When You Can't Stand Being Alone With Yourself
And when a knack for caring becomes a trap.
Posted November 19, 2013 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
When a person loses touch with their sense of themselves as a separate, living, breathing entity, a consequence may be a very real discomfort with being alone.
Many people, but women, in particular, have a robust aptitude for noticing and reacting to the needs and feelings of those around them. This capacity usually starts with the well-documented ability of girls at a very young age to verbalize their own emotions and to aptly/intuitively notice how those around them are reacting.
Girls are socialized for empathy, care, and responsiveness to others. Beginning in elementary school they are often fearful of hurting one another’s feelings. This fear may make it hard for them to discuss their more negative emotions and eventually, in some cases, leads girls to the use of ‘relational aggression’ or passively harmful behavior (i.e. gossip, eye-rolling, social exclusion) to get their needs met in relationships.
Of course, social awareness is a tremendous strength and when properly developed through the years can be used beneficially in adult life. However, caring can become a trap when a woman becomes so committed to staying connected to others that she loses touch with her separate sense of self. At the extreme, self-esteem may come to depend almost completely on relationships with others—for example, if they have a socially packed weekend they feel great about themselves—if they are alone with time to fill, suddenly they feel like they have done something wrong.
In this type of situation, a woman comes to fear being alone and works to avoid that circumstance at all costs. This can include the crippling effect of “friends” or romantic partners who do not care about her needs. Having a warm body to fill the space becomes more important than how that “warm body” actually treats and relates to her.
In my book, Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships, I write about how this condition, fear of being alone, erodes a woman’s self-confidence and her ability to make decisions that reflect her own best interests.
When it comes to romance, women in this situation may find themselves in a revolving door, where romantic partners enter and exit their lives quickly. Not wishing to be alone, the woman may work overtime to play a role that she believes will make her acceptable. Playing a role in order to please someone else takes her further away from knowing and accepting her true self. And too, playing a role is emotionally draining.
Another strategy for coping with the fear of being alone is to be in constant motion. Busyness is a distraction, but the anxiety generated by an endless need to find ways to be in perpetual motion is unhealthy. Examples of this are compulsively working long hours, not having adequate work/family boundaries, filling the gaps in time with one social event after another or generally never pausing long enough to reflect or focus on the self.
Of course, jobs often require long hours and intense concentration on objective goals. Yet, when a person lacks self-awareness, this type of job can slip over the line and become work to fill the emptiness and the void within, not to accomplish objective goals.
Some busy people welcome an opportunity to be alone. For others it is painful. But avoiding it completely is a losing battle—it might be those 10 minutes driving in the car, not being able to fall asleep at night, waiting for someone to show up, wondering if someone will show up—inevitably everyone will find themselves unaccompanied from time to time. For the pathologically overbooked, the unfamiliarity of suddenly finding themselves alone, with no distractions, is unnatural and shocking. The distress they experience is compounded by a lack of knowledge for how to fill the space and for how to healthfully be alone.
If you have the sense that your wheels are turning fast but you are not actually moving forward consider that tolerating yourself, alone, on your own, is essential to the ability to form mutually beneficial friendships and romantic and professional relationships.
Develop a tolerance for yourself, on your own. If you can’t stand to be alone with yourself, then how can you attract friendships and partners who truly value being with the real you?
Sit quietly and reflect for 10 minutes each day without noise from the outside world. At first, you may feel uncomfortable, simply notice/label what you are experiencing. Learn to be aware of what is going on in your body when no one is around to fill the space. Ask yourself: What are you avoiding by never being alone with yourself? What is the hardest part of being alone for you? Allow those feelings to be experienced without actively pushing them away or judging yourself.
Even if the answers to these questions are not, at first, easy to articulate, by taking time to reflect you are reminding yourself that you are a separate entity and that separate entity needs your close attention—more than anyone else.
Jill P. Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships.