Battling the stigma of solitude

Last week, I saw “Silver Linings Playbook” in theaters alone. Given that it was a romantic drama, I was not surprised to find that my fellow attendees were couples. As the only solitary person, I received more than one curious look.

It’s a look I’ve encountered occasionally since I decided to attend some movies alone as self-imposed therapy.

I’ve battled anxiety for years and going out alone can be stressful. Some days, varying from a schedule can induce a strange panic at encountering unknownpeople and situations with unpredictable variables. It’s why people with anxiety develop compulsions and phobias — familiarity is safe and controllable.

Those who never experience that level of anxiety might have difficulty relating to nervousness at interacting with strangers and fears of seeming conspicuous.

We’ve all felt nervous in appearing alone.

Ever waited for a friend at a restaurant? Awkward. We try to look preoccupied, pretending to text or checking Facebook, glancing obviously toward the entrance to ensure everyone around knows we’re expecting someone else.

I’m the one with anxiety, while some friends find my choice to see films alone strange. A couple at my screening last week seemed to share the sentiment. Going to the movies is considered a communal event.

The Internet, while expanding our concept of community in innovative ways, has turned any activity into a collective experience, along with potential consequences.

One study by Anxiety UK found 45 percent of those polled were “worried or uncomfortable” when cut off from social networking. Other studies report similar findings: We have a social media separation anxiety.

We “check in” with apps, despite the safety concern of highlighting our empty homes. We share vacation pictures, use statuses to find out everyone’s plans and jokingly call an evening alone a “pathetic” consequence of single life. We’re desperate to avoid the perceived stigma of solitude.

Even pop culture pokes fun at solitary activity.“How I Met Your Mother” depicts going to brunch as requiring more than one person and frequently makes individual hobbies or excursions a punch line, pitying singleness.

And in one of the most quoted film scenes of all time, Jerry Maguire resolves his character arc when he finds someone to “complete” him.

Despite these scenarios’ humor or romance, make no mistake: This is unhealthy.

It’s understandable to get a little nervous at being alone in public. We’ve faced mass shootings, violence and unrest around the world. We need to be aware of situations and careful when we’re alone.

It can also be freeing to be alone in a crowd when your enjoyment is no longer dependent on another person.

My solitary movie experiences are immensely rewarding. They are simultaneously public and intimate. I can watch a film without worrying if my companions are enjoying it, I’m having the “right” reactions or I’m going to be teased for tearing up at the more dramatic moments.

When the inclusiveness of social media creates an anxiety to always be included, it’s no longer fostering community. Instead, it’s fostering codependency.

And when you can’t face doing an activity alone, you’re making your personal fulfillment conditional on someone else which in the end, will never be fulfilling at all.

If someone won’t tag along to that movie, go anyway. If you don’t have weekend plans, browse some shops or go running. Defy the rules of the “How I Met Your Mother” universe and treat yourself to brunch Han style — Solo.

And whatever you do, don’t post it on Facebook.

 

Reach the columnist at esther.drown@asu.edu or follow her at @EMDrown

 

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