Saturday, December 17, 2016

On Solitude

I love being alone. For me, being alone means solitude. It means experiencing peace, presence, and empowerment. For others, being alone equates to loneliness and brings with it a slew of sad emotions.

I'm fascinated by how aloneness can be so wonderful for some people and so not-wonderful for others. Clearly, loneliness and solitude sit at opposing ends of the being-alone spectrum.

When people think of being alone, they typically think of physical isolation from other people. But it's not the only type of isolation that comes with being alone. How do I know this? Because the times when I have been most lonely in my life were times when I felt alone in the presence of other people. There's a lot to be said for mental isolation. Though I can be in the physical presence of another person and engaged in social interaction, if that social interaction is unfulfilling, then I feel mentally alone.

I have often wondered whether my equating aloneness with solitude is influenced by my introverted tendencies. And so it was that I found myself identifying factors that contribute to a position on the being-alone spectrum and then comparing and contrasting those factors for introverts and extroverts. I examined how physical isolation coupled with social engagement and reflectiveness, and colored by one's inclination towards introversion or extroversion, determines position along the being-alone spectrum. (I won't bore you further with my little investigation. But if you're interested, you can find my summary at the bottom of this post.)

What I discovered is that for extroverts, as long as there is physical presence with another person and social engagement with that person, regardless of the quality of the social interaction, then all is well. For introverts, as long as there is either quality social interaction or an opportunity to self-reflect, then all is well. It is when introverts have non-quality interactions with others or when they are unable to reflect that they experience loneliness.

How is it that one can be socially engaged in the presence of others and still be lonely? For me, when I'm around other people, I find that I sometimes must "soften" who I am. I compromise a part of myself in order to share space, time, and energy with others. When social interactions are unfulfilling, loneliness arises because I have become too mentally isolated from my own true self. A passage from Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonia Express describes this feeling: "Other people can mislead you; they crowd your meandering impressions with their own; if they are companionable they obstruct your view, and if they are boring they corrupt the silence with non sequiturs, shattering your concentration with 'Oh, look, it's raining' and 'You see a lot of trees here'."

Am I always lonely among other people? Certainly not. In fact, it's infrequent when I feel lonely with others. I very much appreciate social interactions and the mutual emotional and intellectual support that the interactions provide.

For the record, I'm actually an extroverted introvert. What this means is that in certain social roles, such as in my working life or in leadership positions, I don a mask and successfully act the role of an extrovert. But this constant act around other people in our extrovert-centric society drains my batteries. And so I purposefully seek solitude to recharge and reenergize.

Solitude brings with it a great deal of benefits:

Increased Self-Awareness

When I'm with other people, I often feel disconnected from my moods and feelings. Sometimes I entirely dismiss my moods and feelings so I can better conform to the social engagement.

When I'm by myself, I have an increased sense of self-awareness. When I'm in solitude, I am conscious of my moods and my subconscious feelings. I respect my moods and feelings and adjust my thoughts and circumstances accordingly so I can exist in a consistent state of emotive equilibrium.

More Opportunities for Reflection

When I'm with other people, it's often difficult to reflect. I often find my own thoughts hampered or impeded upon by others'. While I appreciate the thoughts of others, the tendency towards tangential conversations and sometimes even the mere physical presence of other people can sideswipe my reflective efforts.

When I'm by myself, I have space for reflection. I ask myself how things are going -- what's going well, what's not. I ask myself what brings joy in life and how I want to spend my time. Some of my most profound and satisfying conversations have taken place with myself in solitude. This introspection contributes significantly to my well-being and to achieving the life I want to live.

Freedom of Time

When I'm with other people, there's often a give-and-take in order to appease differences. Though I enjoy sharing experiences with others, I sometimes end up talking about things I would prefer not to discuss and doings things I would prefer not to do.

When I'm by myself, I'm free to spend my time and energy as I so choose. I fill my days doing things that fully align with my values and my goals. At the end of these days, I feel entirely productive. Like Voltaire said, "The happiest of all lives is a busy solitude." Plus, when I'm in solitude, I have a greater tendency for wandering and for serendipity, both of which bring an immense amount of magic into my life. Because I'm doing what I want to be doing, I have an impressive record of tendays. (See Ingredients for a Tenday.)

