Being alone and feeling lonely are NOT the same thing.
It kills me how much of my life I spent feeling like I was missing something just because I didn't have a person sitting next to me.
In middle and high school, I struggled with intense anxiety about always having a friend to hang out with, something to do, and being somewhere I felt included. I always had a crush on someone and was always trying to figure out who or what to focus on next. I had such intense fear of being alone that my stomach churned anytime one of my friends got a new boyfriend.
What I never realized was there is a difference between wanting to spend time with people and never being alone with your own thoughts.
Still, I forged along blindly. I carried this with anxiety with me into college. There, I had more infatuations, more fixations, and more relationships where I constantly tried to make myself into the person I thought they would like instead of being myself.
I couldn't understand why I felt so alone yet still be surrounded by so many people. The people I was dating constantly misunderstood me or projected certain ideas onto me that were so far from who I felt like I really was. Finally, after a particularly devastating end to an overbearing (and frankly, manipulative) relationship, I felt like I'd been slapped by reality:
No one knew me or understood me because I didn't know or understand myself.
Suddenly, I started paying more attention to myself. I stopped feeling embarrassed about things I genuinely liked (Lady Gaga, absurd comedy, reading constantly) and instead chased after exactly what I wanted. I spent so much time convincing myself that specific traits and interests were more appealing - being apathetic and liking only a certain kind of music - that I was ignoring what I actually liked: being excited and enthusiastic, being ecclectic, having a general love of life.
I started listening to pop music again for the first time in years (I gave it up because I was embarrassed about my "guilty pleasures"). Vice versa, I gave up TV shows I realized I didn't like anymore. I'd only watched them because someone I was dating liked them.
It didn't happen all at once but like any good relationship, slowly but surely, we got to know each other better. For once, I let myself think really hard about what I wanted and where I wanted to see myself. I asked questions I hadn't let myself ask before: What do I want to be doing? Am I happy? And if I'm not, what was I doing at the point in my life when I was happy?
It wasn't until I wrote the last sentence of the first draft of my first novel, something I'd wanted to do for years, that I looked around and realized what I had done: I'd been alone for over two years and I was more than okay with it.
But in fact, I wasn't alone: I was essentially dating myself and we were super crazy about each other.
I went to movies by myself, went on walks, read books, watched my favorite TV shows. I made myself laugh more and stopped doing things I didn’t want to do. I felt better about myself. I stopped being so hard on myself about making new friends. All the tension I'd felt growing up about feeling included started to release to the point I felt anxiety knots in my neck actually start to disappear. I didn't have to worry so hard about appealing to anyone else. I just had to appeal to me.
Dating yourself definitely has its perks. You never argue about what to watch on Netflix, what to order on Seamless, or what movie to see at the theater. I never have to pause a conversation or ask for some alone time to finish Gone Girl for the third time. My relationship dialogue is with myself and I'm finally okay with that.
What I want to say is this: Being alone doesn't have to be synonymous with feeling lonely. My own feelings of loneliness were coming from a deep-seated notion that I was woefully misunderstood. The second I realized I had been unconsciously putting all the energy I would've spent getting to know someone else towards getting to know myself, my life changed:
Finally someone understood me and that person was me.
Eventually, someone else can join this snuggly little relationship. Until then, I want to enjoy the feeling of being alone. That's something I've worked really, really hard for. It's something I'm proud of and it's something I'll try to share with whoever joins me next.
When people ask me who I'm dating/if I'm dating/why I'm still single, it’s hard not to get frustrated. I don't want them to pin all their single-life anxieties on me.
So I just answer, "I'm finally dating a person who has my best interest at heart: me."