Did you know that learning how to be alone is one of the most important steps in eating disorder recovery?
It’s essential to learn the difference between aloneness and loneliness. Loneliness is a very normal emotion; sometimes we pine for other people, and we do need community in order to be emotionally (and physically!) healthy. However, a critical task in life is learning how to be alone, how to enjoy your own company, how to not need other people to entertain yourself or feel good about yourself.
"It’s a very important part of living a full and happy life: learning how to be alone and not lonely."
Things that Make Alone Time Challenging
Unfortunately many people with eating disorders don’t want to face being alone, so they spend much of their lives fearing aloneness and keeping themselves artificially busy. This can lead to being a workaholic, just to avoid alone time. The stress of avoiding aloneness can also trigger eating disorder symptoms. Being alone with oneself can be daunting.
Fear: If you’re afraid to be alone, one of the causes can be deep, subconscious fears. For example, perhaps you are afraid to face feelings about a painful experience; perhaps you are afraid to think about people that have hurt you in the past, or experiences that are hurting you now. You can feel uncomfortable with those emotions, so you stay super busy in order to avoid them.
Low Self-Esteem: When you’re alone, do you tend to think badly about yourself? You may also avoid being alone because a lot of negative body image messages can arise during that time. You may fear you will binge and purge with all of the available privacy.
Mortality: And of course Sigmund Freud would like this one: Most fears of being alone stem from not wanting to think about death. If you don’t sit still, then you don’t need to think about the fact that life is not permanent. You may want to avoid thinking about what is your purpose in life or if you are truly satisfied with how your life is turning out so far.
These are difficult feelings to manage, and a lot of people I see with eating disorders in counseling are terrified to be alone for these reasons.
I’ll now tell you what I tell them: even though these issues are difficult, it is extremely important to learn to face them.
Being Confident In Yourself Makes All the Difference
You need to discover that you’re worth knowing and that sometimes it’s better to prefer your own company to hanging around people who haven’t earned your friendship. The goal is for you to be able to confidently say, “If I didn’t have any friends or love relationships, I would still find lots of cool stuff to do and things to think about on my own because I like myself.”
"You need to truly believe to your core that you’re an awesome person if you want others to think so, too!"
Getting Past My Own Fears
I want to tell a personal story about how you can start to practice being alone and facing your fears, whatever they are.
I have to make a confession⎯before I went to college, and I was a bit of a TV addict. I grew up watching a lot of television and the TV was always on in my house.
When I arrived at college my freshman year, I decided to live for an entire year without television and break my “addiction”. I’m really not sure why I made that decision, except that it’s my nature to challenge myself, and I knew deep down that television was filling a void and deep uneasiness I had about being alone.
I had a little apartment and the first few months without TV were excruciating. I didn’t know what to do with myself! I was alone with my feelings. I was alone with myself. I realized I didn’t know who I was. Those first few months were extremely stressful. I was climbing out of my skin. I wanted to go out and buy the biggest TV I could find!
But I avoided my impulse to do that. Instead, an interesting thing happened. As I sat with my feelings and the discomfort of being alone, I started to calm down. I began to do a lot of cooking, writing, and started new hobbies. I regularly had friends over for dinner. I would sit quietly for hours and think about issues that were meaningful to me. I read. I became calmer and less anxious. I discovered a lot of things about myself I liked.
I no longer dreaded being alone.
I cut out TV for an entire year and changed for the better as a person. It was a very healthy experience for me.
How can you bring that experiment into your life? You certainly don’t have to cut TV out for a whole year like I did, but you could do it for a week. One of the assignments I give my clients is to sit by themselves alone with no distractions for 15 minutes a day. Some people find it extremely uncomfortable even to do that.
Just keep trying!
Tolerate your discomfort, and eventually it will pass. You’ll learn what an awesome, magnificent person you are!
What are your fears of being alone? And what would you like to do about it?