I am a fairly independent person (those who know me well would probably say that’s an understatement). I have a propensity for taking initiative, I work well under minimal supervision (can you tell I’ve had job interviews lately?), and thinking outside the box feels more natural to me than staying in the box (ask me about my forward-thinking fashion choices). In a lot of ways, independence has helped me distinguish my individuality – a unique, tropical fish if you will. What has been harder to learn is how individuality and solitude go together.
Although I have spent my entire life as my own person, it has been harder to learn to enjoy my own company. In a society that allocates social value based on prestige, being highly visible tends to mean you have more worth as a person, and for a long time I thought I had to do everything with other people. Over the years, I have discovered that not only can I engage in social activities solo, but that I also really enjoy it. Make no mistake – friends, family and social connection are critical to my well-being. But other people don’t always share the same interests as I do, or they may be busy during the performance I’m dying to see. I want to do the things I want to do, and sometimes that means I’m doing things on my own. A couple experiences come to mind that helped me learn this lesson.
16 years old: I’m spending a month in Germany with a family that I kind of know. There is a lot of downtime. In the States, I’m used to downtime, but right now I’m traveling, and most people expect that trips – and especially overseas trips – are packed so full with tours, sightseeing and local adventures that there isn’t even time for sleep. I spend a lot of time reading. I enjoy reading, but I feel like I’m not living up to expectations.
23 years old: I’m spending Christmas in Australia. I’m halfway through Peace Corps service, and everyone else in my group is either back in the States or headed to New Zealand for the holidays. I could go to New Zealand, but knowing that other people will be meeting up without me makes me feel left out, and I’d rather not spend an entire vacation with “Fear Of Missing Out.” Instead, I wander aimlessly around town, stop at places that pique my interest, and make up my schedule as I go. My only goal is to enjoy myself.
27 years old: I want to see a movie that is only showing at the theatre for one more weekend. Everyone else is busy. I sit in my car for a few minutes gathering up the courage to enter the theater, steeling myself for the social judgment comes with doing things alone. Once I make it to my dimly lit seat, I sink into relaxation with the realization that – nobody else cares. Or if they do, it doesn’t matter. I want to see this movie, and now I get to.
Giving myself permission to wear mismatched shoes is easy. Giving myself permission to be alone in public is much harder. My independence only goes so far. But I keep stretching it, and the more I learn that I can do on my own, the more I enjoy it. I find so much freedom and joy in pursuing my interests and whims because I can. Doing things alone means I’m not responsible for entertaining others, or agreeing to compromise on Italian food when I’d much rather have Indian. I get to enjoy things at my own pace and in my own way, which is often much slower and more low-key than anyone else’s Facebook feed. You should try it sometime!