One writer shares lessons learned from two decades of being on her own.
After 13 years of using the self-cleaning option of my oven for only a half-hour or so, I decided to go big and run the full three-hour cycle. It was a complete mess, and I was on a rare housecleaning kick. The result: a dead broiler discovered a couple of days later after I attempted to broil a steak, which almost mooed when I opened the oven door 10 minutes later.
If I didn’t live alone, the whole debacle might have been prevented as a roommate—or a partner—would have asked me to curtail the cleaning cycle due to the excessive heat and acrid smell. Instead, I had fled into the bedroom with the cats to avoid the stench.
While this experience might have completely thrown me when I was newly divorced, almost two decades of living on my own has taught me a few things. First, if something happens, reach out for help. Even if you hate to bug people, like I do, with requests for favors.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
“Even if you don’t feel like doing something, you can’t pay attention to that,” observes Ken Smith of the Center for Autism, Assertiveness & Social Skills in Columbus. Much of his practice revolves around social isolation, including a Facebook page that serves as a resource for information and studies on the topic.
In the years since my divorce, I’ve learned a lot of lessons. After the most recent incident, I swung into action with my network. First, I emailed a friend who helps fix things around the house in exchange for free books and meals. (I get the better end of the deal.) This was out of his bailiwick, so the next step was my online self-help buddies Thumbtack, NextDoor and finally Google (with careful perusal of all reviews).
With Google, the possibilities are endless. While in the process of figuring out how to replace the broiler, I considered various YouTube DIY options. But in discussing the process with the handyperson I eventually hired for the job, I realized doing the broiler repair myself might have been tantamount to performing my own root canal.
The internet and all things digital can be a double-edged sword. “Too often, people depend on social media for everything,” says Smith, whether it is dating, online gaming or joining a special interest group. “Technology can exacerbate feelings of isolation.”
“Step out of your comfort zone, otherwise nothing will ever get done,” Smith continues. This includes situations such as meeting friends that you may not have seen for a while, volunteering for a cause you believe in or going to meetups and other social gatherings of people with common interests. “The hardest part is getting started,”advises Smith.
Pushing yourself to do an activity when all you want to do is sit at home may seem counterintuitive. But once you’re there and find others who share your interests, passions or concerns, you’ll likely be glad you went.
In fact, a 2017 study cited in the Harvard Business Review found that the use of Facebook had a negative impact on overall well-being, particularly in terms of mental health. “Exposure to the carefully curated images from others’ lives leads to negative self-comparison, and the sheer quantity of social media interaction may detract from more meaningful real-life experiences,” states the article.
An equally concerning study published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing found that, in addition to two hours a day on social media, the average adult spends five hours a day on their smartphones. (Teenagers spend a total of about nine hours daily on digital devices.)
As a result, many American adults feel lonely, states yet another study from Cigna Insurance. Although those living with others rank better on the loneliness scale, single parents with young children score even higher. According to the study:Only around half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful, in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis. Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations. Getting the right balance of sleep and work, socializing with friends and family, and me time is connected to lower loneliness scores. However, balance is critical, as those who get too little or too much of these activities have higher loneliness scores.
Therapist Ken Smith recommends a free online booklet, Shy No Longer, even if you don’t consider yourself to be the quiet or retiring type. It reinforced many of the coping skills I learned while going through counseling after my divorce and during discussions with my oldest sister, who is a therapist.
What really caught my eye was a diagram in the chapter on self-management, illustrated by an odd drawing of a smiling individual with pink hair and a butterfly surrounded by boxes with titles that include: social activity, self-care/exercise, goals, social support, relaxation and more. The reader is supposed to fill in each box. I’m a big believer in intentionality, whether it is decluttering my house in anticipation of a move or reducing the time I spend playing “Cookie Jam” on my phone. I now play only 30 minutes in the afternoon, as opposed to time spent well into the wee hours of the morning.
Smith also emphasizes the need for the proper sleep—7 to 9 hours a night for adults, including seniors—and reconnecting with family and friends in real life. “Nothing is perfect, not you or anyone else,” he explains. Once you abandon the idea of perfection, you can then move on to accepting and enjoying people and situations.
There are multiple other suggestions for kicking the digital habit including choosing outdoor activities, setting aside time to read a physical book or magazine, rearranging furniture and creating home projects for yourself. However, I would recommend caution when doing the latter. You might end up buying a new oven.