• Some of us find spending time by ourselves difficult; without the distraction of other people to speak to we're left with our thoughts

  • Cheryl Rickman offers a 7-step plan to help you enjoy time alone

  • If you struggle with any of the themes below, find a therapist or counsellor to help you here

Life is a journey during which we can either be our own best ally or our own worst enemy. That depends on whether we see ourselves through a critical or a compassionate lens, from a position of judgement or one of acceptance. It depends on whether we choose to believe the stories we tell ourselves (and are told by others) or question them with gentle curiosity.

Solitude gives us an opportunity to get to know ourselves better; to ponder what matters most to us and to question beliefs that no longer serve us. Without others demanding our attention, we have the chance to shift our attention to accept, encourage and support ourselves, just as we would a good friend.

How you see yourself and how much you value yourself greatly impacts your life, including how you feel when you’re alone, but also how well you connect with others. Because the better you know and befriend yourself, the easier it is to work out who is on your wavelength. Self-connection is therefore an important precursor for connection with others.

If you don’t like or value yourself, how can you expect others to like and value you? And how can you find your people if you haven’t really found yourself?

1. Develop self-acceptance and validate yourself

Given how much we rely on external feedback and validation from others to help shape our self-view, it’s important to be able to self-validate; to accept our own experiences and ideas as being valuable too. This is critical because much external input is based on outdated expectations or personal preferences that have nothing to do with us. Learning to accept all that we are, including our imperfections, is crucial, because when we approve of ourselves, the approval of others becomes less restrictive.


2. Practice self-compassion

Befriending yourself means paying attention to your own needs and caring enough to support yourself rather than defaulting to beating yourself up. For example, rather than focusing on everything you haven’t managed to do today, consider the fact that you DID go on a long walk, even if you didn’t manage a run and that you DID speak to your friend on the phone, even if you forgot to post their card in time. Self-compassion gives you permission to be human.


3. Tune into your feelings

With all the external expectations, pressures and feedback we have to live up to, it’s lucky we have our own internal guidance system (our feelings) to help us navigate our way through life. Tuning in to how we feel helps us understand what’s working for us, what isn’t and where to go next. Spending time alone gives us the opportunity to listen to our inner knowing and advise ourselves as we would a best friend.


4. Counter your negativity bias

Humans have an evolutionary negativity bias where we pay more attention to what might go wrong than what is going right. This was important when danger lurked around every corner. Now it’s less relevant. Counter this by focusing regularly on what you have to be grateful for rather than on what you lack. This simple exercise pays feel-good emotions into our positivity bank, which we can draw upon to help us cope during more difficult times, including when we’re feeling lonely. 

Positive emotions also help our cognitive functioning, so we can stay open-minded and apply logic to challenges we’re facing.

5. Talk back to your inner critic

We all have that inner voice which is more worst-enemy than best-friend. It’s judgmental because it’s trying to protect you from embarrassment and rejection so berates you when you get things wrong. Yet there is no balance as it doesn’t consider the good stuff. So it’s up to us to counter our inner critic with our inner cheerleader. 

Thanks to the neuroplasticity of our brain, we can replace inaccurate, discouraging and harmful thoughts with accurate, encouraging and helpful ones. Time alone gives us the perfect opportunity to do this important work. Give your inner cheerleader a voice by listing all the things you’ve achieved and endured – from securing a job you’d applied for or completing a course to coping with loss, lack of opportunity or other hardships.  Congratulate yourself like you would a good friend.

6. Gain self-knowledge via self-reflection

Journaling and answering questions about how we think, feel and behave are great ways to increase self-awareness. The more self-aware we become, the more intentionally we can do more of what lights us up, so we may create the feelings we want to feel and the life we hope to lead. Schedule in time to journal at least once a week.

7. See alone time as 'me time'

Time alone offers a perfect opportunity to hit the pause button; to slow down and tune back into what matters most to us; to do more of what we enjoy? What if we saw solitude as a beautiful opportunity for serenity amid the busy-ness of everyday life? For example, you might want to read, walk in nature or watch the sunset. Maybe you could tour your local area through the eyes of a tourist or just sit quietly and day dream.

When we spend time alone, we get to give ourselves the attention we deserve. We get to respond to ourselves the way we wish others would – with love and compassion, with encouragement and respect. And the better we know ourselves, the easier it becomes to allow and accept other people’s reactions, because we’ve reclaimed our power.

Cheryl Rickman is the author of Navigating Loneliness: How to Connect with Yourself and Others

Further reading

The difference between loneliness and being alone

How writing a journal complements counselling

How to nurture more self-compassion

Self-care tips from an introvert: how to make the most of self-isolation

3 steps to challenge your self-limiting beliefs