Many of us might be feeling confused by the waves of nostalgia washing over us at the mention of lockdown. We are supposed to hate that time, feel shivers at the sheer memory of it. However, as we tentatively start to go back to “normal”, we might find that the strange time inside has left its mark on us. “It’s likely that these unprecedented times shaped people’s personality traits to a certain degree as people were forced to leave their comfort zone and their daily routine,” says Mirjam Stieger of the Lifespan Developmental Psychology Laboratory at Brandeis University, in Massachusetts.
We’ve heard a lot about the negative impacts of lockdown; however, as we spent months adjusting to the new lifestyle, we might have grown more comfortable in spending time by ourselves and in turn learn a lot about who we truly are. There wasn’t just one lockdown either, and everyone’s experience was unique and subject to personal circumstances. However, it undeniably left its imprint on all of us. It changed us all.
We fear being alone. This fear wakes us up in the morning, reaches for our calendars and fills it up with coffee chats, in-the-middle-of-shopping chats, and the “oh, it’s been so long since” chats. In a study conducted by the University of Virginia, a quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men would rather be subjected to an electric shock rather than spend time alone with their thoughts.
But despite the social stigma and apprehension about time alone, it’s something our bodies crave. Whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, learning how to spend quality time by yourself can be a valuable life lesson. Teenagers are always told to go out, to grab life by the horns, to meet new people, chase new people, be swarmed by them, because the minute they are alone, they are missing out on life. “You can rest when you are older,” say ‘the adults’. Because of that, people run away from solitude, or rather, themselves, constantly shushing the inner voice that whispers “slow down, listen to me”.
Yet according to Dr Thuy-vy Nguyen, a professor at Durham University who researches solitude, there is nothing to fear. If one is willing to just reject the idea (most common in the West) that time spent alone is something you must run away from, solitude can be a positive experience. “Valuing solitude doesn’t really hurt your social life, in fact, it might add to it,” Dr Nguyen says. Only if we are truly at peace with ourselves, can we go out and experience social life to the fullest. Because what’s the joy in living if we are confused about our own identity?
When people feel authentic, they find it easier to express themselves and stay true to who they are. The surge of people coming out during lockdown can be one example of people for whom lockdown and spending time alone with their thoughts helped them discover who they truly are. We all have that underlying need for individuality, for exploring ourselves. However, to unlock the experience of being the “real you”, people must reach the point when they are comfortable with their own thoughts.
Of course, getting rid of our usual distractions isn’t always a good thing. Isolation can be the perfect breeding ground for negative, self-critical thoughts. We all have an inner critic, a snarky narrator that lives inside our heads and seeks any opportunity to criticise us. What’s worse is it tends to get more obnoxious when we are left alone. But when lockdown approached and we had no choice but to face those thoughts head on, people adapted.
As we grew more confident in ourselves and gradually learnt how to get through this period of solitude, we might have achieved what Dr. Ngyuen calls “authentic aloneness”. It’s one way of regaining control and tapping into our true selves, by consciously choosing activities that align with our needs when we are alone. Usually, individuals have little opportunity to exercise their autonomy in their everyday lives and are likely to do things only in the presence of extrinsic motivators, such as rewards or pressures from other people. Too often do we rely on others to shape our experiences.
“There have been studies that show when we are by ourselves, what is uncomfortable is the lack of stimuli, that you can’t rely on other people to shape your experience in a certain way,” Dr Nguyen says. It’s easier to just follow along. Lockdown took that shortcut away. We count heavily on the presence of others, seeking comfort in the arms of our friends, family, and Mark Zuckerberg’s escape-verse. When surrounded by a crowd, our thoughts and behaviours are shaped by social norms or standards. Lockdown forced us out of our default mode of social contact and introduced us to the world of private self-consciousness.
The new autonomy, freedom of having “no pressure to do anything, no pressure to talk to anyone, no obligation to make plans with people” was a great way to process and decompress, according to Emily Roberts, a psychotherapist. When there is no one around to judge, people are much more willing to do something important to them rather than prioritising the wants and needs of others. Lockdown brought buzzcuts, mullets, e-girl strands, arts and crafts and spikes of masterclasses. People came out, had makeovers, revamped their closet, all in celebration of themselves. They engaged in activities that they were good at (or wanted to become good at) and were intrinsically motivated to do. People in the struggle to fight off boredom started to discover new interests and ideas without having to worry about the opinions of others. Lockdown created a perfect environment for people to feel authentic when alone and to explore this new side of theirs.
Solitude, if not feared, can be a productive space for self-reflection and regaining autonomy in your own life. It may even help you discover your identity. In the strange times of lockdown, we found ways to enjoy ourselves and provide entertainment for our brains. Not relying on others to fill up our calendars was scary and challenging, but it gave us an opportunity to learn how to echo and amplify our inner voices and become experts at narrating life through a confidently independent monologue.
Article by Zosia Kibalo