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November 16, 2018

I’m not lonely—I’m alone.

That lyric from singer Jamila Woods’ song “Holy” has been on my mind for the past few months.

The song—an ode to self-care, self-love, and resilience—scored the top spot on my breakup playlist, which I made right after a long-term relationship ended this fall. It became the anthem to my pack-move-start-over process.

When that relationship ended, I noticed another one begin immediately: a new relationship between me and solitude.

I found myself, for the first time ever, the complete master of my free time. I settled into a new neighborhood, my own place—and unless I made an effort to see friends, my new default was alone. It was no longer “living with partner” or “living with roommate.” I was alone with a capital A.

When that relationship ended, I noticed another one begin immediately: a new relationship between me and solitude.

And at first, it felt magical—like the start of any new relationship does.

I felt like the epitome of the self-care movement. I watched exactly what I wanted on TV while trying out multiple new face masks. I learned all the A Star Is Born songs on my guitar. I cooked extravagant desserts—just for myself. I took long, ambling walks with my dog. I meticulously set up my new studio apartment as if I was the Joanna Gaines of Brooklyn.

I leaned into me time hard.

“I could literally do any and all things alone,” I remember telling a friend over brunch. “I love it.”

Just like the song, I felt alone but not lonely—I felt empowered by my solo time, like a woman who’s favorite Instagram posts are memes of dogs in bed texting they’re “5 minutes away” should.

I felt alone but not lonely—I felt empowered by my solo time.
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But then, about three weeks in, the honeymoon period ended.

I woke up on a Saturday morning ready to embrace more solo time, only to face the elephant in the very small yet well-decorated room: I was alone. And not in the empowering “You deserve solo time” way or “reclaim your me time” way, but in the “there’s no one else here” way.

In the “you didn’t choose this—it chose you” way.

Loneliness crashed the party. And, like a petty guest, it whispered to me, “There’s no one else choosing to be here. There’s no one else wanting to be here. You’re alone because that’s just it—you’re alone.”

As someone who writes and reads about mental health in my 9-to-5, I knew I wasn’t alone in feeling alone—it’s a global issue. Loneliness rates have doubled in the U.S. in the past 50 years, and the U.K. even appointed a “minister of loneliness” this year to help confront the “loneliness epidemic,” as some experts call it.

And yet, it’s also a time when the self-care movement is glorifying setting boundaries and encouraging people to take time for themselves. “Me time is your power” the Instagram world tells me. But then the news chimes in: “Don’t feel too lonely—it’s going around, you know.”

'Me time is your power' the Instagram world tells me. But then the news chimes in: 'Don’t get too lonely—it’s going around, you know.'
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It leaves me feeling guilty or weak when I can’t embrace alone time without loneliness. But it also leaves me scared to dip my toe in the loneliness pool, fearing I’ll get sucked in.

Conflicted, I brought up my solitude woes with my therapist.

In our next appointment, she asked how my week went. My mind flashed back to the Saturday and Sunday I spent trying to wrangle someone to spend time with—and feeling like crap when plans fell through. I summoned my courage to bring the words to my lips: “I felt lonely,” I said.

Saying it out loud, oddly, brought on a wave of relief. First, because it was past tense: I could see that I felt lonely but I wasn’t lonely. I didn’t embody and exist as the feeling 24/7. And secondly, because I realized solitude and loneliness aren’t forever entwined once they cross paths—the two are always in flux.

There are nights you claim for yourself and it feels like an empowering move—but then, there are times when you wake up on a Saturday morning, cook some eggs for one, and think, “I feel kind of lonely right now.”

We can’t hide from loneliness—just like we can’t hide from other emotions—yet we also can’t hide from solo time. Within solitude, we create space to rediscover ourselves and stretch our creativity. To escape the overload of our day-to-day.

As someone processing a breakup, I couldn’t miss out on those self-discovery benefits. But I could be aware of how much solitude I wanted to embrace, and I could give myself space to feel lonely here and there.

We can’t hide from loneliness—just like we can’t hide from other emotions—yet we also can’t hide from solo time.
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“It’s OK to feel lonely,” my therapist told me. Her caveat: so long as I didn’t serve it tea.

She explained with a quote from Zen Monk Shunryū Suzuki:

Leave your front door and your back door open.

Allow your thoughts to come and go.

Just don’t serve them tea.

She meant that I could feel lonely without becoming loneliness if I recognized it for what it was: an emotion simply passing through, not a constant.

Since then, I’ve released some of the pressure to either love or loathe all my me time.

There’s a fine line between alone and lonely, and it’s OK if we can’t navigate it like a tightrope walker. We won’t always love our solitude. We won’t always love giving our energy to other people, either.

Some days, we’re belting “I’m not lonely, I’m alone.” Other days, we’re warbling through “Hello” by Adele.

It’s a constant, unreliable flux, these emotions we have.

All we can do is greet how we’re feeling with acceptance, and try our best not to serve it tea. And if it helps: Make a killer playlist to help us navigate it all.

If you’re struggling with loneliness and want to talk to someone, Crisis Text Line offers support 24/7—it's confidential and free. Text 741741


Read next: thank u, next: Four Lessons We Can Learn From Heartbreak

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