Somewhere along the way, American society has lost sight of the value of solitude. Yet, getting to know your inner self through solitude is key to enriching your life and your relationships.
"A century ago, most people lived on farms in the country in isolated family units," says John Selby, a counselor, teacher, and the author of Solitude: The Art of Living with Yourself. "Everyone was forced to establish a relationship with themselves alone. Solitude was a positive aspect of life." Most people enjoyed a relationship with nature that made them feel less alone, he adds. But, suburban living has diminished that connection. Instead, we turn on the TV to avoid being entirely alone. "The media," he says, "have replaced nature."
We also place a far greater emphasis on the need for relationships outside of the family than our grandparents did. This increased reliance on relationships with others shifts our focus even further from our inner selves and our needs as individuals, and more towards who we feel we are or should be in relation to others. "It's difficult to maintain a sense of personal integrity if we are always outwardly focused," says Esther Buchholz, PhD, author of The Call of Solitude: Alonetime in a World of Attachment.
Solitude, Buchholz says, is the need to retreat psychologically and sometimes physically to modify stimulation and to "reconstitute how one functions by one's self." In other words, space to breathe. However, people have preconceived notions about solitude, that somehow it is a negative thing. Because even the dictionary definition of solitude includes terms like isolation and lonely, Buchholz prefers to use the term alonetime instead of solitude.
Alonetime helps you learn who you are. To function at your peak you need to know yourself, and alonetime provides time for self-examination. The degree of solitude we each require is partly inborn and partly learned. People who are more introverted will feel a greater need for solitude than those who are extroverted. Regardless, from a very early age, we all need at least some alonetime. Buchholz notes that the need for alonetime is probably present from birth.
"We would not survive very well if we did not have some self-regulatory and alone skills to help us achieve a balance between stimulation and lack of stimulation," she says. "Nature provides time alone in sleep, but our society is so geared toward attachment and engagement and 'busyness,' that alonetime has been lost."
The way you were raised also determines whether you will seek or reject solitude as you become an adult. If as a child, you were sent to your room when you misbehaved or were told that you would be unpopular if you did not behave, you may grow up associating solitude with abandonment. "If our parents and our communities fear solitude, then we'll pick this up, until we discover that solitude is golden and is to be nurtured," Selby says. Conversely, if your parents had good relationships with their solitary selves, you will learn to develop that relationship with yourself as well, he says. Children who grow up in households where solitude is respected are far more likely to seek alonetime as adults.
Selby also feels that society's generally negative view of solitude makes people feel guilty or inadequate if they are not social butterflies. "We value extroversion and put down introversion." And because people do not take time to know themselves in any introverted way, they may feel lonely, inadequate, or frustrated, which can lead to depression.
If you are part of a family or relationship in which the need for solitude is not recognized or respected, it can be difficult to express your needs without offending those who do not understand your need for alonetime. There are ways to negotiate these differences so that they do not create wedges in your relationships, says Buchholz. "Often, people feel rejected when a friend or lover asks for more space in a relationship," adds Selby. "But, when we see that relationships depend on each of us knowing and loving ourselves first, then it makes sense to allow our friends and lovers and family members their solitary time."
How can you tell when you are overwhelmed and ready for some solitude? Signs include:
Remember, says Selby, that solitude is not just about being physically alone. It is about shifting into a nurturing gear for your own self. He recommends doing a regular meditation a few times a day to slow yourself down, shift out of thoughts of the past and the future, and just "be" for a time while your social batteries recharge. If you detect these signs in your children, encourage or even enforce short time-outs alone because it is difficult for them to recognize the need in themselves.
Not giving yourself enough alonetime can negatively affect your relationships, health, and ability to think clearly. This is because you are too busy doing. Being overstimulated intrudes on creativity and diminishes your problem-solving skills.
Some find solitude on a beach or a mountaintop. You can also experience solitude sitting in a favorite chair in a quiet room. A two-minute meditation during an elevator ride or a peaceful, solitary walk on your lunch break might be all it takes to recharge. Waking up slowly listening to the birds sing or going to bed a few minutes early and enjoying the luxury of those extra winding-down minutes can be sheer bliss. Solitude keeps us in touch with ourselves and who we are, says Buchholz.
Solitude does not necessarily mean inactivity. Some people feel recharged after spending an entire afternoon listening to classical music while cleaning out closets. The key is to select a time for yourself, when you can think, sing out loud, scrub the floor, or whatever…alone.
The American Institute of Stress
American Psychological Association
Canadian Mental Health Association
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Buchholz ES. The Call of Solitude: Alonetime in a World of Attachment. World and I; 1997.
Selby J. Solitude: The Art of Living With Yourself. Santa Fe, NM: Heartsfire Books; 1998.