Solitude Is An Introvert’s Superpower

But anyone can try it and see.

Erik Bassett
Curious

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Photo by Toni Reed on Unsplash

I always took umbrage at being called an “introvert,” until I understood what it actually means.

It’s not a matter of fearing or disliking or being awkward around people. It’s just a deep-seated preference for the inner life over the outer.

But growing up in an American culture that glorifies a distinctly bubbly brand of extraversion, I couldn’t help feeling like a bit of a square peg in a round hole.

Something innate in my being just didn’t mesh with what most around me seemed to prefer and exemplify and strive for.

Solitary diligence was my natural state.

That proclivity for the inner life caused plenty of self-doubt early on, but it later brought unexpected benefits. As we’ll see, some of those benefits even have surprising support from oft-overlooked research.

They’re most naturally accessible to introverts, but anyone can harness them through the simple but extraordinary practice of solitude.

Give creativity a chance to flow

There’s surprisingly strong evidence that solitude and creativity tend to go together like peanut butter and…well, nothing, because the peanut butter is alone and likes it that way.

It’s no coincide that we tend to picture writers, painters, and other creative folks alone in their studios.

But is there something fundamentally different about those who make their mark in solitary and creative ways?

According to some recent research, there probably is.

In 2017, a team of psychologists from SUNY Buffalo found “the first evidence of a potential benefit (creativity) associated with unsociability.” (Keep in mind that “unsociability” in this case just means a preference for solitude. It does not imply awkwardness or abrasiveness like in everyday usage.)

That may be obvious to those of us who’ve always enjoyed writing or drawing or tinkering or what-have-you by ourselves. But in the academic world, this was reasonably big news.

Not only was their study the “first evidence” of this positive relationship between solitude and creativity, but it challenged the prevailing assumption that those who prefer solitude are just too inhibited or avoidant to get along with others.

Get meaningful things done (and be that much happier)

Cal Newport’s Deep Work made a point that has stuck with me ever since.

To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.

By and large, that mythical state of “flow” happens — you guessed it — when we’re alone. And not merely alone, but so deeply immersed in our cocoon of nascent mastery that time itself time ceases to matter.

Our craft may involve others. We may deliver or perform it quite publicly, whether by choice or by necessity. But to hone our craft from its raw materials demands eager, wholehearted, and utterly solitary practice.

Of course, being alone doesn’t necessarily mean being productive. We can be equally alone writing or watching a soap opera. With nobody looking over our shoulder to prompt us to focus, it’s easy to fritter away the hours and come away with neither relationships nor skills to show.

But if diligence is firewood, then solitude can be the oxygen it needs to burn red-hot. In that sense, we introverts — we “unsociable” ones — might have an advantage in preferring just such mindfully uninterrupted time.

(Now, if only we could avoid the productivity sinkhole of the open-floorplan office…)

Heighten empathy in an unexpected way

One of the supreme psychological ironies is that we become more empathetic when we’re away from others.

One Harvard study was described in the Boston Globe as

indicat[ing] that a certain amount of solitude can make a person more capable of empathy towards others.

And even more surprisingly, it’s not just because familiarity breeds contempt.

Rather, the theory goes, we form stronger in-group identities as we spend more time together. It’s easy to come up with an evolutionary explanation — you know, forging ties with our clan and the like.

Along with those ties comes a subtle preference for that inner circle and against those outside of it. Now, don’t worry just yet. This is most often benign and subtle, like bonding with colleagues and enjoying good-natured competition against some corporate rival.

But with a bit of deliberate distance from our in-groups, we rely less on them as a social filter. In other words, solitude can render us more receptive to people we wouldn’t otherwise relate to. From the same article,

Spending a certain amount of time alone, [another] study suggests, can make us less closed off from others and more capable of empathy — in other words, better social animals.

Just one word of warning

Solitude benefits our creativity and focus and empathy.

It also carries some risks, chiefly the ease of slipping away from what we ought to confront. If alone-time is more or less our natural state when happy, it’s all the more reflexive when we’re deeply uncomfortable.

We need remarkable self-awareness to notice and avoid, well, avoidance. Such awareness is worth cultivating, perhaps with the insight of a trusted and compassionate confidant.

After all, avoidant solitude doesn’t bring the benefits we’ve seen above. What’s more, it’s a recipe for loneliness, which is unquestionably harmful even to the least sociable among us.

Even — especially — if you’re no introvert and the thought of quiet time alone is downright repulsive, I recommend you give it a try.

You needn’t go full Thoreau to reap the benefits of purposeful solitude. But even if it doesn’t come naturally, you might be pleasantly surprised at what it brings to the table.

I can’t promise it will change your life. But if you take Pascal at his word, it just might make all the difference in the world:

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

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