sometimes that little voice is trying so hard to tell you something that you are not consciously aware of. When you’re alone, hopefully, you can finally hear it. We’re always surrounded by other’s opinions of ourselves whether it be due to family expectations or some role we’re ascribed to in our friend groups, but listening to that voice allows you to discern your opinions from that of others. In other words, learning to listen to that little voice in your head lets you learn more about yourself.

woman doing yoga at sunset Photo by kike vega from Unsplash

3. You learn to appreciate your relationships with others even more.

Imagine the feeling you get whenever you see someone whom you really care about for the first time in a while. Yeah, that feeling! This feeling has definitely taken on a very different, very real meaning for all of us now after this crazy year. But, when you are alone or give yourself some “me-time,” you get to appreciate those relationships so much more. Again, being alone all the time is not good (please remember to socialize with other people!), but in moderation it allows you to find and appreciate all of the little good things in your relationships that maybe you took for granted or were oblivious to. You can’t be super social all the time, so by taking a page out of the classic Introvert Book and allowing your social batteries to recharge, you can take the time to appreciate the time you are spending with your friends and loved ones.

Woman reading book with friends Photo by Alexis Brown from Unsplash

Please keep in mind that there is a fine line between being alone and isolating yourself from others. When you are alone, you get to do your own thing, and you should enjoy that! When you’re isolating yourself from others for any reason, however, it can be extremely detrimental to your mental health and your relationships with others. 

While it took me some time to appreciate being alone and acclimating (and re-acclimating!) to life on campus, these three realizations made me learn to look at being alone in a positive way. During the times I found myself alone quite frequently at the beginning of each semester this year, I took the opportunity to understand how I can make myself happy and feel satisfied with being on my own. After some trial and error, some things that worked for me were resuming my meditation and yoga practice, journaling, and acrylic painting. While these activities helped the time pass by, they also encouraged some self-reflection and provided a lot of stress relief for me as I was balancing schoolwork with strengthening my social connections. These things worked for me, but they may not work for you and that’s okay. Take the time to find what does work! 

I’m happy to say now that I’ve been able to find some amazing friends who care about me, encourage me to try new things, and can even find myself talking to them for hours until the early morning. But, I don’t think I would have been able to do this if I hadn’t had that conversation with Preet about the difference between being alone and being lonely, and learning to appreciate spending time with myself. Being alone, I argue, is a form of self-care because it gives you the chance to reset and take the time you need to adapt to the world around you if you’re starting a new chapter in your life. Eventually, I realized that if you can’t learn to love being by yourself, you won’t be able to love being with other people. So, the next time you have some ample time alone, give yourself permission to catch up with yourself.