What I Learned By Taking Myself Out On Dates
When someone eats in a restaurant or sits at a bar alone, many people assume that person is either lonely or looking to meet someone.
There's a stigma that comes with doing social activities alone. Because of it, many people have an aversion to dining or drinking or going to the movies by themselves—an aversion so strong that they often don't even consider trying it.
There might also be a sense of shame that comes with it. We're so tuned in to the idea of human interaction and socializing that we sometimes fear looking like we're doing something alone because we weren't able to find a date or a friend to go with us.
And if we do hit up someone—a date, a friend, an acquaintance, a relative—but no one is available, we're likely to just stay in, watch Netflix, and scroll through social media.
I've done that before. There were times when I really wanted to try a new restaurant or experience with someone just to share the thrill of it. But there were other times, when I simply chose to stay in because no one was free. Those are the nights that I don't really remember because there was nothing special about them.
But I remember clearly the nights when I chose to leave the house knowing that no one would be able to meet me. Those nights were defined by relaxing, surprising, and fun moments in which I learned a lot about myself in a short period of time.
There was the time in college when I took off part of the day to dine in at a restaurant with a good book and stroll through Union Square afterward. My mid-day class was canceled, and the newspaper I was in charge of at school was causing me a lot of stress that day. I don't remember asking if anyone in the media office was free. But I remember wanting a moment to myself to unwind.
So I just walked away from it all for a blissful two hours. The second I walked out of the building was the moment the relief began. I walked to a sushi restaurant, ordering miso soup and a few rolls. While waiting for my food, I read, lifting my eyes from the book occasionally as tourists and skateboarders and happy couples passed by the storefront.
When my food arrived, I put my book down. It was the first time I noticed myself paying close attention to my food, slowing down to appreciate a bowl of hot soup on a fall day and the creamy avocado in my rolls.
The avocado surprised me. It felt new, as if I had not consumed it in a while. Avocado is one of my favorite foods, and in those days I ate it almost every day with breakfast. But tight schedules and busy days have turned eating into an automatic activity for me, so at the end of the day I never remembered what I ate.
Normally, I would engage in conversation and pay close attention to the person I was with, but without someone sitting next to or across from me, I had no choice but to find something else to focus on.
I thought a lot about the book I was reading. And about why miso soup comforts me so much. I observed the world out the window, taking in parts of the city in which I've lived all my life. I thought a lot about the "secrets" of the city I reserve for conversations with friends who come visit from upstate or elsewhere. I remember thinking about school and what was stressing me out. I also remember giving myself a pep talk to lift my own spirits.
After my meal, I wandered through the park in Union Square, passing by the same benches and dog park and stairs perpetually strewn with skateboarders.
But the experience felt new. I didn't know it at the time, but I was memorizing the exact shade of green of the grass. I can see it in my mind today. I noticed also that I was paying close attention to how my feet naturally guided my body away from spots with dried up vomit and bird poop. I never realized until that moment how natural it felt to me to walk through the park in Union Square, how I innately knew those troublesome areas and navigated around them as if I were completing a simple obstacle course.
Since then, I've taken myself out on dates more often. It most frequently happens when I find myself suddenly free during an awkward block in the day when everyone else is usually working. But sometimes it is a planned activity that I put it in my calendar a few days in advance, knowing that either I'll want to do something alone or no one will be able to accompany me.
I've gone to museums, went on photography outings, dined, watched movies, shopped, and even ice skated alone once. But no matter what, it does feel weird throughout the activity to be alone. I can't escape that odd feeling, likely because I'm just as affected by the stigma as everyone else is; I just choose to ignore its nagging sometimes.
In doing things alone, I learned that I prefer to experience something by myself than to not do it at all. I've realized I have lingering feelings of regret if I don't go somewhere I really wanted to visit, simply because no one was free.
I've also learned it's hard to be alone with your thoughts sometimes. I had to resist many urges to check my email or text someone to feel connected and social. It's like we're programmed to be tuned in and responsive to the world at all times.
Lastly, I've learned it's good to have time to yourself. This is when the brain has to find other things to be stimulated by besides conversation and human interaction. It's when you're forced to reflect or take in sights and experiences you normally just ignore. In some ways, it's a bit of a mental exercise because you have to adjust to a new way of existing in that moment. But in other ways, it's relieving because you're free to let your mind wander and see where it takes you.
As the pandemic dragged on during the last three months, I've been going on more walks alone. I never knew I liked to take walks alone so much until it became the only thing I could do recently. That's something I learned about myself while thinking on one of those walks. Even after the pandemic ends, I think I'll continue to take them, and I'll definitely continue my solo dates.