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Sean MacEntee

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The joy of going on vacation alone

There are lots of things we humans do alone in life. Grocery shopping. Working at a coffee shop. Binge-watching Jessica Jones and Master of None in a single weekend. If we're going to get real, dying.

But there are so many things in life that when done alone feel about as good as walking over hot coals. Dining by yourself? Nobody on Tinder is swiping right on your profile. Seeing a movie alone? Your friends don't like you. At a bar on your own? You don't even have friends. There can be a paralyzing sense of shame about doing activities alone that we've been told by society should be done with others — a shame that results from the assumption that anybody who sees you doing these things alone is judging or pitying you.

You shouldn't worry about doing things alone because nobody is really judging you

I generally disagree with this sentiment. In my opinion, you shouldn't worry about doing things alone because nobody is really judging you, whether you're dining out or seeing a movie alone. It's been my experience that people are too wrapped up in their own heads to think much of the solo diner next to them at the bar. They're 'gramming selfies. They're swiping left on Tinder. They're on a bad date. And even if they're with somebody, they might be, at the very least, feeling alone.

Researchers have shown that doing things by ourselves is, in fact, good for us. A study that came out this year in the Journal of Consumer Research revealed that people are afraid of doing what are deemed social activities by themselves. But guess what? When pressed to do those solo activities, the study showed people actually ended up enjoying themselves just as much as people who did the activities with another person. Plus, I really feel that time spent alone can recharge you, help you discover a sense of independence, put you in touch more with your emotions via self-reflection, and more.

Because of these benefits, and because I value the growth of my sense of independence, two summers ago I took the ultimate step in soloness: taking a vacation by myself.

After all, I had traveled on my own several times before: I'd gone to visit friends living in cities where I had to spend the days by myself because they were working, for example. I spent two weeks in Hong Kong visiting a journalist friend who couldn't be around much. I camped out in San Diego to see my brother, stationed there with the Navy — but he was handling 48-hour shifts most of the time. I've been alone-but-visiting-a-working-friend in London and France, too. I found these vacations pleasant, and it was no big deal to spend the days by myself, visiting museums, eating at pubs, wandering around. So it wasn't a big deal to book a short vacation by myself, not visiting anybody — right?

Also I wanted to go to the beach at least once that summer. None of my friends could make it. I wasn't dating anybody. It seemed ridiculous — as a woman in 2015 who could do it and afford it — to not do something I really wanted to do when I wanted to do it, for the mere lack of a travel partner. So I fired up Airbnb, booked a quaint A-frame cabin with my own private beach on the Chesapeake Bay for four days, and prepared to relax.

Then I started telling people about it.

Have you ever told people you're going on a vacation by yourself? You should try it sometime. The reactions you may get are varied and interesting. They fall into the following camps:

1) The "I thought you were normal, but you are clearly disturbed" reaction

This is the most common response — so common it seems to be mostly automatic. You'll be chitchatting with somebody and mention that you're taking off to the beach for a few days. Out of politeness they'll ask who you're going with, and you'll tell them, "Just me!" Then it happens. Their eyes skitter everywhere. "Oh ... wow ... that's so ... cool!" they say — when in reality every twitching facial muscle is shouting, "Yeah, you definitely need to go on vacation. To a mental asylum. Why, oh, God, why would you ever go anywhere by yourself? You could get murdered! Worse, you might be bored! And you definitely are going to have to spend an extended amount of time alone with your thoughts — a fate worse than the random serial killer you're sure to come across." After a polite exit from the conversation, they generally walk away from you as fast as possible.

2) The starry-eyed, way-too-admiring reaction

For a few people, the reaction I got when mentioning I was going on a solo vacation was like I had just told them I'd cured cancer and joined Taylor Swift's squad in the same 24-hour period. Naturally I liked this reaction a lot, because it did make me think I was relatively badass for doing what is a very easy and common thing. Their reactions amounted to a look of shocked awe — a face unfurling with confusion and wonder, now opened to heretofore unimagined possibilities — followed by a variation on the following sentences: "Whoa, you're going on vacation ... by yourself? What are you going to ... do? I wish I could do that!" My big news? You can. But you might want to try seeing a movie by yourself first. Baby steps.

3) The "this is just like a Nicholas Sparks novel where you will fall in love with a tortured man with a 'history' and drink wine under the starlight" reaction

This reaction might be my favorite, because wouldn't that have been just delightful? Fortunately, the vacation resulted in meeting zero emotionally unavailable men, but I did drink wine several times under the starlight. Just on my own.

After dozens of reactions like the ones above before the trip, I still gathered my courage and spent four days in my little beach cabin. How did I do it? Like everything else: I searched for info on the internet. Then I paid money for some lodging that looked reasonable and under three hours from DC, and I rented a car and drove myself there.

The logistics were the easy part. Filling the time got a little bit harder. But I made it work. The upsides were what you might imagine, and the downsides were what you might imagine, too. Upside: I didn't have to talk to anybody. Downside: I didn't have anybody to talk to.

Luckily, it turned out that I make pretty good company. I figured out a routine to keep the day moving: a sunrise wake-up with coffee over the rippled bay, clear and still, the water never going deeper than a foot or two for nearly 100 feet. Listening to fishing boats across the cove motor up and out to make their catches. More coffee, then yoga on the porch, my joints creaking to the rhythm of a few sun salutations. Ever more coffee, and then the meat of the day: baking in the sun and reading on a lounge chair on my little private beach. Watching folks come and go to the beaches in front of the cabins beside mine. Eating like a naughty 6-year-old — it was vacation, after all: snacking on bags of Lay's before a dinner of Kraft mac and cheese. A bad vodka tonic made with leftover vodka from an earlier guest, more reading, a glass of wine, the porch, dinner, and the world turning dusky pink at sunset.

There were, of course, times I felt lonely or disconnected. But those were the very times I was forced to sit with those feelings and reflect on them.

In short, it was glorious. I would do it again in a heartbeat. I did, read, ate, and thought anything I wanted for four days straight. There were, of course, times I felt lonely or disconnected. But those were the very times I was forced to sit with those feelings and reflect on them, instead of running off to distract myself. And facing those feelings was less scary that you might expect. By the end of the trip, I felt rested, relaxed, and — better, even — accomplished. I'd faced the solo vacation stigma, gotten through four days without talking to another human being, read three books, and felt like a million bucks.

I'm not some revolutionary by any means. Solo vacationing is, by now, a certified trend — and it makes sense. People are getting married later and living alone more, and with the advent of social media and smartphones, today you can go anywhere and never truly feel alone.

As for me, I know I'll do these solo trips again, and I'm looking forward to them. I'm starting the year off single, and many of my friends are by now married or coupled up. So I'm planning a trip by myself to a cabin in the Shenandoah before the end of winter. This time I'll curl up by a fire, prepare some delicious meals, enjoy a few books, and not worry about any reactions — because by now I know, as it turns out, I'm my own best company after all.

Catherine Andrews is a writer and editor in Washington, DC. You can follow her on Twitter @candrews and visit her blog here.

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