Table for One
Dining alone can be the most beautiful and indulgent pursuit, a means to an end (gotta love ramming a tuna baguette down in Pret during a busy lunch hour), or an excruciating ordeal.
I’ve been through all three things, often two at the same time. I made my solo work trips work for me on many occasions – dining my way through many a European city. Conversely, I’ve been pinned to the bed with anxiety and low confidence on other trips, when getting dressed for the day ahead was Mission Impossible, let alone leaving the room for dinner alone in a foreign city.
Dining solo is now something that I truly love to do, but it took time and a lot of work on my confidence to get here. Dressing up, taking yourself out and learning to enjoy this simple act is easy when you have a good perception of yourself, and when you know that your value is not defined by someone else sitting at the table with you. Yet for me, this took years to realise.
My fear of dining and doing things alone was definitely rooted in looking ‘strange’. It’s an alien thought to me now, as so often our society is fighting for that all-important ‘me’ time and we’re also encouraged to ‘step out of the comfort zone’. However, when I was growing up, I sat in many a restaurant and observed when people who dined alone were met with mournful gazes and silently mouthed ‘aaahhhs’ across the table.
Before work-life made it a necessity, the first time I ate out alone was when I lived in Spain in my early twenties. I’d broken up with my boyfriend at the time and was back in an old habit of flogging myself on a daily basis with the ‘what ifs?’
Other than going to work, if I wasn’t out in a bar self-destructing – complete with jazz hands – I was in my house alone at night and through the weekend, reliving things and finding new ways to blame myself for the fact that he had been seeing someone else. When we broke up, he said to me: “You’re the nicest girl I’ve ever dated, but you’re a doormat – there’s nothing I could do to you that you wouldn’t let me do.” It's awful to recall, but it was true. It is a reminder of my low self-esteem and my desperate need to be loved at that time.
One Sunday, having spent the whole weekend at home, I decided I’d go out to the local beach bar and have lunch. I felt anxious as I got ready and nauseous on the drive there, but when I arrived, I’d calmed my nerves enough to tell the waiter that I needed a ‘table for one’. I felt that by just saying that, it said everything about who I was and the fact that I was alone.
I sat in a restaurant surrounded by families and friends on holiday, feeling as though all eyes were on me and sometime later while eating, I looked up and saw that my ex, his beautiful new girlfriend and a couple of his friends – all of whom I knew – had arrived for lunch. Feeling absolutely mortified at being there alone, I managed to slide back on my seat and conceal myself behind an enormous yukka plant. After a rapid dash to the counter, I paid and left.
Years on, I know it would be awkward in the same situation, but I do not feel ashamed of being alone, whoever I may see. I honestly love dressing up and going to dinner on my own. I didn’t just one day decide to feel differently – there was a lot of work I had to do on the perception of myself. This came firstly through forgiving myself for things I had done in the past – by realising the impact of previous traumas, and understanding that they were connected to my self-esteem and therefore contributed to some of the ways in which I would often behave.
I also reduced or eliminated contact with anyone that made me feel exhausted by negative energy or who reinforced the negative beliefs that I was beating myself with. This does not mean that they were bad people, it just meant that at that time, the dynamic of these relationships was bad for me. This was a really hard but necessary thing to do.
By accepting myself as a person who carried scars but who was healing deep wounds, I felt a sense of pride and with pride came strength and self-confidence, which allowed me to do things I hadn’t done before.
Facing my fears has made them less terrifying. For example, I forced myself to go on a yoga retreat six years ago and that was my first holiday alone. I was already looking at flights to get home before I left, fearing that: a) I’d be terrible at yoga and laughed at and; b) there’d be group hugs with ‘weirdos’. I was wrong on both counts. I challenged my body, opened my mind and when that happened I made new friends (who I hugged very warmly before I left).
That was actually a life-changing trip and it taught me to stop putting barriers in the way of things that might be good for me. Last year, I took myself to Mexico for 10 days. I went completely alone and, had I not done that first yoga retreat where I learned that the worst doesn’t always happen (!), I doubt that I'd have gone on to further solo adventures.
When building up the confidence to go for dinner, here are some of the things that I used to do, some which I still do if I’m in a new city and feeling a little awkward as I head out.
1. I sometimes take a book, iPad or download something to my phone, if I feel a little shy.
2. I wear my ‘armour’. Last year on my trip to Mexico, I took a selection of ‘powerful’ earrings that I wore every time I went to dinner. Despite the heady scent of repellent, a sweaty face and humidity hair, my earrings told me I was ‘done’ and ready to face the hordes.
3. TALK TO PEOPLE. I work in comms but have a slightly awkward disposition when it comes to talking to people socially that I don’t know, so I often make myself connect with a smile and go from there. Sometimes kids and pooches provide an easy route to connect with others.
4. Two years ago, I had to be in New York for work, so I added a couple of days on for a solo holiday, and I researched and made dates for myself in places where I knew that the seating was more communal. When booking, I asked to sit at a counter where I could see the chef and have more interaction.
5. It’s also good to tell the booking host that you’re alone and ask if they recommend a particular spot or table that might have better ‘people watching’ or opportunities to be near other people.
6. Fake it. I’ve had people tell me that I float into the room like I’m born to do it, which is far from the truth. Although work requires me to connect with people, I’ve had to force myself out of my comfort zone on many occasions. Forcing a smile, braving a 'hello' and connecting with others can be hard, but realising that, as a solo diner, nobody truly knows you and that you are who you want to be is helpful.
‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’, feels like an impossible concept when you’re crippled with low confidence and, yes, it is crippling when you isolate yourself rather than socialising because you feel like there’s no other choice. But, I really believe in facing fear, because I’ve done it often with success and I know that when you’ve faced something that scares you, you’ll feel pride and perhaps the realisation that what’s in the mind isn’t always real.