Last week, I went to a restaurant in the evening and ate dinner alone.
Different people I’ve spoken to have had different reactions to this as a challenge. To some, it’s nothing - “I’ve done that loads!”. But to others, it’s a pretty daunting idea, and I was definitely in this latter camp. Eating out alone has been on my list of things to do ever since I started this blog. But it wasn’t until a friend told me that she wanted to try this challenge too, and we both committed to one another to doing it, that it actually happened.
The hardest part was probably walking into the restaurant and asking the waitress for a “table for one, please.” But I did it with a smile in my face and what was hopefully a confident air - rather than a “I’m really sad to be alone and I want you to take pity on me” one. When she asked me if I’d rather sit at a table “out of the way around the corner” (is it just me or was this blatantly implying I might be ashamed and so want to hide myself?!) or in the middle of the main part of the restaurant, I told her the main part of the restaurant was just fine, thank you. Sitting in a corner where no-one could see me felt like a bit of a cop-out.
I’d brought a book and a notepad with me as a kind of safety blanket, in case I felt really uncomfortable and wanted something to do. It’s amazing how difficult it can to just be alone - to just sit or stand in the presence of other people, and not do anything. I’ve become more aware recently of how even when I’m waiting for a friend, or I’m out with someone and they go to the bathroom, I feel a compulsion to get my phone out and play with it. I’ve been trying to get out of this habit, by letting myself simply sit and look around, or think, whilst I’m waiting - and as I do it more, finding it becomes less and less uncomfortable. So when it came to having dinner, even though I had my book in my bag, I decided to leave it there, and just sit. I had a nice view close to the window, and I sat and watched the street. I sat and I paid much closer attention to both my thoughts and to my food than I normally ever would. I realised how rare it was that I just sat for any reasonable period of time doing nothing, and resolved to do this more often in future.
One of the best things about just sitting there with no distractions was that it gave me the opportunity to pay more attention and explore any feelings of discomfort as they arose.
Sitting there and focusing on my feelings of discomfort, I realised that a lot of them were associated with thoughts of the form “What are the people around me thinking of me?”. I felt discomfort asking the waitress for a table because my mind was predicting her feeling sorry for me, thinking I must have no-one else to eat with. The discomfort arose again when someone new would come into the restaurant and sit near to me, anticipating that they must be thinking similar thoughts. It was only as I started to consider alternative ways in which people might interpret my dining alone - they might think I was visiting town alone, and meeting someone later, or that I was simply a confident person who enjoyed dining alone - that my discomfort lessened.
“It doesn’t matter what other people think of you”
It’s much easier said than done for most of us to simply “stop caring what other people think.” We probably don’t want to completely stop thinking about how others might perceive us, anyway, as there are plenty of situations in which an awareness of this is useful. If you’re preparing for a job interview, or a first date, it’s probably well worth considering how you’re going to come across. Caring what others think makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: for our ancestors, being accepted into a group was probably crucial for survival. Thinking about how others perceive us also goes hand in hand with thinking how the things we do might make others feel, and being sensitive to those feelings.
Rather than simply stopping caring what others think, we want to be able to identify when worrying too much about what others think is causing us undue discomfort or holding us back, and stop doing it in those cases.
So how do we do this? There are two problems here: first separating the worth-caring cases from the not-worth-caring cases, and then figuring out how to not-care in the not-worth-caring cases. Here are my two cents on both, but would love to hear others’!
1. Figuring out when it’s not worth caring
The first step is just noticing when you’re worrying what other people, or someone else, thinks of you. Often these kinds of thoughts arise and pass without us properly acknowledging them, manifesting themselves as a vague feeling of discomfort.
If you can begin to notice yourself having these thoughts, the next step is to subject it to some investigation.
First try to break down exactly what you’re worried about: who exactly are you worrying about thinking badly of you, and what exactly are you worried they might be thinking?
Next ask if this specific person thinking this specific thing is actually likely to cause anything bad to happen. Imagine the scenario in which the person thinks the thing you’re scared of, and then try to imagine all the possible bad consequences of that thought.
Is this someone with whom you have an important relationship that could be affected?
Is this someone with whom you’d like to have a relationship, which might be threatened?
Could this person thinking this thing spread to other people thinking the same thing, in a way that might end up harming your reputation, opportunities, or relationships?
If the answer to all of the above questions is no, and there are no other bad immediate consequences you can think of, as a rule of thumb it seems pretty unlikely that you should worry much what that person thinks.
2. Managing to not care
Ok, but as I acknowledged before, it’s all very well saying you shouldn’t care what someone thinks - much harder to actually stop yourself from caring. The best remedy I can think of this is something similar to exposure therapy for overcoming fears. The problem is that even though you know rationally that it makes no difference what this person thinks, your gut still thinks it does. So what you need to do is convince your gut that nothing bad is going to happen - and the best way to do that is by repeatedly doing things that make you worry what others think, and proving to your gut that nothing bad ever happens. (And if something bad does, you’ve learned that your gut was actually right, which is also useful!)
In my case, I was worried about a waitress and some other people dining in a restaurant thinking I was a weirdo who had no friends. When I thought about it, I realised that even if they did think this nothing bad would happen - these people were unlikely to be people I was going to have important relationships with, nor were they likely to influence others with these thoughts. I still intuitively felt myself wondering if they were judging me, but the longer I sat there with no-one looking at me weirdly or saying anything to me at all, the less I worried about this. I’m pretty sure if I started going to restaurants alone on a weekly basis I’d quickly become vastly more comfortable than I am now.