As individuals all over the country are being advised to self-isolate, the news has been met with unexpected glee among one group of people: introverts. “I’ve been practising #selfisolation for the past 20 years,” tweeted BBC employee Toby Cox, while poet and performer Susan Richardson mused: “I’m finding the notion of #selfisolation so enticing.”
A year ago, this response would have baffled me. As an extrovert, I struggled to spend even an hour in my own company, so the prospect of 14 days alone would have seemed even more daunting than the coronavirus itself. That all changed in January 2019, when I made a new year resolution to learn to enjoy spending time alone.
I was fresh out of a long-term relationship with someone just as extroverted as myself – a relationship where we made time for one another, and for our respective social lives, but neither of us carved out time to be alone. I was also living by myself for the first time in my life.
In many ways, this was my biggest fear realised. But I also recognised that it was now or never to learn to tackle my fear of solo time. So I leaned in to my situation – forgoing Tinder swiping for dates with myself and parties for nights in. I even took my first solo holiday to Paris, following wherever curiosity led me through the city of romance.
This journey hasn’t been without its setbacks. I can no longer visit my local café, after I was asked to leave by the owner, who took offence to my sitting there alone, reading the newspaper on my iPad. “Customers like to see people talking to each other,” she reasoned, refusing to hand me a menu and pointing to a newly erected “No iPads or laptops” sign.
But that’s small fodder compared with what I’ve gained. If it’s any consolation to those contemplating self-isolation right now, I can tell you this: learning to spend time alone has changed my life.
I now have greater self-esteem, more confidence and, in general, I feel happier, calmer and more satisfied than I did when I spent next to no time alone. Relationships with others have changed, too. For instance, looking after my own needs has allowed me to stop putting unrealistic demands on other people – and I also feel like I have more energy for my loved ones.
Inspired by my own journey, I started my blog – alonement.com – to inspire others to enjoy the benefits of time spent by themselves. Alonement is a word I coined myself. It fills a gap in the English language because it’s a positive word for spending time alone, a practice that has previously only been articulated in a negative light: “solitude”, “loneliness”, “recluse”. Even the phrase “I feel alone” has sour connotations.
We often read headlines about being in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. And while it’s undeniable that there are issues of social isolation that need tackling – a reality underlined when the UK appointed its first “loneliness minister” in 2018 – we also need to remember that “alone” and “lonely” don’t mean the same thing.
If loneliness is one end of the spectrum, alonement – taking joy in time alone – is the other. A University of California study in 2017 found that harnessing “solitude skills” – effectively, the skills that help us thrive in our alone time – could reap benefits for everyone, even extroverted individuals who are said to energise through time with other people. Study author Dr Virginia Thomas concluded that solitude serves exactly the same function for introverts and extroverts: “Introverts just need more of it.” Done well, alone time is something we could all benefit from – regardless of our age, life stage or relationship status.
I started recording my podcast, also called Alonement, late last year. The first series, out this month, features a range of guests, from philosopher Alain de Botton to body-positive model Jada Sezer, extolling the benefits of being alone. I hope it will begin a cultural shift in our attitudes towards solitude.
Although in its early stages, Alonement has received an overwhelmingly positive response from my followers, who tell me that my posts have given them the confidence to practise more self-care, or even book a solo adventure. I’m also so grateful to my wonderful podcast guests, all high-profile names who have agreed to be interviewed purely because they love the concept of alonement.
Some guests truly surprised me. BBC radio presenter Jo Good, for instance, is known for her bubbly, extrovert persona on air, but she confesses that her solo time means everything to her: “Being alone to me is such an attractive word.”
Journalist Daisy Buchanan, who like me spent her twenties leaning in to her extroverted personality, says alone time has become increasingly important to her now she’s reached her thirties: “What I’ve realised now is the value of time alone. I’m finding out who I am – and I’m really excited about having this core of myself that I don’t have to share.”
Everyone has a different relationship with being alone – whether they find it challenging, as I once did, or constantly find themselves defending their need for alone time to loved ones.
Yet the one thing all my podcast guests have in common is that they have nurtured their relationship with themselves in order to help them get where they are today. And if they’re happy to spend time alone, I hope others will be inspired to follow suit.
To quote de Botton on the podcast: “We need to make the state of being alone, in the best possible way, glamorous. You need to show people who’ve got options doing the thing that, unfairly, we’ve come to associate with people who have no options.” Alonement is restorative, emboldening and ultimately aspirational.
I’ve discovered that first-hand – and now I want the rest of the world to know it, too.