A few years ago I was on a date with a girl who really changed my mindset on the importance of spending time by myself. She was very expressive and open and seemed in touch with herself. At the time I was taking myself very seriously. Between my neuroscience research, undergrad studies, and church service I wasn't leaving much time to think openly or abstractly. The people and assignments in my life were taking over, making it so I didn’t have time to get to know myself. I was surprised when this girl took note of my intensity and challenged me to go to dinner or the movies by myself.
Maybe this was a creative way to shut me down for another date, but I accepted the challenge. Being willing to do these things by myself turned out to be an experiment in insecurity. Ultimately, however, it was a way to find incredible self confidence in being willing to be by myself. I’ve now done this many times in a number of ways and always come away more in tune with myself. This self awareness makes me better prepared to engage with the people around me.
It’s surprising how often each of us worry about our social situation or experience loneliness and lack of connection, yet how little time we spend exploring ourselves. I’ve learned that spending time by myself actually enhances my ability to connect with other people. It turns out that as I spend time understanding myself it helps me understand and connect with others. In the end I have more to contribute, and a better understanding of the world around me.
Ways to spend time by yourself
Once we become comfortable spending time by ourselves and develop who we truly are, we become more attractive to the people around us. In many ways spending time by ourselves brings personal confidence. I’ve taken time to get to know myself in a number of ways, each bringing a different sense of connection.
I love taking random classes for purely the experience, with no obligation to become an expert. Earlier this year I took an improv class, before that a class on healthcare innovation. In the past I’ve taken classes on web design, American Sign Language, and an intensive 10 day course on meditation. I often do these classes by myself. While I do end up making new friends, the ultimate purpose is to get to know myself better. To challenge myself in some way and see what results.
It's not necessarily about building a new repertoire of skills, though with a few of these classes I have gained new skills. It's more about getting outside of my comfort zone and experiencing the world around me. If nothing else it's given me something to talk about with others and share more interesting things than whatever Netflix show I’m binging.
I spend a lot of time in the mountains by myself. Whether it’s hiking, trail running, hammocking, fishing, or mountain biking, escaping from people and obligations for a few hours is absolutely healing for my soul. The connection that I feel in nature as I disengage from my hectic reality refreshes my mind. This time away from people and digital devices reduces my connectivity with reality for a moment, but enhances my ability to connect when I return.
Whether it's meditating, sitting on a blanket outside, or staring at the ceiling it's interesting to see what thoughts come to our minds when we are left to ourselves. I often sense an instant void when I'm not actively doing something. The feeling to fill that quiet moment with instant gratification through social media or Netflix streaming is almost uncontrollable. These urges to be distracted are attachments, our mind’s addictions surfacing. Learning to do nothing allows us to gain control of our minds and learn to not react to urges.
In our world today this takes real discipline. Try sitting still or meditating for 5 minutes, or lying in the grass without pulling out your phone, getting up to walk around, or doing the 5 tasks that will immediately come to your mind. It can be surprisingly hard! Yet these quiet moments allow us to reorder what is important. Instead of reacting to momentary urges, our minds become refreshed and lightened.
I read a book called ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron that involves different methods of improving your creativity. One method is called the Artist’s date and involves getting out and going to cultural events by yourself. We often associate museums, movies, eating out, exhibits as social events. I recently went on a gallery stroll with some friends. While this experience with friends was enjoyable, I look back on the artwork and artists that I may have misjudged or not made time for because of the group of people I was with.
This experience contrasts with the time I went to the symphony by myself. Full disclosure: I may have called a number of girls who couldn’t go. Instead of abandoning the tickets I embraced the opportunity to go by myself. As I sat down in the concert hall the initial awkwardness went away and I was able to enjoy the moment, unaffected by the experience of others.
Find your own opportunity to do cultural things by yourself. Try new things and see how your mind reacts without the influence of others. There is an independence and confidence gained when we have cultural experiences by ourselves. We come to understand ourselves, while also making more time for the experiences around us.
I love to read, and find that reading is a private moment for me to develop my own mindset. Having these private, reflective moments are socially accepted in terms of reading, but our mind initially rejects the idea of having similar moments in public by ourselves. Give it a try.
Netflix Doesn’t count
Some may think, ‘I spend lots of time alone!’ Hours streaming your favorite TV show, scanning Instagram or Facebook feeds don’t count. These activities can actually delay getting to know yourself. Instead of prompting internal thought they are often mindless fillers in between your next social activity or obligation. The activities mentioned earlier force you to spend time alone with your mind, uninterrupted. Such activities bring your social anxieties to the surface and force you to develop a personal awareness and confidence.
One exception is going to the movies alone. I’ve spent time alone in movie theaters watching films that interested me, while being forced to face the social anxiety of being surrounded by strangers made up of families and groups of friends.
Regardless of the method you attempt, the ultimate goal is to confidently explore yourself. Instead of relying on others for validation or to define your opinions, spend time exploring the world around you alone. These moments in solitude will make you more interesting and a better friend. Taking time to understand yourself on a regular basis will round you out as a person, allowing you and others to discover your deeper self.