Being comfortable alone, in public

I biked after work from Arlington into Washington to meet a friend attending a conference a few blocks from the White House. I got turned around biking through one of the circles, and ended up getting there late, but it’s good to be outside and to enjoy such a beautiful afternoon and evening in a place like this.

As I bike along, I like to try to guess whether the people I see live here and are going about their lives, or whether they’re out-of-towners or tourists. I like biking because I find it makes me less self-conscious, in the moments that we’re inclined to feel that way. The School of Life has a great piece on this topic, how to be comfortable on your own in public:

No one is born with a capacity to love and endure themselves on their own; we learn to soothe and care for ourselves by first experiencing the tender gaze of others, and then internalising their reassurance and kindness, replaying it to ourselves in isolated circumstances down the years. The lucky ones among us, those with no compunction about ordering a meal at a table for one, must – somewhere in the distant past – have grown secure through others’ admiration, by which we now ward off suspicions that the head waiter is sniggering and the couple in the corner are teasing us. We, who were perhaps at that time not much larger than a pillow, were lent a powerful sense that we had a right to exist, that we were an asset to the world, that others should be pleased to see us, which means that now, even when the caregivers are long-gone, the charge of love we imbibed lends us an impression that the laughter from the next table is innocent and that we deserve to be brought another basket of bread and the evening paper.

But the less fortunate among us have no such emotional blanket. Whatever our accomplishments or status, we are never far from a sense that everyone is mocking and would have good reason to harm us. We need, with a conscious effort, to do what others have learnt automatically. One side of the mind needs to comfort the other, must make the reassuring noises we never natively received, must soothe us because no one else ever did. Although we’re on our own in the restaurant at the moment, we must strive to hold on to a picture of the rest of our lives: two days ago we were laughing with our friends (of whom we have some great examples), tomorrow we’ll be in intense discussion with some colleagues: we have been loved and held tightly in others’ arms before. We’re on our own right now, but we’re not social outcasts after all.

We should remember – along the way – how little anyone ever thinks of us, in the best possible sense. We are for the most part gloriously indifferent to one another. The person cracking a joke with a group of friends has not rerouted their evening to mock us. The attractive individual deep in conversation with a companion may be talking about how lost they are in their new job. They aren’t speculating on how isolated and ugly we are. Those are voices in our heads, not theirs.

Subscribe for free to receive most posts by email. Consider subscribing as a Patron for members-only posts.