When I was 6 years old, I loved to play out my own wedding. I’d dress up in a white children’s princess gown and walk myself down an imaginary aisle in front of my make-believe groom and guests. As the only child of a single mom who was busy trying to make ends meet, I was used to entertaining myself, and I loved dreaming of one day celebrating my love as one half of a couple. I didn’t mind being alone at the time because it was always temporary; Mom always came home. But when I was 22, she died unexpectedly, and being alone was no longer so magical.
When I was 8, my mom suffered a brain aneurysm that left her partially paralyzed. She became my life purpose, with her daily routine a key part of mine. Every decision I made—whether minor, like going out with friends, or major, like choosing which college to attend—was with her well-being in mind. After she died, every day felt like an abyss of empty minutes I didn’t know how to fill. I’d been a caregiver for so long, and I never learned how to put myself first. I couldn’t comprehend how I could devote my life to anyone else—including myself.
My immediate response to my mom’s passing was to fill the void with romantic relationships. It’s something psychotherapist Meghan Riordan Jarvis, MA, LCSW, host of the podcast Grief Is My Side Hustle, says is a common reaction that follows loss; called reaction formation in the field of psychology, it’s “the desire to replace an attachment with another strong attachment,” she says. After trying to re-ignite two old flames only to be ghosted, though, I stopped seeking out relationships—both romantic and platonic—and focused all my attention on my career. I convinced myself that I didn’t need anybody—as a defense mechanism or anything else.
Being alone became a celebration of solitude
This focus on self-sufficiency is another response Jarvis says is common among the bereaved. The refrain in your head might be, “I loved that person, that person died, and now this is the worst I’ve ever felt in my life,” she says. “There’s a part of your brain that says ‘Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen again.’ Whether by avoiding another attachment or leaning into self-sufficiency, it’s protecting you from disappointment.”
I’ve been able to mentally reframe not having any immediate family or a partner into something positive—I no longer feel like a victim of my life, but someone with agency who makes choices for herself.
Yes, I was afraid of being alone forever, but I was more afraid of loving and losing again. Now, at age 30—after eight years of not having my mom or a romantic partner—I’m no longer afraid or ashamed of my solitude. I’ve been able to mentally reframe not having any immediate family or a partner into something positive—I no longer feel like a victim of my life, but someone with agency who makes choices for herself.
My approach to relationships has shifted from avoidance to intentionality; instead of reactively putting up walls, I proactively establish boundaries. I now prioritize my relationship to myself, not as a defense mechanism, but because I see the freedom that comes with being single, living alone, and not having immediate family to look after. It enables me to live life on my own terms—in a way that I enjoy and have to qualify to exactly no one.
“If you think about the concept of being alone as an opportunity to get to know your own needs, wants and desires, that’s an extraordinary thing,” Jarvis says. I indeed now feel most at home in my own company. When I’m around others, I’m preoccupied with their presence. Whatever else is in front of me—whether the stunning views on a hike or a delicious meal—becomes secondary to addressing the needs of the person I’m with.
It’s why I see a dinner reservation for one as my ideal scenario. I can more mindfully taste my food because I’m not distracted by conversation. A solo trip? Even better; it means I don’t have to organize my itinerary around someone else’s wants or needs. It’s also empowering to look back on all the adventures I’ve had on my trips alone—trips I wouldn’t change despite a widely accepted narrative that associates being alone with being a recipient of pity.
Being alone and being lonely are critically not the same things
“When people say ‘you’re not alone,’ it’s a painful lie—I am alone and it’s okay that I’m alone,” says Jarvis. “There is so much in life that we are existentially alone for. People think it’s bad to be alone, but it just is.”
Loneliness and being alone are crucially not the same thing. And, to be clear, loneliness isn’t something I desire or something I feel often. “Loneliness is someone yearning for a feeling they used to have, with someone who has died, for example, or yearning for something they imagine exists, like what they see in rom-coms,” says Jarvis. Suffering doesn’t come from being alone, she adds, but rather wanting things to be different than how they are.
Suffering doesn’t come from being alone, but rather wanting things to be different than how they are.
Valentine’s Day is an example of a time when I tend to feel lonely. Every year, I long for the times when my mom and I would be each other’s Valentine, exchanging adoring cards and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. But then I remember that even when she was alive, I’d long for a romantic partner on Valentine’s day; I’d scroll on social media, jealous of the couples posting photos of each other with loving captions. Back then, I wasn’t alone but I was still lonely. It’s possible to be lonely when you’re not alone, and it’s also possible—as I know firsthand—to be alone and not lonely.
“Having people around you doesn’t inoculate you from feeling lonely, because it’s not about the presence of people,” Jarvis says. “It’s about a sense of connection that grounds you as a human in a particular way.” It can be helpful, she says, to identify what kind of connection—intellectual, spiritual, or romantic, for example—energizes you, but it’s more important to cultivate a strong relationship with yourself. Doing so allows us to better understand what fills up our cup. “If you’re aware of what your needs are, you’re going to be better able to meet them,” Jarvis says.
Still, it’s my relationship with myself that I believe is the most important one I’ll ever have. Learning how to identify my own wants and needs after so many years spent putting my mom first has strengthened my sense of self.
I’m still learning to allow myself to fully revel in the joy of being on my own. Feeling pleasure in not having to look after anyone but myself comes with guilt knowing my mom had to die for me to experience this freedom. But I’ve learned how to hold two truths in one hand: It’s scary and complicated being on my own, and it’s also really cool.
I have all this space to discover what I really want and the autonomy to be able to define my life on my terms. There is still the little girl in me yearning to be loved, but the difference is now, rather than looking for that love from external sources, I’m searching for it from within. I now see that there doesn’t have to be just one version of the fairytale life—being alone can be fulfilling and magical, too.