I never intended to be single again, but I found myself in that place for more than five years. It goes without saying that I would never have wanted any of that to happen. (Like, for real, not any of it.) But, as it often goes with the worst things, now I have learned the deep value of that season. I wouldn’t trade that time of quite quiet and alone for a whole lot of seasons of loud and crowd. I learned more than I’ll probably ever be able to fit into a lifetime of writing. On the list of greatest lessons: how to enjoy my own self.
Have you ever taken yourself out for dinner? Just you, all on your own? There was a time when I never would have considered it, a time when seeing someone alone at a table just broke my heart with sympathy for their loneliness. But I think differently about it now. I now know that alone doesn’t mean lonely, and the person I felt so sorry for may not have been lonely at all. I contend that there’s an art to dining alone, that it can be a beautiful and life-giving adventure to believe yourself to be quite enough to occupy a booth for two. So even if you have a regular dinner partner, I invite you to learn this skill when you have the occasional opportunity. Here we go.
The first thing to know about dining alone is this: It’s all about you. So dress yourself right into a good mood, because you’re actually taking yourself on a date. I’m something of a podcast junkie, and one of my favorites is NPR’s Invisibilia, a podcast about the invisible forces that control human behavior. In an episode called “The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes,” Lulu Miller and Hanna Rosin explore how clothes can change us in quiet but surprising ways. Their research showed that our personalities shift when we feel confident in what we’re wearing. Our clothes can even affect our intellect. Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School, ran an experiment where he gave people a doctor’s white coat to wear for a series of intellectual tests. He discovered that people actually tested measurably better when they wore the doctor’s coat, simply because they felt smarter. It’s proven and measurable that your confidence, personality, and perception of yourself can be directly tied to what you’re wearing. So why not get dolled up for a night with yourself?
Next, choose a place you love to go with food you love to eat. When the host says, “How many in your party?” be ready with your answer. I try not to say, “Just one,” because tonight isn’t about feeling sorry for myself, and the word just gives the wrong impression, making it sound like I’m lonely and sad. Let’s be honest, if I’m lonely and sad, then I won’t need a host to seat me. The dinner by myself is going to look like ice cream in bed and You’ve Got Mail on Netflix. Instead, I say, “I’m dining alone tonight, thank you.” Or, “A table for one, please.” Those are proactive statements that put you in charge. It’s your chance to say, “I chose this night, this restaurant, and this time by myself. Please give me the best table that will suit such a quality time and experience.”
Bring a companion of some kind. I bring authors in their books. But maybe you bring apps, Angry Birds, singer/songwriters on Pandora, or your Facebook community on Words with Friends. I’ve spent many a “dinner alone” with Oprah or Brené Brown simply by bringing their words along, and Michael Bublé has been known to sing to me through my earbuds. Much like at your dinner party, you get to choose who you’re with—even when you’re all alone. And though you look like you’re having dinner by yourself, only you know that you’re in the presence of quite fascinating company.
Next, choose your very favorite item on the menu. And this part is very, very, very important: Order dessert. Always. This is a must. You’re worth it, and life is too short to overthink the cheesecake. Settle in. Leave a good tip. If you don’t have the luxury of spending very much money on yourself, then treat yourself to dinner at a frozen yogurt shop. Enjoy the space. Love yourself there. It’s an art, this business of dining alone.
Why is it important to get comfortable being by yourself? So that later, when someone comes along to fill the space beside you, you’ll know for sure if you’re choosing to be with someone out of love or loneliness. These are very different, and only the girl who knows herself can implicitly learn the difference. Sometimes you have to be alone in order to find out who you are without anybody telling you. Sometimes you have to be alone so you can learn the sound of your own voice.