Improved Self-Sufficiency

When I'm with other people, there's always a dependency. For reasons of preferences and optimizing skills, and in the interest of the benefits of division of labor, the other person inevitably ends up fulfilling some of my needs, just as I fill some of their needs.

And while there's nothing inherently wrong with dependency, when I'm by myself, I'm entirely self-sufficient. Because there is no one else to rely upon, I must do things entirely on my own. This calls upon not only my courage, skills, and confidence, but also full acceptance of responsibility for my thoughts and actions. Self-sufficiency is my only true sense of security; neither a job, nor a home, nor another person can offer this security.

Greater Presence

When I'm with other people, I am often distracted from the deep perception that comes with entirety of focus.

When I'm by myself, my senses are fully engaged. I can focus entirely on the here-and-now without distraction. Solitude brings with it a keen sense of lucidity and an intense sense of experience and aliveness.

I operate in cycles. For a period of time, I'm heavily engaged in social interactions. And then for another period of time, I retreat into my cave to wallow in solitude. It's a catch-22. I need social interaction to feel connected to humanity, but I need solitude to recover from the draining side-effects of those social interactions. I need social interactions to be connected to community; but I need solitude to reacquaint with myself. Sometimes I generously fill my calendar with social events. Other times, I post an occasional Out of Office message and disappear for days into solitude.

I've been asked whether I ever feel guilty about periodically disengaging from social interactions. I do not feel guilty because I know that I need to take care of myself in order to fully engage with others. Spending time in solitude deepens my relationship with myself and thus allows me to deepen my relationships with others.

There's a saying by Lao Tzu that I absolutely love:
If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself.
If you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself.
Truly the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.
When I experience solitude, my self-transformations come forth in leaps'n'bounds. Although this may seem counterintuitive, I'm able to create the greatest gifts when I'm alone. Being alone is my opportunity to grow and to awaken myself. Being in the physical presence of others is my opportunity to share my gifts and to reap from the gifts of others.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wisely wrote in Self-Reliance, "It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude." If only I could find that sweet spot that Emerson talks about -- that perfect balance of being amongst others while maintaining solitude.

Placement Along the Being-Alone Spectrum for Introverts and Extroverts

[Note that it is not without significance that I partook in this deep-dive into the being-alone spectrum while being alone, in a state of solitude.]

The critical factors that contribute to placement of an individual along the being-alone spectrum include:
  • Physical Presence: Is the individual in the same physical presence of another person?
  • Social Engagement: Is the individual socially engaged with another person?
  • Reflectiveness: Is the individual able to self-reflect?
As I've been an introvert my whole life, I know how introverts work. As I've never been an extrovert, I make assumptions below about extroverts based on what I've casually observed during my life experiences.


  1. Hi Sarah, great discussion of a topic that is poignant to my current exploration. I'm in a new relationship, struggling with finding the balance between time together and time apart, in solitude. Feeling my deep loneliness at times together and apart, realizing that I need to honor my own need for solitude as well as need for intimacy.

    1. Thank you for your note, Ocean. I'm glad you found the post to be relevant. I struggle with the need for solitude in most all of my relationships -- the romantic ones and the not-romantic-ones. I wish there was an easy answer. Enjoy the personal exploration, as self-reflection will always add value and meaning to your life.

  2. What a great post! (especially with the holidays approaching) I have always felt this way, but never really been able to explain it. Your writing describes it so well. Thanks Sarah!

  3. I've read this 3 times trying to figure out how to comment without writing an entire blog in your comments! Love THIS!!

    In real life, I loud and boisterous in my day to day activities, I know all the baristas by name, and people know when I am in the office. What they don't understand is why I don't like to eat lunch with people or hang out outside work. I love my alone time! I am just a loud introvert!

    Which is why I love large rides like the Chilly Hilly. I ride alone, but can chat with other riders as we pass or at snack stops. I get the solitude AND controlled (by me) interaction with people.

    OK I Will stop now! Thanks for writing the post that resonated with me more so and ANY blogger ever has!

    1. Thanks, Tony. I like your comment about the Chilly Hilly: "I get the solitude AND controlled (by me) interaction with people." It sounds as though you may achieved the "great man" status that Emerson talks about -- being able to maintain your solitude while in the presence of others. :)

    2. Thanks Sarah! Once again a post of yours now has one for me churning around in my head...


I would love to hear your comments on this post!