Graphics by Sukaina Imam
By: Jackie McNeill
When I had friends over as a kid, I would pull my mom aside after a few hours and ask, “When are they going to leave?” It’s not that I wasn’t having fun — I loved seeing my friends, but this time with others never failed to become draining and leave me with a need for some alone time.
While I once thought this desire to be alone was abnormal and unhealthy, as I got older I learned to take advantage of it to promote self-improvement. Left alone with just my thoughts, I’ve had the opportunity to think critically about who I am as a person, what I like about myself and what I want to do better.
Learning about who I was, both outside and inside of my relationships with others, and working to better myself has helped to increase my self-esteem exponentially over years of self-reflection.
I’ve experienced how this increase in self-esteem has aided my relationship with myself, but studies show that it can also benefit the way we interact with others.
Megan McCarthy, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Waterloo, suggests that people with low self-esteem are more likely to stay in unhappy relationships with others, resulting from their resistance to recognize and address problems.
“People with a more negative self-concept often have doubts and anxieties about the extent to which other people care about them,” explained McCarthy.
The self-concept is our idea of self, constructed through a combination of our own beliefs about ourselves and how others respond to us. A negative self-concept, then, can cause someone to assume negative reactions towards them and therefore avoid confrontation or conflict as a defense against these assumptions being actualized.
So, an increase in self-esteem can certainly improve romantic relationships, but those are not the only relationships we experience. Every interaction we have, be it with friends, family, or even our co-workers, can benefit from the practice of self-love and self-care.
Time alone also increases communication with the self through self-awareness. When I spend time alone, my own thoughts, feelings and desires become my priority. This has helped me realize that communicating with myself should remain a priority throughout my life, including when I interact with others, paving the way for honest and open relationships.
In addition, being self-aware has allowed me to be more receptive of others’ thoughts, feelings and desires, which may reflect similar concerns or insecurities that I possess. By reflecting upon the self, we can become more sensitive and considerate towards the people we build relationships with.
It is important to note that my idea of alone is not one size fits all. Spending time alone can simply mean loneliness for some people, and as a Psychology Today article explains this can lead to anxieties, depression, or reminders of loss and abandonment.
McMaster University’s Prof. Tara Marshall illustrates this idea through the example of a breakup.
“After a breakup, people who are more secure in relationships and have higher self-esteem are more likely to desire some time alone,” explained Marshall.
“They may engage in some personal growth-enhancing experiences. People high in anxious attachment, on the other hand, desire to go on the rebound after a breakup,” she added.
Marshall went on to explain that humans are social by nature and we have a need to belong to social groups as our survival has depended on it throughout history. So it is important to balance time spent alone with socialization, just as it’s important to get to know yourself and what will work well for your own self-esteem.
The point of this time spent alone is to improve your feelings about yourself, but also to use this to positively affect your relationships with others. What works for me won’t work for everyone, but maybe by sharing my experience others will venture to learn more about themselves and how they interact with others.
Of course, when trying to self-reflect as a student several issues present themselves. Our days are packed with studying, interactions with peers everywhere on campus, trying to balance friends, a job, finishing that essay and visiting family; our minds never get a break.
So how do you get some quiet time in a busy day? Try the silent study in Mills— it’s a great way to ease yourself into being alone because you’re surrounded by other students, but everyone is focused on their own work. There’s no opportunity for socialization to distract you from yourself.
Sitting still can be difficult, so go for a walk alone in a quiet neighbourhood. No phone calls or music, just reflect on that day or what’s to come and make an effort to think positively.
If these options take too much time, go to bed 20 minutes earlier than usual and let your mind wander while trying some deep breathing. This can help ease stress and relax your mind, leaving it open for reflection.
This time alone allows you to drop what Psychology Today calls your “social guard.” Pay attention to how you behave alone and compare it to how you behave around others, and maybe work to let some of your “alone” self bleed into your public persona.
Whether you crave alone time like me or not, we can all benefit from a bit of self-reflection to better our relationship with ourselves and others. Self-awareness and the resulting higher self-esteem make an impact on the way we interact with others, and can keep our relationships open, honest and healthy.