So many depressed and lonely college students walk into my office describing the specter of eating alone in a campus dining hall as inspiring nothing short of anguish. Also bewilderment. How, they wonder could this problem even exist? There are after all, tons of kids and only a few dining halls. It was supposed to be fun. What about those lively cafeteria photos on the web site? "What's wrong with me that too many times I have to walk to dinner alone in search of a familiar face, or sit at a table feeling ignored, or worse, have to simply sit alone?" The answer is, nothing is wrong. The idea that there are a stream of dinner companions and endless bright mealtime conversations, is a fantasy. The fact that friends are not always available to eat with you, that students feel invisible during some conversations, that people you know may have made plans to eat specifically with one person or another is far more common.
On the surface it might seem the big reason for the discomfort is loneliness. After all, isn't it more fun to eat with someone? Well, yes. But that's not really the problem. It's not that you can't stand to eat alone. If you were eating in front of your computer in your room you'd be fine. That's because you know that no one is looking at you. And if no one sees what you're doing, they can't be drawing nasty, sad or embarrassing conclusions about you.
Cartoon by Sarah Lipton
The truth is, it's hard to eat alone because of what YOU assume others are thinking. Your own destructive thoughts ruin a manageable, quiet, dining experience. Here's a look at what you might be thinking and how to... well, rethink it.
EVERYONE WILL ASSUME I HAVE NO FRIENDS
No they won't. It's you who will forget you have any. Before you leave for the dining hall, first ask yourself, do I in fact have a friend or two or more? Chances are you do. So, know that. Breathe that fact in. Grab a book or magazine. This will serve two purposes. One, for some people it feels better to look busy when eating alone. Two, reading will actually get your mind off of obsessively worrying about how you look to others. Now, imagine totally neutral reasons why others might reasonably suppose you are eating alone. You wanted to be alone. You needed to study (the book) or just relax your mind with an easy read (a magazine). Your friends wanted to eat at another time and you were just too hungry to wait. Finally, walk to the dining room and when you arrive look around. Instead of jumping into a self conscious state of mind, consider this thought: Just because some of your peers are eating together, doesn't mean they are enjoying themselves. They might be quite bored and thus view you, if they happen to look up, as enviably independent. They were too afraid to eat alone. You on the other hand...
EVERYONE WILL THINK I'M PATHETIC
Well that will depend on how you sit there. If your eyes are lowered, if you hold an unhappy expression on your face, if you never look up, you might not look pathetic, but you will look unfriendly, hard to reach, and most certainly like a person who is best left alone. However, if you look around, smile softly at anyone who glances your way, and casually flip through a magazine seeming only moderately engaged in what you are reading, people will likely see you as open. If they are alone, they might in fact ask to join you. (Keep in mind you can also join a lone eater. But you'll see. You won't want to do it if they appear to be in mourning.)
EVERYONE IS STARING AT ME
Finally, do try and remember that as you enter the dining hall alone, no matter what you might think of yourself, those thoughts belong entirely to you. It's not that you are invisible to others. It just means while you are worrying about yourself others are worrying about themselves equally as much. Eating with friends or acquaintances can bring its own agonies. "Am I talking too much?" "Did I just say something stupid?" "I'm not contributing anything to this conversation."
Fact is everyone is much more worried about what others are thinking about them. Most kids won't notice what you're doing. Last time you sat by yourself did you really notice what anyone else was up to? Probably not. You were too caught up in yourself. That's how most people are.
It's not easy or fun eating alone, but try not to attach so much meaning to the event. As often as possible try and plan ahead with someone you know, and if you still end up alone you might try approaching a familiar face or two and ask "Am I interrupting anything?" If they assure you it's fine, join them. If someone says something funny, laugh. If you agree with someone's point, say so.
Everyone enjoys feeling appreciated. Meanwhile you might just enjoy your meal.
Follow Meg F. Schneider, MA, LCSW on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MegFSchneider