Wednesday 14 August 2013

Me, myself and I

All by myself, don't want to be...
I used to absolutely hate being by myself.

I thought of being by myself as being lonely and boring.

If I was by myself it was obviously because nobody else wanted to be with me. Because I was boring. It was a sign I had nothing interesting to do. It meant I was a failure in some way.

Whenever I was by myself I would spend hours imagining all the fun everybody else was having, all together, out there. Without me.  I would text everybody in my phone book in the vague hope that somebody somewhere might want to do something with me. Which of course made it worse if nobody replied.  I didn't even like arriving to a party/pub/gathering by myself. It made me feel stupid and friendless.

I hated being single. So I never was.

And then a few years ago something happened. I woke up one morning and I just couldn't bear the thought of leaving the house, of meeting anybody, of talking to anybody.  The thought that kept going round and round in my head was "please just make them all go away".  So, to cut a long story short, I went to the doctor and asked her to make them all go away and she signed me off work with 'stress'.

Which meant I was now, quite firmly and of my own doing, by myself all day every day for three weeks.

Horror of all horrors and dread of all dread.

But during those three weeks there were two people I did spend time with. One, a lady the doctor had referred me to for counselling and secondly, my chiropractor.

Both of whom kept trying to make me talk about myself and deal with my issues.

I had no idea how to talk about myself and didn't want to think about issues, let alone deal with them, thanks.

But between them they managed to eek and creak me back into shape, little by little.

And while much of that period is a big blur, I very clearly remember one day in particular.

I had been for a chiropractic appointment and had missed the train home so I decided to go for a walk along the river while I waited for the next one.  I sat on a bench in the sun and watched the world go by.  And as I sat there I thought to myself, this is the first time I can ever recall being totally content with being totally by myself. Not doing anything, not talking, not thinking about anything in particular, just being here. With me, myself and I.

And, since I'm writing this during Happiness Happens Month and covering one of the 31 types of happiness each day, I'll tell you exactly what it felt like. I felt, for the first time in a very long time, 'peaceful'.

This feeling, or realisation was so powerful that I decided to miss the next train as well. And the next one.

I slightly ruined it by feeling the need to text my husband and share the whole thing with him thus bringing other people into it again. But what can I say, pobody's nerfect.

The point is, it was seriously the first time, aged 30 something or other, I can truly remember actually being happy to be by myself, actually enjoying my own company. Feeling at ease with myself. Feeling peaceful. Yeah, sure, I'd been to the cinema by myself before, but only "because I had nobody else to go with" not because I actually wanted to and that always coloured the experience somewhat.

So I started to use that time off work, as well as getting to know myself better in the counselling room, to get to know myself better full stop. To spend more time with myself.

And guess what, turns out I'm pretty good company!

I started going to coffee shops by myself and just watching the world go by. I started scheduling in 'just me' time and actually secretly looking forward to when Alex was going to be out rather than moping about the house missing him.

And I got rather used to it.

So much so that when I went back to work I made one day out of five a working from home day to give myself some of that me space.

Now I just can't imagine not spending time just with myself.  Being able to go to a coffee shop and read my book by myself is a real treat now (every mum reading this just wholeheartedly agreed with me!). In fact I start to feel quite anxious and claustrophobic if I go without for too long, I start to really crave some 'me time' and that 'please just make them all go away' feeling starts creeping back in. I think I would go stark raving mad in the Big Brother house and am slightly dreading going back to working 5 days a week because that means there is not one single day in the week where I get to just be by myself.

Weird.  So totally different to how I used to feel.

And thinking back to that time, to how I used to feel about being by myself, I think there were several things going on. They're all muddled up together but if I try to pick them apart:

