In 90 percent of my life, I am perfectly independent. I just moved abroad on my own; I work hard; I make guacamole from scratch instead of buying from store. All the big things I can do for myself.
If only that were the end of the story. If only, when Beyoncé and co. called out to all the women who independent, I could throw my hands up at them with more sincerity. But the truth is there are certain things I just really struggle to do by myself.
Like eating alone in public. Until last year, this was something I simply could not do. As in: hands shaking, stomach turning, run screaming. Go hungry, rather than grab a seat in Prêt a Manger. This is clearly not right or healthy, so I set myself the challenge of finally learning to eat by myself. (The final step after feeding myself, which I did actually manage to master a while ago, thankfully.)
I was very strict, and kicked the distractions: no laptop to signal that I was Very Important; no mobile phone to take my mind off the shame. Just me and a sandwich, in a café carefully selected to avoid anyone I knew. (The irony being, of course, that I didn’t want to see anyone I knew for fear they’d think I didn’t know anyone. Go figure.)
And I did it – I checked it off my list. It was horrible, as predicted, but I did it. I ate in public, by myself. And I’ve done it since, too – out of necessity, and out of a quest for Personal Growth – although, if I’m really being honest, it hasn’t got a lot easier.
But still: it’s nice to know that I can. It is always nice to know that you can. And it was with this in mind that I then moved on, from a table for one in Starbucks, to tackle the cinema. Now this should, in theory, be an easy one: it is, after all, a fundamentally antisocial activity – sat in rows, in a darkened room, not talking.
Nevertheless, for me, it had always felt like a step too far – being able to eat alone had some practical use, at least; watching a movie, not so much – and I was generally very happy to live life, only ever going to see films with other people. (Because again, I do know some of those. Honest.)
Even so, I was always jealous of people who could go to the cinema by themselves, feel fine about it, enjoy the film, and sink a ton of popcorn to boot. They were clearly very self-assured, and just generally better at being a human being than I was. In the end, it came down to being competitive, basically: I couldn’t just let this lie.
So I did it. After weeks of dithering, and half-hearted promises to myself that this time I really, really would, I saw a movie on my own. And I felt self-conscious and uncomfortable the whole time. Surely everyone – EVERYONE – could see I was there by myself. Surely they were watching. Surely they felt sorry for me.
What I’ve come to realise is that hang-ups such as this bring out the worst in us. Because really, it is the height of narcissism to go to the movies and assume that every other person in the theater is paying more attention to you than to the film they have paid money to see. Or that you, a stranger, eating alone, is more interesting than the superfood salad and chai tea latte the person on the next table is working their way through.
As I sat in that cinema, it dawned on me that, actually, nobody cared. Nobody cares. It was liberating. It didn’t necessarily make me feel better, but it was good to know, academically, at least, that I was anonymous and invisible and insignificant. Because, when you’re feeling self-conscious, that is really all you want.
To be clear: there is no reason not to do all these things alone. It is an irrational hang-up of mine, which I know a lot of people share, but I don’t want to paint it as a universal. When I see someone at a restaurant by themselves, I don’t watch them, don’t pity them. The most it registers with me, if at all, is admiration. Admiration because I know it’s something I would struggle to do. But that doesn’t mean I assume it’s difficult for them, too.
It was difficult for me. But I did it. And now I know I can. I know it, even if I don’t yet feel it. It’s not easy but I can. That is important.
[Image via Fox]