The Terror of Being Alone – Free Ebook

In the privacy of our minds, one thought – highly
shameful by nature – may haunt us as we

evaluate whether to stay in or leave an unsatisfactory
relationship: what if we were to end things

and end up in a place of appalling loneliness?
We’re meant to be above such pragmatic worries.

Only cowards and reprobates would mind a few
weekends (or decades) by themselves. We’ve

heard of those books that sing the praises
of solitude (the divorcee who relocated to

a solitary hut on a bare Scottish island;
the one who went sailing around the world

in a dinghy). But we can admit that we’re
not naturals at this sort of thing: there

have been empty days when we almost lost our
minds. There was one trip that we took on

our own years back that was, behind the scenes,
a psychological catastrophe. We’re not really

in a position to wave away the dangers of
being left alone on our rock.

But without wishing to play down the dangers
unduly, there are nevertheless one or two

things we might learn to weaken our fears.
We can begin with a simple observation: it’s

typically a lot worse to be on our own on
a Saturday than on a Monday night; and a lot

worse to be alone over the festive period
than to be alone at the end of the tax year.

The physical reality and the length of time
we’re by ourselves may be identical, but

the feeling that comes with being so is entirely
different. This apparently negligible observation

holds out a clue for a substantial solution
to loneliness.

The difference between the Saturday and the
Monday night comes down to the contrast between

what being alone appears to mean on the two
respective dates. On a Monday night, our own

company feels like it brings no judgement
in its wake, it doesn’t in any way depart

from the norms of respectable society, it’s
what’s expected of decent people at the

start of a busy week: we get back from work,
make some soup, catch up on the post, do some

emails and order a few groceries, without
any sense of being unusual or cursed. The

next day, when a colleague asks us what we
got up to, we can relate the truth without

any hot prickles of shame. It was – after
all – just a Monday night. But Saturday

night finds us in a far more perilous psychological
zone: we scan our phone for any sign of a

last minute invitation, we flick through the
channels in an impatient and disconsolate

haze, we are alive to our own tragedy as we
eat tuna from a can, we take a long bath at

8.30pm to try to numb the discomfort inside
with scalding heat on the outside; and as

we prepare to turn out the light just after
ten, the high-spirited cries of revellers

walking by our house seem to convey a targeted
tone of mockery and pity. On Monday morning,

we pass over the whole horrid incident with
haste.

From this we conclude: being alone is bearable
in relation to how ‘normal’ (that highly

nebulous yet highly influential concept) the
condition feels to us at any given point;

it can either be a break from an honourably
busy life, or sure evidence that we are an

unwanted, wretched, disgusting and emotionally
diseased being.

This is tricky but ultimately very hopeful,
for it suggests that if only we could work

on what being alone means to us, we could
theoretically end up as as comfortable in

our own skin on a long summer Saturday night
filled with the joyous cries of our fellow

citizens as on the dreariest Monday in November,
and we could spend the whole holiday season

by ourselves feeling as relaxed and as unself-conscious
as we did when we were a child and hung out

for days by ourselves, tinkering with a project
in the floor of our bedroom, with no thought

in the world that anyone would as a result
think us sad or shameful. We may not – after

all – need a new companion (something which
can be hard to find in a panic); we just need

a new mindset (which we can take care of by
ourselves, starting right now).

To build ourselves a new mental model of what
being alone should truly mean, we might rehearse

a few of the following arguments:
– Our Solitude is Willed Despite what an

unfriendly voice inside our heads might tell
us, we are the ones who have chosen to be

alone. We could, had we so wanted, been in
all sorts of company. Our solitude is – though

it may not feel like it – willed rather
than imposed. No one ever needs to be alone

so long as they don’t mind who they are
with. But we do mind, and we have some very

good reasons to do so. The wrong kind of company
is a great deal lonelier for us than being

by ourselves, that is, it’s further from
what matters to us, more grating in its insincerity

and more of a reminder of disconnection and
misunderstanding than is the conversation

we can have in the quiet of our own minds.
It’s not that we have been rejected by the

world; it’s that we’ve taken a good look
at the available options and have – with

wisdom – done some rejecting ourselves.
– Beware the outward signs of Companionship

