In high school, I felt naked when I walked through the halls without a friend by my side. She has no friends. What is wrong with her? What a freak, I heard people thinking. Spending time alone in high school is difficult. Often, it feels like everyone is watching—and judging—as you trek from class to class or wait in an unbearably long line for lunch.

I went to a relatively small private high school: my graduating class was no larger than 150 students. The school’s size made me feel even more vulnerable to my classmates’ judgments—or, in hindsight, projections of my own insecurities to be more accurate. Nevertheless, I would have never ever considered eating lunch by myself in the cafeteria, for all to see. I would have much rather noshed on a couple of nuts and a protein bar, hidden in one of the library’s cubicles, than be caught alone in the school’s cafeteria.

Things did not magically change when I went to college. Although I quickly connected with other freshmen, I continued to retreat to my dorm if no one invited me to eat, study, or hang out. Furthermore, I waited for others to invite me to places: restaurants for lunch, the movies, museum exhibits. Even if there was something I really wanted to do, I’d passively wait to be invited rather than coordinate a girl’s night out.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when and why my attitude changed, but it did—albeit in small steps. If I had a free afternoon, I’d take my books to a nearby Starbucks and study with a grande latte. Although the Starbucks I visit is near campus and a lot of my peers stop in for coffee, I didn’t feel self-conscious sitting by myself. Instead, I focused on the work that I brought to do—not the people who might be watching.

From there, I became more comfortable eating full meals by myself in New York City restaurants. The first few times, I felt weird answering “one” when the hostess asked “how many.” Some nights, I have last-minute cravings for food that isn’t from the campus cafeterias. Instead of ordering take-out to eat in my dorm, I now take my Kindle and enjoy the meal alone at the restaurant. I use the quiet time to relax and reflect about my week, my projects, and myself.

I can’t tell you that people don’t judge me when I’m brunching alone at a busy hour. I’ll probably never know what others are thinking—if they’re thinking anything about me at all. My insecurities, the thoughts that had prevented me from doing things alone have not disappeared completely but have definitely softened.

Thankfully, I’ve lately come to appreciate the freedom that I have when I’m by myself in public. Even with close friends, I stress over the little things; but when I’m alone, I actually enjoy that I can be selfish. When I’m at an exhibit, for example, I can fly through it or take my time without worrying about the pace of the others I’m with. When I do start feeling self-conscious, I’ve learned that if I’m distracted—if I have a book to read on my Kindle or some homework to do, for example—I can enjoy the experience more because I’m not paying attention to the people around me.

And that’s how I’ve decided not to sacrifice experiences—movies, exhibits, dining, even shopping—for fear of being judged for being alone. Sure, nosy onlookers might think that I have no friends and am forced to eat by myself. But at the end of the day, none of that matters because I know for myself that that’s not true. And I’m ok with that.

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