For most of my 21 years of being alive, I have been extremely self-conscious of how the people around me, even strangers, perceive me.
For years, I experienced this looming cloud of always feeling on edge, trying not to say the wrong thing, be “too weird” or come off as my true self.
It wasn’t until I transitioned into my junior year of college that I knew I wouldn’t be able to go far in life if I kept focusing on the thoughts of others and continue to bury my own.
One night, I found myself alone and ravenous. Everyone that would be on my speed-dial was not in immediate reach, so I had no other choice than to head out into the city and dare I say it, be alone.
The two-person table my waiter presented to me was secluded from the rest of the restaurant in a tight corner by a lonely fireplace, but it provided the entertainment of looking out the window to people watch. Was this intentional?
The waiter then proceeded to compliment me on how nice my hair was — again, something I began to feel was just a sympathetic gesture since I was out by myself.
But people, as it turns out, rarely think of us in judgmental or intense ways, if at all, and certainly not as often as we think they do. This common phenomena is described as, “the spotlight effect.”
A research study conducted by Thomas Gilovich found that people regularly adjust their actions and thoughts merely based off the perspective of others. And with this constant paranoia, you begin to see yourself through the eyes of others, skewing how you act and think solely from the assumed silent thoughts of strangers.
By taking the tiny steps toward doing tasks and activities alone, we begin to break this stigma of going out into the world alone and learn how to practice self-respect. For most humans, we enter this world alone and will leave it just as that.
During our time, though, more often than not, when people see others or are seen themselves doing things alone, we automatically create the conclusion that they are lonely.
Being alone is the state of being, while loneliness is a state of the mind.
While people commonly fuse the two words together, being alone is taking the space to be without others and hold the capacity to realize your own thoughts.
Though this can, at times, create a sense of nostalgia and heartache that develops into loneliness and seeking for companionship, that is not always the case.
While it baffles some people that others would prefer eating out, going to a movie or even attending a concert alone rather than being accompanied by a group or paired in a couple, others view time spent alone as time creating the essential need to carve out a sense of self without the noisy distraction of others dictating how to be or what to do.
In a seminal essay by Joan Didion published in a 1961 Vogue issue entitled, “Self-Respect: Its Source, Its Power,” Didion explains that sense of self is a source of respect that is just for its owner, an acceptance that your outward actions can align with what you feel inside.
“Self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others — who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation,” Didion reflects in her essay.
As the age of social media continues to expand and allow individuals to have an instant reach to companionship, we as humans may be losing our direction of self-respect when seeking self-discovery.
Millennials are labeled many things in today’s society and have often been seen as the generation determined to better ourselves, mentally and physically.
However, when nearly everything we see and do can be easily recorded online, it’s hard for Millennials to imagine practicing the act of aloneness and self-maintenance.
Rebecca Hamilton and Rebecca Ratner, two professors of marketing, Ratner at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland and Hamilton at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, created a book based off of their studies on aloneness, “Inhibited from Bowling Alone.”
From their research, the two professors concluded that in today’s generation of striving to better ourselves, a solution to dissolving the stigma of being alone could be tackled with changing the way people perceive doing those activities for themselves.
Ratner and Hamilton both found that people are more likely to go out and do those simple activities, such as going to a museum, cafe or movie when it can be a learning experience.
That learning experience is often accompanied by a book or listening to music, another strategy for making oneself look busy and not alone due to the stigma.
Listing ways to achieve being alone is easier than actually doing them, but still, it’s a start.
The best way for people to rid the stigma of being alone in public is just for people to slowly start doing it.
As someone who has had to overcome my own fear of how others perceive me, it has not been an easy journey, but it has been one that will be beneficial in the end.
It’s about learning to accept the negative thoughts and flaws you may hold, but realizing that they are simply a part of you. If another person has an issue with those natural characteristics, then that’s their own problem.