In the summer of 2016, my world came crashing down. After two loved ones left my life, I spent a lot of time with good friends who suddenly felt like strangers. They didn’t understand what I was going through, but how could they? Instead of enduring loneliness surrounded by people, I decided to embark on a solo cross-country trip. I spent 5 weeks driving through the middle of nowhere, listening to podcasts, and processing my feelings. It is an experience I bring up often, because I wholeheartedly believe it changed my life for the better.
Difference Between Solitude & Loneliness?
There is a common misconception that loneliness and solitude are synonymous. Loneliness often has negative connotations, and it’s true that it can produce physical and mental harm. In a world so obsessed with instant connectivity, we’re more disconnected than ever. We feel increasingly lonely even though we’re not alone because we often use technology to avoid dealing with pain. Though we fear time alone with our thoughts will lead to loneliness and heartbreak, choosing solitude presents an entirely different opportunity for self-reflection, growth, and self-love. Solitude can exist without hurting. “Loneliness is being alone — and not liking it— It’s a feeling. Solitude is being alone and content — It’s a choice,” Aytekin Tank asserted on the JotForm blog.
Medium member Jeffery Lam wrote an insightful piece on this topic in 2018, pointing out that we often confuse the two because society sees introversion as something which needs fixing. He references a book by Susan Cain titled Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, explaining that she “argues our school and workplaces are designed for extroverts, who need a lot of social stimulation.” It is important for kids to socialize, to learn to work together, and grow alongside others. At the same time, it has become commonplace to force extremely extroverted activities on all. “The scale has tipped to the point where we are left with no time to be alone” Lam outlines.
Participating in periods of solitude is powerful in a world addicted to immediate connection. Slowing down and paying attention to our daily activities creates space for immense gratitude and ultimately for happiness. These are moments we usually rush past. Unlike loneliness, solitude has the ability to benefit mental and physical health.
The Case for a Regular Solitude Practice
I am an extroverted introvert. I love my friends and adore my family, though I always look forward to alone time. This is why I live alone. Extroverted friends of mine often express concern for my solitary lifestyle and while I appreciate their concern, I can’t help but feel perplexed when I watch them fall into anxious fits the minute they have to be alone. There is a possibility for unhealthy indulgence in solitude, especially for those with depression like me.
On the flipside, avoiding solitude for fear of your own thoughts is just as harmful. There’s no argument here for permanent solitude or to feel forced, just a mindful daily or weekly practice of solitude. By utilizing this time, you provide yourself with the opportunity to connect with yourself, nature, and spirituality while recovering from sensory overload. These moments to yourself, however frequent, can be invaluable.
How to Create Alone Time with Compassion
A solitude practice may look different for each person and could change periodically– give yourself permission to change your mind. Additionally, if solitude is a new experience, I would advise starting small. Add a few minutes of alone time to your schedule a week and work up from there. Try a solo walk around the neighborhood, journal, take a few deep breaths, or cook dinner for yourself. Integrating mindfulness into your daily routine helps to cultivate nourishing alone time with psychological and physiological benefits. By anchoring our attention to a single focus like the breath, the body and nervous system get a break from relentlessly operating in a state of high-stress or anxiety.
Solitude doesn’t require trekking across the country or sitting in complete silence. All it takes to create a solitude practice is some intentional time on your own. The more mindful you are, the better acquainted you’ll become with yourself. “Solitude isn’t about avoiding being with other people. It’s about being with yourself,” Dean Griffiths asserted on the blog Psychreg.
Solitude is a choice we make to empower ourselves, not to isolate from others. And that is exactly how I felt in the summer of 2016. The weeks of mostly solitude taught me invaluable lessons about myself, my own strength, and my capacity for resiliency. I wasn’t lonely, I was alive!