The Comfort of Solitude is not the Despair of Loneliness
“You can be high achieving, extroverted, sociable, and self-confident and be lonely. You can also be an eminent introvert, cultivating the smallest of inner circles, and choosing solitude for much of your life and yet be engulfed, at certain times, by loneliness.” -Gina Barreca, Ph.D. “Only You Know If You’re Lonely: Solitude vs. Loneliness,” May 03, 2020, “Psychology Today”
These days, I love solitude — but I am not lonely. I embrace the time I get to spend on my own because, in these moments, I can critically reflect and re-energize and grow.
An echo of silence and lull in activity sends many spiraling into a blind panic. And, the pandemic shutdowns exacerbate a quiet fear of “alone time.” But I’ve grown to realize that solitude does not always equal loneliness. Often, I’ve felt the acute pain of loneliness in a large crowd or socializing with a group of acquaintances who don’t know the deepest parts of me. Loneliness leaves me feeling unloved and misunderstood. Solitude gives me comfort.
From childhood through my twenties, I measured my self-worth mainly by the number of people flurrying through my life. I equated value by the quantity (rather than quality) of people who called me “friend” and included me in their plans. While I knew my worth truly came from a solid foundation and a belief that I was explicitly created to “be me,” I did not view myself through that lens of grace.
I surrounded myself with others because then I’d never have to face my internal wounds in need of healing. If people I loved weren’t available to spend time with me, I immediately assumed a fracture in those relationships. I figured the break began with an intrinsic flaw in me. If weeks — or even multiple days — went by without social time, I imagined large crowds of friends enjoying each other without me. Rather than embrace the time alone, I wondered why people I invested in were suddenly okay sans my presence in their lives.
Many of those insecurities grew from childhood wounds never fully healed. Some came from the belief that I missed out on life — with a capital “L” — when I slowed down. And the growing pains of transitioning from college student to fully-actualized adult played a part as well. I also considered myself an extreme extrovert — as I erroneously thought the definition derived from an outgoing or social nature. An extrovert is someone who gains the most energy via their interactions with others. An introvert, on the other hand, rejuvenates through time apart from others.
I have many “friends” in my life, but only a select few whom I invest significant amounts of time in and who really “know” me. As far back as I can remember, upcoming social engagements have filled me with dread, a burning desire to “back out,” and anticipating their arrival causes me to throw up a little bit in my mouth.
I always dismissed this internal volcano of anxiety as something “wrong with me.” But the lava bubbled underneath the surface nonetheless. Once I arrived at the party, or concert, or bar, I assimilated well. The dread ebbed, and although I could inhale an entire charcuterie platter on my own to stave off the panic, I mostly did fine. But a night filled with people and small talk will leave me with zapped energy levels and an emotional hangover that lasts days.
“A little while alone in your room will prove more valuable than anything else that could ever be given to you.”- Rumi
I have learned to love solitude and embrace alone time because I’ve learned to love myself. I’m comfortable spending time with me. Spending time alone is a non-negotiable for me. I carve out time every day where I am free to breathe and explore.
I venture on solo hikes, which allow me to experience the phenomenal nuances of nature. Music I listen to while alone in the car seeps into my bones and impacts my day in ways it does not when I have passengers. The books I read impact the stories I write and inspire my growth as a writer.
I still believe that the most significant measure of success in our lives stems from the legacy of relationships we leave behind — not by the financial wealth we create or elite professional positions — but by the people we have personally and positively impacted.
However, I can only give to my relationships what I’ve already allowed in myself. Sure, pain and flaws become glaring neon lights when I am alone, but then I’m forced to deal with and heal them. When I spend the time working on me, I can give of myself to others more freely. My relationships become richer when I place quality over quantity.
Uncertainty faces us in the months ahead. Possible rollbacks on gathering restrictions and alarming spikes in COVID infections may cause us to spend more time alone than we desire. But don’t fear!
Plan activities you can do on your own. Take time to journal. Learn to lean into the uncomfortability of hanging with yourself — you will grow as a result. Alone time can become solitude rather than loneliness when you embrace it.