How to be alone

The best step-by-step guide I’ve read for this purpose comes from the Centre for Clinical Interventions, supported by the Australian government’s department of health. Psychologists there have published a comprehensive guide to developing “distress tolerance skills.” It’s free, it’s online, and it uses an evidence-based approach rooted in cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based therapy. It’s worth checking out the whole guide, but I’ll give a capsule summary of the process it recommends.

First, accept the distress you’re feeling. Instead of engaging in your usual escape methods for avoiding uncomfortable emotions -whether it’s bingeing TV, numbing out with alcohol, or whatever-, commit to doing the opposite: Stay with the emotion.

Second, Watch the emotion. Noting how it’s manifesting in your clenched muscles or using imagery to describe it -“this feeling is not me, it’s just like a cloud floating past in the sky”- may help you detach from it a bit. Keep observing it until it naturally subsides.

Third, Turn your attention back to a task you want to do in the present moment. It can be a simple inward task like focusing on your breath, or an outward task like volunteering to help people in need.

Expect that the distressing feelings will come back. But know, too, that by actually facing them rather than running away from them, you’re teaching yourself that you’re strong enough to handle them. Accepting your isolation, letting it take you deeper into yourself, remembering your purpose — these are tried-and-true strategies for successful solitude. You will find the same strategies echoed in other sources, from contemporary Western psychologists and mindfulness teachers to ancient Buddhist texts. Link

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