Have you ever noticed others assuming you always need “something to do”? Last week, I was in a salon’s waiting room. The salon owner asked me whether I would be all right waiting by myself. Did I want some magazines to read? The wait would be half an hour or so, and I think the owner wanted to make sure I had “something to do”. She might have assumed that I would not like being alone with my thoughts for half an hour. It’s a reasonable assumption, because the prospect of being alone with your thoughts can be terrifying.
Let’s say you recently did something you regret. You’re waiting on the subway and you remember what you regret. The memory is painful, so your mind scrambles for a way to escape the pain. A distraction seems the surest way to forget the pain, so you open YouTube on your phone and watch a funny cat video. In the moment, the video captures your attention and lets you escape the pain of regret. But the escape also begins or continues a habit of running away from discomfort.
I often notice myself setting up a source of distraction ahead of a moment when I would otherwise be alone with my thoughts. For instance, I might turn on a podcast or an audio book before I step onto my yoga mat for my morning mobility and stretching routine. Or I might play a video of a press conference with the Philadelphia Eagles head coach while I prepare my lunch. And I like to watch TV while ironing. Sometimes I deliberately set up the distraction, but other times I seem to do it automatically.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with listening to something or watching something while you’re doing something else. But if you’ve made a habit of it, you might learn something by asking why you try, deliberately or subconsciously, to avoid going without external stimuli. And is being alone with your thoughts doing nothing, anyway? I bet you could find a Buzzfeed, Forbes, or Quartz article proclaiming the Seven Surprising Benefits of Staring Out the Window.
As it happens, I spent my time in the salon waiting room setting up a password manager app on my phone. Could I have spent the time alone with my thoughts? That time, yes. Some other time, maybe not. I need more practice being alone with my thoughts. What about you?