So many of us have a hard time being alone with ourselves. Which is why we have a few glasses of wine when we’re the only one at home. It’s why we try not to be home by ourselves. It’s why we like to stay busy. It’s why we turn to all sorts of substances; anything not to think or feel or sit with ourselves.
Because, as clinical psychologist Carolyn Ferreira, Psy.D, said, “When we are still with our own thoughts and feelings, there is always the possibility that those thoughts and feelings will go to a place that we don’t like.”
That place might be a conflict at work, a rocky relationship, a bad memory. We might realize that we are actually dreading a date with our partner. We might realize we really need to change careers. Becoming aware of these thoughts may mean that we need a change — in ourselves or in our circumstances, and these changes may be difficult to make, said psychologist Christine Selby, Ph.D.
Many of us simply aren’t “wired” to be with ourselves, she noted. More than 50 percent of people are extroverts, who “derive psychological energy from being around others.” For them “being ‘forced’ to be alone with one’s thoughts and feelings may be so foreign and so draining that they will look for interactions with others any chance they can get.”
Of course, sometimes, distracting ourselves is necessary and totally OK. Being with our thoughts and feelings for a long time gets exhausting, Selby said. However, self-destructive distractions only create more problems.
Thankfully, there are healthy strategies you can use to get more comfortable being with yourself. Below, Ferreira and Selby shared seven suggestions.
Identify whether you’re more of an introvert or extrovert
Knowing this helps you better understand yourself and why it might be harder for you to be alone with your thoughts, said Selby, co-founder of Selby Psychological Services in Bangor, Maine. To find out, you can take an online quiz. Or you can simply reflect on whether: a) you have a “need” to be around others, and b) you feel more or less energy after being in large groups.
“Extraverts will feel more energized and [be] on the lookout for the next social gathering; introverts will be drained and will require time alone to feel reenergized and ready for the next social interaction.”
Ease into being alone
Selby suggested setting a timer for 5 minutes or less (if you know that “being alone with your thoughts is like nails on a chalkboard”). Take several deep breaths. If your environment is distracting you, close your eyes. Or keep them open and reflect on your environment. Try this once a week or every day. “The idea is to experiment and start with whatever feels the most comfortable.”
Reflect on your self-reflection
According to Selby, the process of being alone with your thoughts and feelings is, in and of itself, an opportunity for self-reflection. She suggested considering these questions: “What is it like trying this at all? How difficult is it for you to get comfortable with this process? Why do you think it feels uncomfortable? Has the experimentation to find the ‘perfect’ routine become its own form of distraction? Why do you think that is?”
Selby cautioned against turning this into an interrogation. You simply want to consider “why you’re experiencing what you’re experiencing.” You might not have the answers, and that’s OK. “The act of asking the questions is a form of self-reflection.”
Reflect without judgment
“One of the most difficult things for many people trying to self-reflect is to refrain from being self-critical,” said Selby, author of the book Chilling Out: The Psychology of Relaxation. We might shoot down our thoughts and feelings. We might assume they’re wrong.
Both Selby and Ferreira stressed the importance of giving ourselves permission to think and feel whatever arises. Because when we immediately reject our thoughts and feelings, we also remove the opportunity to learn and make changes, Selby said.
If you find yourself being self-critical, Selby suggested gently asking: “Why did I just criticize what I was thinking or feeling? What is wrong with thinking that or feeling that?”
Connect to others
Connecting to others can help you become more comfortable with yourself, said Ferreira, who specializes in depression, anxiety, relationship issues, grief, and counseling for veterans and military families in Bend, Ore.
Most of her clients are veterans who struggle with PTSD symptoms. They “feel unsure of themselves when they think about their military experience as well as when they are interacting with others in the world.” Staying connected to other veterans reassures them that they’re not alone in their thoughts and feelings. Who can you connect with?
Stop comparing yourself to others
This means shifting your thinking from “I’m not good enough” to “Where I am at is OK,” Ferreira said. Of course, this isn’t easy. When Ferreira’s clients compare themselves to someone else, she guides them through a series of valuable questions, which you can consider, too: “Is comparing yourself to this person helping you move toward your goals or holding you back from your goals? What is the purpose of comparing yourself to this person? Who benefits? How does it serve you?”
At times comparing ourselves to others motivates us to do better, she said. But “usually, we just end up shaming ourselves for being someone we are not.”
Be in nature
Self-reflection isn’t about barricading yourself inside your home. “My clients often report they are most comfortable with themselves when they are out in nature,” Ferreira said. Take a hike and reflect on your thoughts and feelings as you’re exploring. Sit on the beach with your journal and see what thoughts and feelings arise as you’re watching the waves. Go to the park, and see what arises as you observe others and your natural surroundings.
Sitting with our thoughts and feelings can be tough. It can feel unnatural. It can be downright painful. But it also helps us better understand ourselves and what we need. It forms the first step in building a meaningful life. And it’s something we can ease into.