Being Alone Isn’t the Same as Being Lonely

“Solitude is fine but you need someone to tell you that solitude is fine.” - Honoré de Balzac

5 min. read

My post about going to see a movie by yourself has stirred up some wonderful conversations. And the title of this post is the most interesting thought that’s come from it, and I want to dive right in.

Being alone isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good, necessary, healthy thing. It’s a time to reflect, to appreciate, to think, to create, to process your life. Reflection and synthesis of ideas is crucial to learning and growing, and for many people this can only be done when they are alone. Kierkegaard nails this with one of my favorite quotes: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Damn, Kierkegaard, I bet you spent a ton of time alone.

So why are we so damned afraid of being alone?

Because we’re afraid others will think we’re lonely. There’s something wrong with lonely people, or else why wouldn’t they have people around them? There must be something broken about them! If you learn someone is lonely, you best stay away from them. Leave them to their cats. Loneliness results in more loneliness; it’s a beast that feeds itself. (Please know that I don’t believe any of this — or at least I don’t want to, but these are thoughts that I hear in my head, because Society)

I’m not lonely! I have 2200 facebook friends. Look at all the things I share. Look at all those likes! I have all the likes! And retweets. Don’t even get me started on retweets. I have to call them RTs because I get so many I don’t even have time for all those other letters. Look at me on Instagram! Follow me! #TeamFollowBack Connect with me! Please, please, connect with me. How am I so damned lonely?! Nobody else feels this lonely. Look at all the friends they have on Facebook. Look at all those likes they’re getting…

We are living in a time when it’s easy to feel uncomfortable being alone, because there are so many ways you can “be” with other people. So we’re never truly alone. And that makes it ever more uncomfortable when we feel lonely.

I saw someone post a photo on Facebook last Friday night of themselves with a glass of wine and the caption “Relaxing into a much-needed quiet Friday night date with myself. #DontHate”

The irony hurt. If you really want to be alone, WHY ARE YOU TELLING THE WHOLE WORLD, my brain yelled.

Then I realized I knew the answer: this person is uncomfortable being alone on a Friday night, and this is how they are trying to mitigate that discomfort.

They are seeing all of their friends posting photos of their fun nights out with dozens of people and having so much fun and internalizing all of this as something being wrong with them. Maybe they chose to be alone tonight, or maybe they got ditched by a friend, or maybe they wanted to go out and don’t really have any friends who wanted to go out with them, but, whatever the case, they were probably terrified they would slip from enjoying a night alone into being lonely on a Friday night. The first is good. The second is bad. And maybe a “like” or a reassuring comment would stave that off.

I knew the answer because I have been that person.

I spend a lot of time on the road traveling alone. And during the day, when I’m performing, or visiting a campus, or flying, eating, writing — keeping my mind busy — I’m on the road traveling alone; I’m not lonely on the road. And I enjoy it. I enjoy the aloneness. I thrive in it. But at night, when I get back to my hotel room and plop down on the bed, I regularly toe the line between being alone and being lonely.

I am usually good at landing on the enjoying a night alone side of the line, but sometimes, usually after a particularly long stretch on the road, of if a show doesn’t go as well as I want it to, I’ll find myself stumbling onto the lonely side. It probably doesn’t help that I have this disgusting and self-body-destroying habit of having a huge pizza delivered to my hotel room and eating it by myself in my underwear. And, as I am typing that, I am reminded of this:

That was at some hotel in some town on the east coast several weeks ago. I spent a ton of time on the road this fall, and was likely sharing that to stave off the internal perception of loneliness that night. Don’t get me wrong, I was also sharing it because I think it’s hilarious how disgusting I am. I don’t really eat animal stuff, and only rarely (once a month or so) eat cheese, but when I do, I do. And it’s also worth pointing out that when someone “likes” something on Instagram they give you a heart. How perfect. But ultimately, I didn’t want to feel lonely. I never want to feel lonely.

I’ve found aloneness to be one of the most powerful influences in getting to the point where I’m at right now, doing what I’m doing, living the life I’m living. By finding a way to enjoy and embrace aloneness I’ve created things and had experiences I would have never had otherwise. Loneliness is a poison, but aloneness is a catalyst. The difficult part is infusing the latter into your life without inadvertently dosing yourself with the former.

Can we stop equating being alone with being lonely? Yes. And we should. Because it’s one of the many ways we’re fabricating unhappiness, and doing ourselves a major disservice. I have been on a long journey that started many years ago into embracing and enjoying aloneness, and I’ve come a long way, but (as I greasily depicted above) still struggle.

I’ve found progress through being mindful of when I’m feeling lonely, intentional in how I allow myself to react to that feeling, and focusing on appreciating the experience I’m having instead of missing the experiences I’m not having.