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I Admit It. These Days I'm Alone More Than Ever

What all this time alone has made me realize.

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illustration of woman laying down relaxing, alone, loneliness
Janeen Constantino
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It doesn't seem that long ago that I would hide in the bathroom for a few moments of alone time. With three kids at home, it felt like someone always needed me to help with homework, make a snack or drive them to practice. Free time to myself was scarce. I might scrape together a few minutes before they got up for the day to have a cup of coffee by myself or an hour to watch TV at night when everyone was in bed.

I am a little startled right now. My once noisy house, where it was hard to find just a few quiet moments, is now tranquil. The older kids live in their own homes, and my youngest left for college last year. My husband, who had been working at home most days since the pandemic, has returned to work for five days in the office and is traveling a lot, too.

I’ve gone from hiding in the bathroom for a few minutes of peace to being alone more than ever in my adult life.

Alone and Lonely Are Not the Same

Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the “How Can I Help?" podcast from iHeartRadio, explains, “Alone and loneliness are not the same thing. Being alone is a physical state while loneliness is an emotional state.”

"Loneliness occurs when someone doesn't feel intimately connected. People can feel lonely when they are alone, but they can also feel lonely when they are with a partner, surrounded by friends or in crowded rooms full of people."

Conversely, a person can be alone yet not feel lonely. "Many people, especially those that are primarily introverted, enjoy being alone," adds Dr. Saltz. "While introverts enjoy spending time with people, it requires energy, and being alone allows them the chance to recharge."

Loneliness Epidemic

In May 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report about the current “Loneliness Epidemic," finding that about half of adults reported experiencing noticeable levels of loneliness.

Although loneliness can be experienced at any age, it is easy to see why it would be especially prominent in middle age. A lot of the ways you connect with friends may shift. "Kids grow up and move out, coworkers retire or move on to new jobs, friends move and couples divorce or become widowed,” says Dr. Saltz. “It's not surprising many middle-aged people find themselves at a crossroads, feeling lonelier.”

Finding Connection

For many middle-aged people, social skills have become rusty. "We become used to having people around — coworkers, family, spouse,” says Dr. Saltz. “We are less confident about having to seek people out.’

But here is a little secret. Many people feel the same way and would welcome an invitation to do something but feel uncomfortable making that first move. "As we get older,” she adds. “We may have to make more of an effort to create connection. Taking a class, attending church or joining a bridge game are all ways to meet people who share your interests."

To make connections, you must be willing to put yourself out there. That could mean calling an old friend you last reached out to a while ago or inviting someone you have only met in passing to get a cup of coffee. It can be scary or awkward but also has the potential to expand your life.

"When you extend yourself by inviting someone for coffee or a walk, you risk rejection," explains Dr. Saltz. "This can be especially hard when you are older. You may feel you are at a point in your life where you should have enough friends and connections — it's vulnerable to admit your plate is not full and that you are looking for things to do and people to spend time with."

Enjoying Alone Time

I remember thinking if I had more time to myself there’d be many things I’d do, like work out daily, see more shows and read more books. And yet, now that I have the time, I don't do these things. Dr. Saltz says, “The fantasy of free time isn’t the same as the reality. Sometimes the reasons we don’t do things isn’t lack of time but lack of motivation or anxiety.”

While some people are very content being alone, it is more challenging for others and learning how to embrace solitude can take time. Figuring out the activities you enjoy doing by yourself can mean some trial and error. I am happy to sit on my couch and binge Netflix, but going to a show alone was out of my comfort zone. When I pushed myself to go once, I was pleasantly surprised to discover I enjoyed going alone.

Finding Balance

The key to being alone but not lonely is finding your personal balance. "Don't worry about cultural judgment," says Dr. Saltz. "If you enjoy doing things alone, like eating solo at a nice restaurant or skipping a party because you prefer to stay in and knit, do that."

But don’t let fear cause you to forgo connections. If you feel lonely, make the call, extend the invite and put yourself out there, even if it means you might get turned down.

If you get an invitation, think about it before declining, even if it's a different person or activity from what is typically in your wheelhouse. I recently changed my tune and agreed to play a card game with friends. So far, it's been a fun way to spend time with people, and I am glad I reconsidered.

My time alone has made me more appreciative of my relationships. I realized I don't want to just fill my free time with people, so I don't have to be alone. Instead, I want to invest in people I enjoy and deepen those bonds. That includes reconnecting with some old friends and getting to know some newer friends better through more honest, intimate conversations. I don't have to be stingy with my free time because I have more of it, and it's been nice to linger on a lunch date or phone call rather than rush off.

While there are things you can do to feel less lonely, it’s important to recognize that being alone can be hard. Says Dr. Saltz, “We need to destigmatize the idea that there is something wrong with you or you are pathetic if you are feeling lonely or don’t enjoy being alone. There is a lot of loss in middle age (widowhood, divorce, kids moving away). It can lead to anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation. Therapy can be a great tool. People need to know they are not alone in their loneliness and ask for help.”

Do you often feel lonely? Do you hate being alone? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Relationships