Self-love, selfishness, or just plain loneliness
This guest post is brought to us by my wonderful and talented friend Julianne.
A few weeks ago, I sat in a coffee shop in a small town in Vermont staring out the window. I had tasked myself to enjoy my quiet time. All I had to do was spend fifteen minutes here and I could consider it a success. I sat there and stared out the window imagining all the good I was doing for myself. Cue the internal monologue.
“Wow. What a beautiful day. See, you can totally relax and just enjoy things. Okay. Check the watch. It must be time for me to go. Two minutes! You must be kidding. Okay Julianne. Just relax for a few more minutes… It’ll be fifteen minutes in no time.”
As you can imagine, that time passed very slowly. Being alone was certainly more difficult than I ever imagined that it would be. I kept waiting for the moody music to play and for me to have some sort of revelation about what I wanted in life or who I should become or some other breakthrough. Ah… to be a fictional character. Wouldn’t it be great?
Well, I recently had a major transition in my life. I packed up my life from my past seven years in Portland, and moved to Seattle for graduate school. In so many ways, this was a major step forward for me. I finally was able to pursue the career I wanted and live in a city that I loved. But it also meant that I had to leave behind a lot of people and places that I cared about immensely. I decided that if I was going to leave, I should really take advantage of my “millennial-postgrad-unattached” life and travel to see some friends. One thing I didn’t consider was that I would spend about a month and a half living out of a suitcase and feeling a bit out of place wherever I went.
it sometimes seemed like I was running away from something – my own thoughts
Now for a bit of background, I’m what my therapist would call a “human do-ing” instead of a “human be-ing”. I fill every second of every day with some kind of social, physical, or productivity based activity. She reminded me many times that while it may feel good to be so involved, it sometimes seemed like I was running away from something – my own thoughts. So a few months ago, I tried to start spending more time with myself. I believed that I was on a mission for self-love. I would try to do more things by myself – go for walks, see a movie, go out to dinner. Several of these were first experiences in my life. I’d never had the confidence to choose something simply because I wanted to do it. It was invigorating and I was determined to push myself this way. I would constantly repeat the mantra that my favorite pilates instructor would end every class with: “Self care is self love, not selfishness.”
Anyways, speed back to the present and here I go spending time with friends and family and most importantly myself. I purposely didn’t plan anything in any of the places I traveled to with the ultimate goal of being okay with being unscheduled. This often meant that I was spending time alone. It got me thinking about what the fine line between all of this solidarity was. Why wasn’t I skilled in the art of enjoying my own company after a quarter of a century being me?
I can start treating myself like a friend. Couldn’t I?
My original guilt over choosing things for myself was that I was being selfish. My selfishness was driving my desire to choose some activities over others, or even some people over others. Guilt and frustration bubbled inside of me as I wondered whether my choices were unfair to other people. I feared that my choices of my own likes and dislikes (or even my reactions in some cases) were an ugly example of how I disappoint others. Now, I’ll be the last one to say that I’ve reached a conclusion on any of this, but I will say that selfishness, in itself, is not always a bad thing. To be selfish can sometimes mean to put myself first or to treat myself with love and respect. Certainly an excess of this is not good, but what about small things. I can be selfish in my want to spend time with an old friend over going to a big party. I can be selfish in wanting to go to my favorite restaurant. I can be selfish in wanting the people I spend my time with to care about me and my feelings. I can start treating myself like a friend. Couldn’t I?
While spending time alone certainly allows me the chance to be “selfish” in my choices, it doesn’t cure the loneliness that inevitably follows. Even if my original intent was to practice self-love and confidence in my decisions, I often feel an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Now, I’ve been single for the last six years (give or take the occasional fling). In a lot of ways, this makes me super unhappy. I hate going to the store alone, or cooking alone, or going on walks alone. I wish I didn’t need to do it. So I ran. I chose people and situations that kept me “do-ing” things and feeling superficially not alone. But I could only run so far before I felt the urge to be important to someone tug me back into being alone. Why does being alone need to be accompanied by loneliness? Why can’t I find a relationship that inspires me to love myself and the other person at the same time? Why can’t I just live in a frackin’ Disney movie and marry Prince Charming already?
I don’t want to choose to be with someone out of pure loneliness
So during my obviously non-princess romantic life, I’ve started to challenge the eternal question of being alone and being lonely. I go through periods of self-pity and self-doubt just like anyone else, but I try to remind myself that even if I had a partner right now, wouldn’t it be important for me to feel okay being alone? To feel confident that, if it didn’t work out, I wouldn’t be stranded into a sea of self-doubt. Super dramatic I know, but we’ve all been there before. The most important driving factor in this particular rumination is that I don’t want to choose to be with someone out of pure loneliness. I want to choose someone because they add to the the joy that I already feel about being with myself. Obviously the topic of romantic loneliness is one that diverges on a whole new topic (and a whole unresolved area in my case). So I’ll leave that food for thought for another time. But overall, I think that Marianne Keegan caught the feeling best in one of my favorite books, The Opposite of Loneliness. If you haven’t checked out this book, you have to. It’s pretty much the best.
“But it became clear very quickly that I’d underestimated how much I liked him. Not him, perhaps, but the fact that I had someone on the other end of an invisible line. Someone to update and get updates from, to inform of a comic discovery, to imagine while dancing in a lonely basement, and to return to, finally, when the music stopped.”
So after this sprawling narrative of what solitude could possibly mean, it comes down to some big conclusion right. I am a fictional character in a fictional story and I’ve got it all figured out. That, unfortunately, couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ll continue to ebb and flow through my cycles of what it means to be alone with myself. I do know that all three of these interpretations play a significant role to me. Without my loneliness, I could not feel the need to seek self-love, and I cannot achieve that self-love without small acts of selfishness. So no big conclusion. Just a plea to go and try to figure out what you mean to yourself. It might be worth it.