It seems, from a distance, as if everyone
is having an ecstatic time. The Party (what

we imagine in our darkest moments to be the
unitary joyous social event from which we’ve

been blocked) grips our imaginations. We’ve
passed the restaurants and seen the groups

leaning back on their chairs and laughing
uproariously, we’ve seen the couples holding

hands and the families packing up for their
glorious holidays abroad. And we know the

depths of fun that are unfolding. But we need
to hold on to what we recognise in our sober

moments is a more complicated reality: that
there is naturally going to be alienation

at the restaurant, bitterness in the couples
and despair in the sunny island hotels. We

picture intimacy and communion, deep understanding
and the most sophisticated varieties of kindness.

We are sure that ‘everyone’ is having
precisely what we understand by true love.

But they are not. They will for the most part
be together but still alone, they will be

talking but largely not heard. Isolation and
grief are not unique to us; they are a fundamental

part of the human experience, they trail every
member of our species, whether in couples

or alone, life is a hellish and anxious business
for all of us; we’ve chosen to experience

the pains of existence by ourselves for now,
but having a partner has never protected anyone

from the void for very long. We should take
care to drown our own individual sorrows in

the ocean of a redemptive and darkly funny
universal pessimism. No one is particularly

much enjoying the journey; we are not built
that way. As we should never have allowed

ourselves to forget in front of the steamed
up windows of restaurants, life simply is

suffering for most of us for most of the time.
– We get statistics wrong To compound our

errors, we are the most hopeless statisticians.
We should pin a notice to our kitchen wall

reminding us of just this fact. We say that
‘everyone’ is happy, and ‘everyone’

is in a couple. But we haven’t taken the
first steps towards properly evaluating what

is going on in a factual sense. We are letting
self-disgust, not mathematics, decide our

vision of ‘normality’. If we really surveyed
the question, if we grew wings and went up

and examined the city, swooping in on this
bedroom here and that office there, those

families in the park and that couple on a
date, we’d see something altogether different.

We’d see millions of others like us and
far far worse: this one crying over a letter,

that one shouting they’ve had enough, this
one complaining that they can’t be understood,

that one weeping in the bathroom over an argument.
It is regrettable enough to be sad, we don’t

need to compound the misery by telling ourselves
– through an absurd misunderstanding of

statistics – that it is abnormal to be so.
– There is nothing shameful in what we’re

doing Our images of being alone lack dignity.
We need better role models. Those on their

own aren’t always the cobwebbed hunched
figures of our nightmares. Some of the greatest

people who have ever lived have chosen, for
a variety of noble reasons, to spend a lot

of time by themselves. For our own self-compassion,
we need to keep the difference between enforced

and willed solitude firmly in consciousness.
Here is a world-reknown scientist, spending

twenty years on their own to finish a book
that will change everything. Here is one of

the most beautiful people nature has yet produced,
alone in their room, playing the piano. Here

is a politician who once led the nation, now
preferring their own company. Those who are

by themselves don’t comprise only the desperate
cases, they number many of those one would

feel most privileged to meet.
– Understand your past The sense of shame

you experience at being in your own company
is coming from somewhere very particular:

your own childhood, and in particular, from
an unloveable vision of yourself that you

picked up in the early years. Somewhere in
the past, someone left you feeling unworthy

and now, whenever you suffer a reversal, the
story is ready to re-emerge, confirming what

you think is a fundamental truth about you:
that you don’t deserve to exist. It’s

not essentially that you’re afraid of being
lonely; it’s that you don’t like yourself

very much – for which the cure is immense
sympathy and psychotherapeutic understanding

but not, it seems, the company of a partner
you no longer care for or respect.

Once we can like ourselves more, we won’t
need to be so scared of friendship with ourselves;

we will know that others aren’t laughing
at us cruelly and that there is no delightful

party we’ve been barred from. We’ll appreciate
that we can be both on our own and a fully

dignified, legitimate member of the human
race. We’ll have conquered the terror of

loneliness – and therefore at last be in
a position to assess our options correctly

and chose freely whether to stay in or leave
a relationship we’re in.

Our book what is psychotherapy tells us exactly what going through psychotherapy is like and why it is so important.

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