Embracing Solitude and Conquering Loneliness
"I'm just the kind of person that can't be by myself. I don't like being alone and I have to be around people. As long as I'm not alone, I'm fine."
I still remember hearing someone say this to me years ago. I was 18 then, and even in this era of naivete I still knew something was wrong with that statement. If he had said something like: I need companionship, or community, or friendship, or love-- those things would have made sense to me. But that's not what he said. He specifically said that he literally just can't be alone.
As a natural introvert, I couldn't even wrap my head around the idea of never being alone. I care far too much about my solitude and my chance to unwind from all the social interactions I've had during the day. It was at that moment that I realized that for a lot of people, being alone isn't something to look forward to. Rather, it is a burden that they desperately try to avoid.
I wish I had the words to articulate it at the time. I would have told this friend that loneliness and being alone isn't the same. Maybe I would have been bold enough to ask them why they were afraid to be alone. Maybe I would have asked what they're trying to avoid by being around other people 24/7.
Being Lonely vs. Being in Solitude
I'm not going to regard this as an 'extrovert' issue, because anyone can experience what my friend did back then. Extroverts find their energy in social interactions, but it doesn't necessarily mean that they are desperate to keep themselves in the company of others as much as humanly possible.
It is likely that people who experience this fear of being alone actually fear loneliness. Psychology Today describes loneliness as "the state of distress or discomfort that results when one perceives a gap between one’s desires for social connection and actual experiences of it". To put it simply, loneliness is the feeling we get when we feel like our need for social connection isn't met. When people experience clinical depression, they often feel a sense of loneliness, aimlessness, and hopelessness. Funny enough, even being in a room full of people doesn't always combat the feeling of loneliness.
Loneliness is a stressful state. Solitude, however, is a peaceful state.
The Importance of Solitude and 'Stillness'
In her iconic work All About Love, the late bell hooks* emphasizes the importance of community, but also the importance of solitude. In fact, she proposes that knowing how to be solitary is essential in learning to love truly. Like the friend that was mentioned previously, people can seek community with the intention of avoiding being alone.
It is in this scenario that a person is not truly looking for community, but an escape. And as much as they may not want to hear it: this is a very selfish act. By centering themselves, they're not actually receiving community but company; a body to stand alongside them, a distraction from their own unaddressed thoughts and feelings.
Instead, when we are able to sit in our solitude we free ourselves up to actually receive community and enhance our fellowship with one another. When we're with others, the true intention becomes building community and not a distraction from our problems or worries. I find that when I've been able to spend some time alone, I am more productive and more intentional with my social interactions. I'm more engaged with others, and I am much more likely to be present in the moment. Though, like a true introvert, I'm typically exhausted by the end of it all.
bell hooks states that when children are taught to enjoy their "quiet time", they are able to carry this skill into adulthood. When I sit back and think about it, I did spend a good amount of time with myself as a child. This wasn't an act of neglect from my parents, they always made time for my sister and me. But I do think that along with being busy with other things, they didn't want us to be dependent on them for entertainment. By spending time alone, I was able to discover my love for writing and storytelling. When you spend enough time alone, you tend to make up your own fun and entertainment.
Fast forward to adulthood, and I meet a mentor that encourages intentional time alone. He said to even schedule it into your calendar if you need to. And during this time slot, all you do is sit alone and think. There's no music, no reading, and no scrolling through the phone: this is a time dedicated to sitting and thinking. What you want to think about is up to you, but for me a lot of times my thoughts center around: how I'm feeling at that moment, why I feel the way I feel, what things I want to get done that day, what are some goals I have for myself when it comes to my blog and my business, etc. I'll admit that I haven't always created this intentional time slot on my daily calendar, but I find that when I do I'm much more productive and have more of a grateful heart than I did before starting this Solitude Session.
Solitude vs. Isolation
Though I believe Solitude is extremely important for our sense of self, I do want to highlight a slight drawback that can occur. There are times when I've unintentionally labeled acts of self-isolation as stillness or Solitude.
For the past year, I've had to get very real with myself about my emotional and mental health. Part of taking care of myself means that I need to make sure I am seeking true community in addition to having time for solitude. The problem is I started prioritizing solitude so much that I actually didn't bother keeping up with community (aka my close friends and family in the area). The peace of solitude slowly started transforming into the despair of self-isolation. In other words: I morphed my peaceful Solitude into painful Loneliness.
What I had to learn (or re-learn) is that Solitude and Community work in tandem. You can't have one without the other because it will inevitably lead to Loneliness. In that time of loneliness, I should have been reaching out to those close friends, but I didn't. There are a number of reasons why someone in this state won't reach out. But it usually boils down to either pride ("I don't need help") or poor self-image/shame ("I don't want to be a burden").
Something I've discussed on a separate occasion is the practice of positive self-talk, something that I had to reimplement when I started realizing I had been isolating myself. I won't go into a full list of what my self-talk looks like, but at the top of it, I reiterated that I am not a burden and that I have a circle of loved ones that want to see me thrive and be happy.
Learning to Be Alone
For those of us who learned at a young age, finding joy in solitude may not be difficult. However, there are still many of us who haven't been able to learn until adulthood. When it comes to learning to be alone, it seems like the best thing to start asking the big question.
It may be uncomfortable but it's definitely worth asking: Why exactly don't I want to be alone? What are some things that have happened in the past that may have caused this? What are some thoughts that do come to mind when I'm alone? What are some thoughts that I am actively avoiding?
Depending on the severity of your situation, it may be worth getting assistance from a trained therapist to figure out the root of the issue. But keep in mind that I'm always going to recommend therapy to everyone regardless of what they may or may not be going through. When we figure out the root of our issues, we're then empowered to take steps toward addressing things that may prevent us from finding joy in solitude. Also, think of things that you can do during that time of solitude that you enjoy. Perhaps reading, writing, playing a video game, taking a walk, reorganizing, journaling, etc. Make that time of solitude something to anticipate, not dread.
Whatever may be keeping you from engaging in solitude, I hope that you are able to take the steps to overcome it. I hope that you can come to realize that both solitude and community are blessings to help us live our very best life.
Thanks for reading,
*When asked why she doesn't capitalize her pen name, bell hooks responded that she wanted people to focus on her work, rather than being caught up on who she is. Her name remains uncapitalized in this piece to honor her standard.