I picked up an interesting book at the library on Sunday, as my close followers will know I often do. The title is How To Be Alone and its on the issue of how so often in modern society we are told that it’s not good to be alone or to spend too much time in solitude, that it is more natural for us as human beings to socialise or be sociable. If you think about it a lot of how we feel about spending time alone does relate to how we were related to when young, but we might not also have come in with a bias to be more introverted, or is that just something that happens to us when significant early relationships fail? The book has really got me thinking.
I don’t know how many of you have been in relationships where you were told it wasn’t natural for you to be introspective or need your alone time. I went through one significant relationship like this and it was also something I was told a lot by family members. They did not seem to realise that when certain traumas and separations hit me both in early childhood and later adolescence/early adulthood I was left to cope alone. So I can just naturally get on with my life in solitude, I do spend a lot of time in that solitude though thinking about others, its not just all self obsessive thinking I engage with when alone.
The author of the book Sara Maitland makes convincing arguments for the healthy and soul nurturing aspects of solitude or being alone. Of course solitude is a choice for some of us and one we use both to nurture ourselves and make an inner relationship and so its a different kind of alone time to that which may be imposed on us if we are exiled or find ourself isolated emotionally or physically in some relationships, families or groups, which can happen we are not like the other’s temperamentally or have suffered abandonment or abuse. Then being alone can be deeply painful but also set us on a quest to know and love ourselves more and to understand the forces that shaped us. We can get all kinds of messages about how there is something wrong with us for being alone or liking solitude, and those messages are bound to make us feel worse about ourselves if we swallow them wholesale.
In my last major relationship, my partner accused me of being agoraphobic simply because at that stage I was choosing solitude, that said there may have been a degree of social anxiety in my unsociability. I had been abandoned and hurt and misunderstood very much in the years leading up to that introversion. Yet still as a person I know I do gain benefits from alone time. I am highly empathic and I find when I am around certain people I do absorb and tend to gravitate toward them at a feeling level.
I had this experience yesterday when I was driving to my first therapy appointment of 2018 of being reduced to tears at the intersection where a homeless man was offering windscreen cleaning and being refused by nearly every driver. He said the ‘F’ word sotto of voice without a hint of outer aggression, and as he did I felt his exhaustion and pain and something about him being rejected really triggered me. I just found myself sobbing. I am aware that a lot of what I was feeling may have been banked up grief as I had seen my therapist only once since my mother’s death on 12 December and holding in the feelings I noticed they were bubbling up as I drove toward the appointment. I thought of how hard Mum tried to give or do things for us and of how much she needed emotionally and was refused by certain family members, yet introversion and solitude helped me to process all of this and become more aware.
I noticed too that on the last two days I took myself out for a morning coffee when I ran into friends part of me was pleased to see them, but part of me wanted just to have a solitary moment enjoying my cuppa. I find I am less conscious of the taste and mindfully experiencing it, drinking my coffee while distracted in conversation. Conversation can be either interesting and engaging or a bit detached and that all depends on what is being shared. Being pulled out of ourselves when we need that alone time to recharge can be a bit disturbing to our energy and I don’t always find it easy in that situation to say ‘listen I would just like to sit quietly on my own for a while.’
The danger I think in all of this, though, is pertinently pointed out by Sara in her book. It’s not just pathology to want to be alone. In one chapter she reminds us that it’s when we are alone in nature that so many of us have peak experiences of connection : physical, emotional, spiritual and transcendent. It is in silence we can hear the still small voice of creativity that is often drowned out by too much excessive stimulation or ‘noise’, its in solitude that we can touch with the base of our soul through the use of imagination or reverie. However, it is also lovely to have those moments when we touch or are touched by other humans, times of connection that fill us up and add to us, rather than drain our life energy away. Sorting out what we need in terms of connection or solitude and alone time or in relationship is an ongoing balance of polarities. What is right for one person may not serve someone else and what we need on one day may change on another.
Despite all this I know my own soul would be far poorer were it not for the creative alone time I have experienced in my own life. So I will not be ever demonising anyone for loving their solitude.
There is no evidence whatsoever that even prolonged periods of being alone are detrimental to physical or mental health, so long as that solitude is freely chosen…. (according to Anthony Storr – author of the book Solitude) “the fact that isolation can be therapeutic is seldom mentioned in textbooks of psychiatry. The emphasis is on group participation….(I) regret that the average mental hospital can make little provision for those patients who want to be alone and would benefit from being so.”
Maitland makes the point consistently throughout her book that often people who chose alone time or solitude can be demonised as sad, mad or bad. But not all evidence supports this, for those who are able to endure and navigate the alone space can bring back treasures both for the self and for others which just would never have been discovered or birthed in the absence of solitude.