So much about the “college experience” is social. For many, college is about finding your adult identity. It’s often your first time living away from home, taking care of yourself, and making all your own choices.
Your first days as an undergraduate typically involve meeting a crowd of new people in new social situations — the college party is a culture itself — and usually you are required to live with at least one other person in close quarters. Most people find this stressful, and for an introvert, it can be quite anxiety provoking.
Whether you seek out solitude or find the company of others energizing, the emphasis on the heavy social aspect can make alone time, a natural part of college, feel awfully foreign. Tasks like going to the grocery store or studying in your dorm can feel awkward. But if you’re telling yourself you’re doing everything wrong as a newly-minted adult, know that you’re not. You’re doing great!
Why does this happen?
One reason that alone time may feel strange is because others often affect the way we define our identity. Being alone feels foreign and unstructured, leaving your sense of self a little off-balance. This is totally normal; it can take time before you feel comfortable in your skin again.
Also, this may be the first time you are spending time alone so consistently. In high school, with a tightly structured schedule, you were constantly surrounded by classmates, and when you got home, members of your family were in and out of the house. Because your time is less structured in college, your schedule isn’t always integrated into a larger group’s act. Instead, your schedule might intersect with others infrequently.
If you want to read more about how to deal with unscheduled time at school, check out our article: The Challenges of Unstructured Time in College.
What can you do about it?
To help with this transition, you may find the following pieces of advice useful:
Put on headphones.
Whether you are listening to your favorite podcast while walking to class, or to music while sitting at your desk, it setting a mood and atmosphere through sound can be comforting and make you feel less alone. Other times, it can block out excessive noise, which can be overwhelming.
Make your social time intentional.
If alone time makes you uneasy, it can be tempting to get caught up trying to spend all your free time with people. But you’ll find that the quality of this time is more important than the quantity.
Find some friends that support you, or keep in contact with old friends and family who build you up — making your social time more productive and easing the alone time. Rather than force yourself to go to a party when you’re not in the mood or for the sake of making other people happy, politely decline early on and save everybody some discomfort. Choose parties with people who make you happy and in manageable group sizes. Go when you’re in a mood to be social. If not, no big deal.
There are plenty of things to do if you choose to opt out of the typical college social life. Learn something new, like knitting, or photography. Go hiking and enjoy a change of scenery. Work on a side project that utterly fascinates you. Or curl up and watch your favorite old shows online. Don’t limit yourself to what people around you are already doing.
Don’t fall into the social media black hole.
Going on Facebook or Instagram can make you feel like everyone you know is out having fun while you are in your room, studying or watching TV. That isn’t the case. Social media can be overwhelming. It takes all of your friends’ fun moments that happened over a long period of time, and presents them to you together as a bundle all at once. Take what you see with a grain of salt, or if it upsets you too much, set a time limit for how often you check the sites.
Embrace the alone time.
The more you fight against the fact that you have alone time, the more looming the alone time becomes. If you find yourself with a free hour to fill because your class is cancelled or your friends are busy, remind yourself that that it's OK. The alone time won’t last forever, and it can even become something productive.
Start by asking yourself this simple question: “What do I really want to do right now?” Learn to listen to the answer. Maybe you want to spend the night wandering through a bookstore looking at all the new titles. Maybe you want to finally decorate your room and put up those pictures that have been sitting on your desk. Maybe you want to go for a run or take a nap because you’re exhausted. Listening to your inner voice may seem intuitive, but sometimes it can get muffled under other’s expectations or your anxieties. Use the alone time to become better at listening to yourself.
Remember that your college years — and your early 20s — are a huge period of transition, but it’s a perfect time to try new things and to experiment in order to develop your own personal identity and philosophy.