How To Get Some Time To Yourself

Usually at Social Minefield we discuss ways to interact with people, but today we'll be talking about how not to interact — specifically, how to get alone time when you need it. People who are introverted may find that they need regular bouts of solitude to recharge, but everybody needs a breather from company sometimes. Here's how to achieve that without making your friends mad.

Pre-hermit before parties.

Throwing a party can be a social overload even for the relatively extroverted among us. Meghan Wier, author of Confessions of an Introvert: The Shy Girl's Guide to Career, Networking and Getting the Most Out of Life, offered me this solution:

At a gathering it can be hard to "take a breather" — but I do a couple things to make these situations work for me. The first is that I make sure that before people even arrive I take 15 minutes (or whatever is needed) and just get a walk or read a book alone. This relieves the pressure during the gathering a little, so there is less of a need to immediately find time alone when people arrive.

This can be good to do before a party at someone else's house if that type of thing makes you feel a little overstimulated. Same goes for a first date, or any sort of high-stress social encounter. Take a minute to pre-hermit, whether it's in the park or in your bedroom, and you'll be calm and refreshed and ready to meet the world.

Errands are your friend.

When I lived in a co-op in college, I loved errands. I always fall smack in the middle between introvert and extrovert when I take online personality tests (and, let's be real, I take these all the time), and while I love a good party, living in close quarters with thirty-five people could be a little much. This was especially true of work shifts, when you had to be social for hours, sometimes days, at a time. During those I'd always try to get sent off to pick basil, or buy more organic cleanser, or see if I could find the right kind of carpet to glue to the bottoms of the chairs (spoiler: there is no right kind). That way I could disappear and have some time to myself for a bit before I re-entered the beer-drinking, Grateful-Dead-blasting, filling-a-giant-wok-with-three-kinds-of-cabbage fray. Wier offers a similar tip for party hosts:

[D]uring the gathering, it helps to just let a couple people know if you are going to disappear for a few minutes so they don't get worried. I find that going to "run out for more drinks/ice/chips" is a great excuse ... and usually very believable and needed! This give you 20 minutes to drive/ walk away, collect yourself, and helps run that errand too.

I also talked to Anneli Rufus, author of Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto, who says errands can be a great way to take a breather from family events, especially if your family might be offended by an explicit request for solitude. Example: "It's Thanksgiving, but the supermarket is open and you really really really need to buy some dry ice."

Put on a happy face.

Or at least a neutral face. Says Rufus,

The way to not seem grouchy or angry is to not LOOK grouchy or angry. I learned this the hard way after my husband — who is also a loner — told me for the thousandth time that scowling creates a terrible impression while a mild smile or even neutral gaze lets one "pass" in almost any situation. So without scowling, make your way through the crowd into a quiet area — the porch, backyard, basement, bedroom, whatever. Your mild expression won't set off any alarms or make anyone think you're in a huff. And — parties being what they are — chances are, your absence won't even be noticed for quite a while.

Somebody scowling by herself at a party is sulking, but somebody just sitting by herself looking serene is lost in thought — and while some "helpful" soul may try to pull you back into the party, at least he or she won't think you're pissed off.

Spell out your needs for your closest loved ones.

If you're in a relationship, you may find that you crave some time to yourself now and again — but how to request it without making an "I need space" speech and freaking your SO out? Rufus suggests,

Tell him or her that you need this alone time for your mental health — that a bit of alone time now and then makes you happier, which then improves the time you later spend with him or her.

Adds Wier,

It is always best to be 100% honest with the people that care the most for you, after all they want you to be happy. You need to let them know you crave that time alone — and when you get it, you can be more attentive to them! I suggest being direct and planning time ahead so there are no misunderstandings. I tell my husband that "after my 30 minute bike-ride, I'd love to go to the park with you and the kids." My whole family knows that my dream vacation would be three days in a hotel by the beach, by myself! It doesn't mean I don't love them — or that I wouldn't enjoy time with my family ... just that what I need sometimes is time to refresh ... alone! Getting this on the table ahead of helps the people around you understand YOU better.

If you cancel on a friend, offer an alternative.

Sometimes you've had an overscheduled week, and you really need a day off just to be by yourself. But what if you have a date with a friend that day? Wier advises,

If the invite is from someone you are close with, you need to let them know. Just say you need some time to yourself today. Those people who know you, will get it. Offer up another time so they have something to look forward to, and you have some lead-time to get ready.

If you set up an alternative date, your friend will know you're not just blowing her off, and she'll be less likely to be annoyed about your cancellation. If you're meeting somebody less close, though, you may want to go the white-lie route:

If the invite is from someone you don't know well, explaining that you are an introvert /mildly anti-social/ or that you hit your "people quota" for the week, may make you seem stand-offish and potentially harm a relationship that you might want to keep and grow. In these situations you could say that you already have an appointment you can't cancel (not a lie ... you have an appointment with yourself!)

Set up one-on-one get-togethers.

Sometimes you may not need complete solitude to avoid social exhaustion. If you get stressed out at big family or friend gatherings, try to schedule get-togethers with one person at a time. Says Wier,

I try to visit with my parents and siblings one on one when possible. Go grab coffee, or lunch. If you make an effort to connect in these easier small group settings, your family won't rush to judgement when you don't jump at the chance to get everyone together, or when you opt to go it alone.

This is worth trying if you feel like reunions and barbecues are sapping your desire to ever see your family again. Maybe you actually like your cousin Cindy — you just prefer not to see her along with every other person who shares your DNA. You may not be able to get out of Thanksgiving this way, but you can probably subdivide a lot of your obligations into manageable one-on-one chunks.

Build alone time into your daily life.

If you know you like solitude from time to time, you can schedule it just like you would exercise or chores. Says Rufus,

Create a routine that mandates alone time — for instance, go grocery shopping (alone) twice a week, even if you don't need groceries. Spend your lunch hour away from the office strolling alone through the neighborhood, or holed up with a solitary picnic lunch in the park. Become a really early riser — it's amazing how few people are awake before 7 a.m. ... At 5 or 6 a.m., you'll be alone pretty much whatever you do.

And if you build some alone time into your regular schedule, you're less likely to cancel on friends or scowl at parties — and more likely to enjoy the social contact you do have to the fullest.

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For all Social Minefield columns, go here.

Confessions Of An Introvert: The Shy Girl's Guide To Career, Networking And Getting The Most Out Of Life
Party Of One: The Loners' Manifesto

Image by Steve Dressler