Learn the art of being alone: psychologist explains how spending time on your own benefits mental health, confidence

  • Bias against introverts causes people to fear being seen as a social failure if they do things alone, but solitude can actually help them feel comfortable in their skin
  • Every week, Talking Points gives you a worksheet to practise your reading comprehension with questions and exercises about the story we’ve written
Doris Wai |

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Even if introverts and extroverts have different ways to replenishing energy, everyone can benefit from spending time alone. Photo: Shutterstock

Our world often says that if we want to be well-liked, we should make sure to be around friends all the time. But did you know being alone can actually be beneficial for you and even your social life?

Ken Fung, director of therapy and counselling at Jadis Blurton Family Development Centre in Hong Kong, clears up misconceptions associated with alone time and encourages everyone to cultivate the habit of spending time on their own.

So why would anyone choose to put a pause on socialising when it seems like it could lead to feelings of emptiness?

That is what most people get wrong, said Fung, a clinical psychologist.

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He set the record straight about the difference between spending time alone and feeling lonely. While the former is a choice, loneliness is a condition marked by feelings of disconnectedness, and we can feel lonely even when we are surrounded by people.

“Our minds are constantly engaged with different sorts of mental activities, which can be categorised under ‘doing’ and ‘being’,” explained the psychologist.

Usually, we are in “doing” mode, which refers to the actions we take to achieve our goals. While this has benefits, it can take a toll on our mental health if it is the only mode in which we spend all of our time.

He added: “The very much overlooked ‘being’ mode helps us to be aware of what is happening in the present moment, and this involves spending time alone so that we can connect to our thoughts and our emotions. Everyone needs this ... whether they are introverts or extroverts.”

Ken Fung is the director of therapy and counselling at Jadis Blurton Family Development Centre. Photo: Handout

Fung said many people often felt embarrassed to admit they needed time on their own because of society’s bias against introversion. We have been taught that being alone is a sign of a failed social life.

However, Fung emphasised that this could not be further from the truth.

“Introverts are not asocial like what many have been led to believe. Rather, they just consume and recharge their energy in ways that are different to extroverts,” he said.

According to the psychologist, introverts tend to recharge when they are by themselves, and they can feel drained when spending too much time around others. The opposite is true for extroverts, but they do benefit from being on their own, albeit for shorter periods.

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The ability to tolerate alone time had been linked to increased happiness and improved stress management, Fung pointed out. People who enjoy spending time by themselves experience less depression, too.

Other benefits of solitude include building self-awareness and self-confidence. This is especially helpful for teens who are still undergoing emotional development and are seeking acceptance from their peers.

“They will make it a point to line up the schedule with fun, cool activities to avoid spending time alone even for one weekend,” Fung said, adding that despite the allure of wanting to constantly make plans, alone time could help teens feel more confident when socialising.

“Being alone actually helps you to become more comfortable in your own skin and allows you to make choices without outside influences. This gives you the chance to reflect on who you really are,” he explained.

Purposeful solitude can help you withstand peer pressure as it can help you be more confident in who you are and what you want. Illustration: Shutterstock

To cultivate the habit of alone time, Fung recommended starting with baby steps such as setting aside an hour every day for reading or watching your favourite Netflix shows.

In all, life is about balance. Fung referred to the Japanese concept of yohaku no bi, which celebrates the beauty of white space in a work of art.

“For a painting to be balanced, there must be some void spaces so that the viewer will know which parts of the artwork to focus on,” he said. “In the same way, this is true for our social life.”

“It is only when you are comfortable with yourself that you can gain self-confidence and ... learn to better connect with others.”

Click here to download a printable worksheet with questions and exercises about this story. Answers are on the second page of the document.

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