Living on Your Own for the First Time

Most people live alone at some point. Many first do so in their teens or twenties, others in middle-age – usually following a divorce. Some first live alone when their partner dies. Indeed, many do not live alone until their 80s. No matter what stage of life one first experiences it, however, the adjustment can be hard, even traumatic.

Fighting the Fear

If living alone scares you, don’t be ashamed. Such fear is natural. Human beings did not evolve to live alone in a small apartment. Throughout the vast majority of human history we were nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in tribes of no more than 60 or 70. The need to belong is thus deeply ingrained. The tribe was our shield against animal attacks, hostile neighbors, even supernatural powers.

So the fear is hard-wired, which is why people often suffer a vague, unconscious sense of being cut off or abandoned. Being cast out of the tribe meant death. If you are well into middle-age before you live alone, the first few nights may trigger that primitive fear. Today, however, those fears are irrational. If you move into a small apartment or suburban house your chances of being attacked by a pack of hyenas, or dragged away by a hostile tribe, are small to say the least!

The first step is to forgive yourself. Your fear is natural and normal. Second, you need to recognize how primitive and misguided it is. You are not alone. Unless you are very unlucky, there are people who will help if you need them: neighbors, children, friends, and of course the emergency services.

Finally, you can reduce the fear by taking simple, practical steps. Maybe you could get the locks changed, install new windows, or have a peep hole fitted to the front door. Also, be wary about giving out your phone number or address. And get to know your neighbors. Not only will this reassure you, you know there is someone to back you up.

Obviously, certain individuals are more vulnerable than others. If you are a single young woman in an apartment block, be cautious. In particular, be wary of someone following you home or loitering outside. The elderly can also become targets. Indeed, some criminals make a living from exploiting them. Finally, those with disabilities or learning difficulties need to be extra careful. Drug dealers, for example, befriend such people then gradually move into their apartment, eventually using it to deal drugs. The police call this “cuckooing.” Young women with learning difficulties are especially vulnerable to sexual assault. Their abuser knows he can claim that the victim invited him to her house. She in turn may struggle to express herself, which creates doubt.

Dealing With Loneliness

Next, there is the simple problem of loneliness. Again, be clear what is really going on. People confuse being alone with being lonely. In fact, the two are not synonymous. Many people live alone and thoroughly enjoy themselves. Others live with a partner and children yet feel dreadfully lonely. Don’t go into this new way of life thinking “well I’m going to be on my own, so I’m bound to feel lonely.” If you expect to feel lonely then you will.

People feel lonely when they lack intimacy. Or, to put it another way, when there is no one in their life who understands them. Anyone trapped in a bad relationship knows this all too well. Above all, avoid self-pity. Some people literally sulk when they feel lonely and miserable, as if the world owes them love and friendship. It doesn’t.

This kind of sulking is especially common when people feel betrayed. For example, a 55-year-old woman’s husband leaves her for someone younger. Her daughter, meanwhile, has gone backpacking around Australia. While there, she starts a relationship and decides to stay. Her mother feels betrayed by both husband and child and so, as she settles into her one-bedroom apartment, she throws a huge sulk, bitterly cuts out the neighbors and makes no effort to meet new people.

Getting Organized

You must choose to take control of your life and make the best of things. And you can begin by taking charge of your living space. Clear any unnecessary clutter away. As the 19th-century English artist and writer William Morris once advised, “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Paint the walls, strip away that horrible old carpet, and make your new home as clean, bright and cheerful as you can.

You should also personalize it. List your favorite paintings or posters, buy some prints online and then get them framed; buy a vase and fill it with your favorite flowers; put up some photos of happy times and loved ones – even old pets. And when you do, try keeping everything cheerful (avoid paintings by Edward Hopper, for example!).

Someone who was forced into this situation by bereavement or infidelity is likely to feel flat and sad. That is perfectly understandable. Unfortunately, their mood will soon be reflected in their surroundings. The depressed neglect their personal appearance and their living conditions. Indeed, that is one of the first signs of mental illness. Soon, their apartment is a mess, with coffee mugs on every table, piles of old newspapers, and so on. Even if you don’t feel like it, clear away your clothes and dirty plates and paint the walls a cheerful color. For someone on the edge of depression this may take self-discipline, but it’s worth it.

Self-care is an important part of living alone. There is no longer anyone there to lead you into bad habits; equally, there is no one to correct you. Try and eat healthily. When people live alone, they tend to binge or comfort eat. And obviously there is a temptation to fill the cupboards with alcohol. Be careful of the food and drink you keep at home. When you live alone, no one advises against that second bottle of wine. If the bad food and drink isn’t there, you can’t be tempted.

Taking Advantage

Of course for many, living alone is wonderful. Indeed, if someone had been trapped in a miserable relationship, or didn’t get along with their parents, it can bring a sense of joy, freedom and release. But no matter what your situation is, living alone has its upside. You can now live in a way that suits you. You can watch only the shows that you enjoy, eat only your favorite food, go to bed at a time that suits you, play music at four in the morning, and so on. Take full advantage of these freedoms.

Three particular advantages are space, silence and time. Again, you can choose how to deal with them. Some find the emptiness and silence scary and depressing, but it needn’t be. In certain Eastern cultures, people used to seek these out. During your teens and twenties you fulfilled your ego needs: you made money, raised a family etc. In late middle-age, however, those so inclined would sell their business, settle their personal affairs, and then withdraw to an Ashram or mountain to meditate, fast and practise yoga. The goal was to break down the hard little ego and establish a deeper, broader, more spiritual sense of self.

Living alone provides a wonderful opportunity for self-development. Is there something you once loved but gave up because of your marriage or children? Maybe you used to love writing songs and performing them on a guitar. Or maybe you once painted watercolors or began writing a novel. Could you take these hobbies up again? Meditation and yoga would also be worth exploring. You needn’t be a mystic or religious believer to benefit from such things.

Space and silence are also perfect for study. How about philosophy? Or maybe learning a new language? You could set yourself some kind of goal: to read all Shakespeare’s plays, for example, or the complete novels of Charles Dickens. Being alone also means you can sing, dance and read aloud.

Try getting into a routine. This is especially important if you work from home. For example, get up and do some yoga, then work, eat a healthy breakfast, break at eleven for yoga and meditation, and so on.

Being Adaptable and Sociable

Being adaptable is hugely important in life, especially when you live alone. You may have to learn all kinds of new skills. And you will certainly be faced with new challenges. Don’t beat yourself up when you fail or make a mistake. That is how people learn. But do give yourself a pat on the back every time you achieve something you thought impossible.

And don’t close yourself off. Reaching out to people is important, but it can also be difficult. People often live alone because they have moved to a new town, perhaps for a new job. Others live alone following a divorce. In such cases, they may lose touch with old supportive networks. Try joining as many clubs and societies as you can. And be prepared to meet people you dislike. The point is not to make friends with everyone there but to filter out the one or two people you feel a connection with. Now you have your own place, take advantage of this: invite people over for dinner or a bottle of wine.

As with so many things in life, living alone is what you make it. In other words, how you approach it will determine the kind of experience you have. Approach it as an exciting new chapter and you are likely to enjoy yourself. Go into it expecting loneliness and misery and that is what you will find.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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