How to Navigate the Slippery Slope Between “Me Time” and Isolation

Learning to be alone is one of the hardest and the best things I’ve ever done for myself. Being comfortable with solitude is an impossibly valuable skill, but what I’ve discovered, inching into my mid-thirties, is that it is possible to become too good at it. It is possible to become, well, a little feral, a little too attached to your own weird rhythms and rhymes. Saying no to things you don’t want to do is intoxicating; canceling plans makes you ripe with power. Don’t want to go to the happy hour at your coworking space? I don’t blame you! Why talk to humans when you can talk to your cat? Sleepwear is the new going out top, anyway! But are we losing something by learning too hard into solitude? Is there something to be said for subjecting yourself to discomfort for the sake of connection?

From swimming lessons to summer camp, much of childhood is just being shuttled from one group of strange kids to another. This is intentional: Group learning is vital to human development. We are social animals who don’t learn much through individual trial and error; rather, we learn by observing others, how they succeed and fail. Language develops through group interaction, as does empathy, social intelligence, and morality. In short, we need people. These early social lessons not only help us figure out who we are in relation to the rest of the world, but allow us to find community.

My sense of and need for community belonging coalesced in college, where I found a group of friends who couldn’t get away from me if they tried. But the heady and singular days of early-20s friendships give way to relationships and children, jobs that move you across the country, personal commitments that drain your stores of energy. Now that my friends are scattershot across the world, and group texts are the closest we can get to a dinner party, can anyone blame me for wanting to stay inside all the time?

In fact, much of our self-care rhetoric these days is centered on empowering ourselves to reject anything that threatens the protective bubble we place around our own needs. And yet there is endless research that confirms the importance of consistent group activity to our health as we age. In one study, researchers found that social group activities were far more effective in improving mental health and cognitive performance in older adults than one-on-one relationships. Another showed that “individuals with the largest social networks had 39 percent less cognitive decline and half the memory decline compared to people with the lowest social integration.” A lack of social community is more of a risk factor in early death than smoking, excessive drinking, or obesity, says another, and “social connectedness” has been shown to be vital in treating depression and anxiety.

As much as I love the shroud of quiet I get to pull over myself at the end of a long day of human interaction, community is also where I find the greatest tangible proof of abundance. I feel the most full — of love, of hope, of certainty that the world is fundamentally good — when I am surrounded by like-minded people working toward a common goal. There’s compassion in that act, trust and benevolence, and it’s why I’ve been gradually changing my tune about how much alone time I actually need, and encouraging myself to seek out activities that depend on the strength found in numbers. I’ve come to crave the collective exhale that comes from tuning out of social media, out of my own head, and into the world around me.

Below, three methods I’ve turned to in the hunt for community.

Dust off your bagpipes?

Part of the joy of getting older is giving myself permission to do all the things I used to do as a kid, the stuff I quit because it was uncool or I wasn’t all that good at it. There’s a delicious freedom in the mediocrity of adulthood: I’m never going to be a famous singer, but I can absolutely join that women-only all-ages choir. We rehearse every Tuesday night and those three hours are some of the best of my week. I wiggle my toes and challenge my lungs and make something new and magical with a group of like-minded humans who, for those three hours, are fully committed to being part of something bigger than any of us can be alone.

If you used to play soccer, find a team; if you miss your glory days at theater camp, join that improv group. There is some supreme joy in looking around a space knowing that everyone is in it is as devoted as you are to that small strange flame of magic you are nurturing together.

Have you heard about the internet?

Sticking with the theme of embracing the uncool, I’ve found networking sites like Meetup to be a really effective connective hub, especially in places where I might not have a large real-life network. When I moved to Boston, I did a lot of virtual pavement pounding, with middling levels of success. Some wisdom from me to you: I’ve had the most luck when being hyper-specific. The “Boston-Based Writers” group was massive and overwhelming, but “Boston-Based Writers in their 30s Who Like Cocktails” was a treasure. Check out the social networking communities that form around things you already love: a lot of podcasts, newsletters, and websites (including this one!) have active, hyper-local offshoot groups that meet IRL.

It’ll take some trial and error, but generally winnowing in on a thing you like means you’ll find other people who also like that thing, and there are far worse ways to spend an evening than hanging out with some strangers talking about that thing you all like.

Do it yourself

When my friend Rebecca, a documentary filmmaker, started work on a new film about wine making, she decided she needed to drink more wine. So she assembled a few friends who invited their friends and now a group of eight of us get together every two weeks to drink a bunch of wine. We switch off hosting duties, researching regions, terroir, and grapes, and lead the group through detailed tastings. It’s a group of women all committed to geeking out over one very specific thing, and it is amazing.

Another example: Two of my friends saw a gap in Boston’s creative community for female-identifying folk, so they started a communal dinner series and online space where those womxn could connect, support each other, and share resources. If there’s a thing you love or are curious about, it’s highly likely someone else loves or is curious about it, too. Invite a few people, tell them to invite a few people, and see what happens.

Some of the people in these groups may become your friends, but others may simply be those people you see when you are all in that one space doing that one thing, be it indulging in really good wine or plotting to dismantle the patriarchy. Some of them might annoy you, and sometimes the work will be challenging, and sometimes you will want to stay at home and catch up on season 412 of Grey’s Anatomy all by yourself, but you’ll get up and go sing your heart out anyway. Not because your parents are making you go or because all the cool kids are doing it, but simply because there’s value to be found in the earnest, consistent work of building community.

Illustrations by Alice Meteignier.

Meghan Nesmith

Meghan Nesmith

Author Meghan Nesmith is a writer and editor living in Boston.

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