I used to hate eating alone. In a restaurant filled with portions of people’s colloquy reaching my ears, the lone dining setting (“table for one, please”) in front of me — one plate, one set of cutlery, one glass of drink — seemed akin to a social faux pas.
In my mind’s eye, the rest of the restaurant dimmed and a spotlight focuse its beam on me and my singular meal, bereft of company.
Solitude, especially when played out in public, made me feel more of a loser, even though that said spotlight only existed in my own thoughts. I began to imagine voices whispering around me: “Oh, you poor thing, did someone dump you? Did your friends cancel on you? Do you — gasp — not have any friends at all?”
Being alone often carries a social stigma, implying that solitude isn’t something volitional but rather, an imposed state where a person is not socially engaging as expected. We lose touch with who we are in the search of finding company to fix that perceived social handicap.
As such, all this hyper-connectivity in today’s world and the fact that we’re fundamentally hardwired to be social creatures leave little room for us to connect with the single most important person in our lives: Ourselves.
It’s as if we’re drowning in a sea of loneliness and we’re desperately flailing our hands to grasp at any life buoy that gets thrown our way. Even if it’s merely to lift us out of our fears into something that’s even more insidious and threatening to our wellbeing. We still cling on to it despite knowing deep down that it’s no good for us.
Is the fear of being alone opening you up to, or keeping you, in a toxic relationship?
SHEDDING LIGHT ON TOXICITY
The red flags are all there. The emotional, mental and physical abuses are glaringly obvious. As my friend weeps over my shoulder for the umpteenth time, I wonder aloud why we allow ourselves to stay in toxic relationships and friendships despite the pain they inflict on us. “Because I don’t want to be alone!” she answers tearfully.
A 2013 study published in The Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology posits the fear of being alone may drive adults to stay in bad friendships/relationships, or settle for less-than-desirable partners, all because they’d rather have someone than no one.
I should know. For years, I put up with a toxic friendship which put me in a private hell but one I chose to remain in simply because I didn’t want to lose a friend, the one whom I was immensely grateful to for motivating me to complete my studies. When that friendship turned toxic, I found myself unable to let go.
It took me three years of abuse, ranging from the derogatory remarks, the constant chipping at my self-esteem (“you’re stupid and ugly!”) to the borderline psycho blow-outs where she’d hit me in anger. Then there were the constant calls in the middle of the night and the emotional blackmail that kept me from taking the reins of control back from her hands. It’s hard to believe now, when I look back at my life, that I allowed someone to exert that much of dominance over me.
But back then, I held very little value in my own worth, and I was afraid of losing friends. Sometimes the fear of being alone outweighs the fear of remaining in a horrible friendship or relationship. It may sound ludicrous to many but studies conducted on social relationships and friendships suggest eight in 10 stay in a toxic friendship even when the relationship is causing emotional and psychological distress.
VIEWING LONELINESS IN A NEW LIGHT
When you’re afraid of being alone, chances are you’ll tend to hold on to the things that aren’t necessarily good for you and endure bad behaviour over and over again, letting your toxic partner or friend know that it’s okay to treat you badly.
Is being lonely such a bad thing after all? Why do most of us persist in equating aloneness with loneliness and company with companionship despite a lifetime of evidence to the contrary? The fact is that learning to be alone helps you discover yourself and find your own voice.
Spending time with yourself gives you a better understanding of who you are and what you want out of life. You’re more than likely to make better choices about who you want to be around with. When I learnt to appreciate my alone time, I grew to respect and treat myself a lot better. This led me to recognise and address the toxicity I allowed in my personal sphere, and to move myself to a place of safety.
Once we’ve addressed our fears of being alone and all the negative perceptions it connotes, we realise that we no longer wish to remain shackled to a toxic relationship that whittles at our sense of well-being. Learning to prioritise our happiness over someone else’s dysfunction sends out a key message to ourselves — that we have value.
LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
So what do you do when you know a friendship or relationship isn’t working out for you anymore?
You learn to acknowledge the red flags which point out that the current company you’re keeping isn’t really adding value to your life. Simply put, if you’re constantly being undervalued in a relationship or friendship, you end up undervaluing yourself as a person.
This is why most women tend to remain in abusive relationships, observes Alexis Moore, founder of Survivors in Action, an international, non-profit crime-victim advocacy organisation providing direct support to high-risk victims of stalking and abuse. Says Moore: “Women don’t leave because of fear and self-esteem. Most women, if we ask them to say the truth, are fearful of going out on their own. It’s a self-esteem issue primarily that’s compounded by fear that they can’t make it alone without their batterer.”
Don’t allow the fallacy of being alone stop you from moving forward. Sometimes, facing up to our biggest fears can lead us to our greatest accomplishment — the liberty to live our lives according to our own terms as opposed to living up to someone else’s expectations.
Walking out of a toxic relationship will be the most important decision you’ll ever make. You need to remind yourself that leaving doesn’t make you a coward. It simply means that you’re wise enough to know when something isn’t working out for you and that you’re choosing to leave before it hurts you more than it probably does at present.
You’ll feel a sense of loss and yes, walking into the oft-unchartered territories of solitude can sometimes terrify the bravest of us. But once that passes, you’ll find that what you did was an act of courage to save yourself from a bigger mistake. And that being alone will probably be the best gift you can ever bestow unto yourself.
“I am leaving you for me. Whether I am incomplete or you are incomplete is irrelevant. Relationships can only be built with two wholes. I am leaving you to continue to explore myself: the steep, winding paths in my soul, the red, pulsing chambers of my heart. I hope you will do the same. Thank you for all the light and laughter that we have shared. I wish you a profound encounter with yourself.” ~ Peter Schaller, author and activist.