1. I guess I just didn't really like myself very much before so why would I want to spend time with myself? Which then bled into assuming nobody else liked or wanted to spend time with me.
2. On some level I knew I had 'stuff to deal with' and didn't want to.  By keeping myself surrounded with other people meant I didn't have to really bother thinking too hard about myself
3. There are attachment, separation and comfort type things going on for one reason and another I won't go into right now.
4. I have always thought of myself as an extrovert but the more time goes on I think I'd got that wrong. I think perhaps I'm a closet introvert trying to live an extrovert life...which is going to get pretty uncomfortable really.
5. I had some really classic 'thinking errors' (mind reading, cause and effect, blame) clearly it's because I'm boring/friendless etc.
6. I'm something known as an HSP, or 'Highly Sensitive Person'. And yes, that does exist and it doesn't just mean crying at every sad film or whatever (although I do that too). It means, in brief, that too much crap going on all the time just gets overwhelming and makes you run for cover.  There are 2 types of HSP, those who avoid all the busy-ness to avoid feeling overwhelmed, and those who seek it out thereby burning themselves out and needing to hide in a dark room to recover afterwards. I'm the second sort.  Helpful.  The waking up one morning wanting it all to go away was my burnout, the three weeks off with 'stress' was the dark room I recovered in, the 30 odd years before that? The busy-ness seeking.
7. And most importantly: I totally saw my happiness as something derived from and in the hands of other people, not as something I could own myself.

And now I understand all of that stuff a bit better, I can try to manage it:
  • So if we're away from home or staying with family I go for regular little walks by myself
  • I try not to overload myself, to accept every invitation or sign up for every event going because although I think I want to keep busy, I know I'll regret it later
My space
  • I keep a little space just for me in the house that I can escape to when I need to
  • I try to keep to a routine, I have little rituals, like my morning tea
  •  I do things just for myself (new hobbies etc) just because I want to
  • I attempt, but usually fail miserably, to keep some kind of mindfulness practice going to keep my head clear
  • And most importantly, I try to notice what's going on with me instead of focusing just on other people and bottling myself up. I try to talk through how I'm feeling if and when I'm feeling out of sorts. I let off steam bit by bit instead of exploding and needing that dark room again
I suppose, in short, I'm much kinder to myself and so I like myself a bit better in return. And somebody who's kind to you and who you like is an ok person to be around.  I'm also, thanks to all the learning I've done on positive psychology and in writing this blog, much much better at taking responsibility for my own happiness and not seeing it as something totally controlled by other people.

One of my little solo walks
That one's a biggie.

I find it quite sad that I used to hate my own company so much, but I'm so glad now that I've grown to love it.  And given my change of view on the whole thing, it's quite interesting to come up against people who still feel the same way I used to. Who see being by themselves as some kind of thing that's done to them, as the rubbish option, as a by product of not being good enough for everybody else. Instead of as an active choice.

None of this is to say that I've become some kind of recluse, or that I now prefer my own company to that of anybody else. Far from it. Now that I'm more comfortable with myself I'm also more comfortable with other people. Instead of going out of my way to surround myself with people, anybody, all of the time regardless of who or how or what or whether or not I'm actually enjoying it, I can now have better, more quality time with people I actually want to be with and relax and enjoy it more than I would have done before.  I find it easier to meet and chat to new people because my head isn't as full up and whirring around as it was before. I just find it easier to say no to things and to not fret about not having anyone to play with too.

picnic lunch for one
I've had more than one conversation recently when somebody has said to me something like "aaah, look at that poor bloke over there having lunch by himself". But why is he a poor bloke?  IF the reason he is there by himself is because everybody else he knows refused to go with him, he has no friends, and he got stood up and he feels sad about that, then maybe so. BUT, if he has actively chosen to go by himself then there is no poor about it. In my eyes, poor is the man who needs other people from which to draw strength and happiness, but strong is the man who is confident and happy enough in his own skin that he needs nothing more than his own company to enjoy a nice meal in a restaurant.

Even if the reason we're by ourselves is because we really couldn't find anybody else who wanted to be with us at that moment, we still have a choice.  We can choose to feel down and lonely and fed up and bored and play the victim. Or we can choose to see it as an opportunity to kick back, relax, read a book, have a bath, do whatever we want. We have nobody else to answer to at all.  As I say, ask any mum out there (and by the way, I'm not one but I know plenty) and they will all agree that being alone is a rare thing to be treasured, not scorned. So don't waste it feeling crappy, switch it in your head into something happy.

Being by yourself is such an important thing to do. It's like pressing a 'reset' button. It gives us time and space to clear our heads, to work out how we feel about stuff, to wind down.  It makes us much better people for everybody else to be around in the long run.  Why should anybody else want to spend time with you if even you don't want to!?

And if, like I did, you get the sense you're avoiding being by yourself because you just don't really like yourself very much, or you know if you're alone all those thoughts you're trying to avoid will have time and space to bubble up to the surface, then address it now.

It won't be easy.

But it will definitely be worth it.

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