Are we afraid of spending time alone or being lonely? Many of us battle feelings of loneliness or the fear of ending up alone. There’s no shame in that. As human beings, we are social creatures, inherently driven to connect with others and belong to a group or community. Simultaneously, as social as we are, we’re also creatures that need solitude, whether we realize it or not. Solitude is a beautiful state we can create for ourselves to reflect, learn, reconnect with the present moment, and recover physically and mentally. In this article, we’ll look at the benefits of solitude and draw a clear distinction between being alone and loneliness. What we may find is that creating alone time for ourselves may be one of the most valuable gifts we give ourselves.
Most people equate sociability with wellness and happiness and they are right to some extent. We do, after all, need people we can connect with and talk to about our thoughts, joys, sorrows, and dreams. Yet we have come to a point in our culture where we view “being alone” as being antisocial, sad, depressed, or unsocial. With this there’s grown to be a common misconception that being “alone” is synonymous with being “lonely”. This is simply not the case.
The official definition of “loneliness” is sadness because one has no friends or companions. The definition of “alone”, however, is being “without anyone else”. So not only is “being alone” not the same as “being lonely”, unlike loneliness, being alone is actually proven to be beneficial for our individual health and wellbeing. So, how did being alone begin to be interpreted as a bad thing? How did we lose the art of being alone?
One answer to this question is that we lost our ability to be feel comfortable and secure while being alone. There are a few reasons that contribute to this discomfort. The surge in the world population over the past hundred years, combined with the staggering leaps we’ve taken in technology has caused us to lose our ability to be truly alone. Thanks to televisions, computer screens and social media, we’re never truly alone even when we’re by ourselves in our own homes. This has in turn caused us to change our understanding of what being alone is into something negative.
Just look at the language we use around being alone, and you’ll see what I mean. Take the word “spinster”. In Medieval Times “spinster” meant “a woman who spun well”. Spinning was one of the few ways a woman could be financially self-sufficient. As such, being a spinster carried a relatively positive connotation. In fact, calling a woman who was about get married a “spinster” was a compliment. It meant that she was entering her marriage because she wanted to and not because she was forced to out of her financial circumstances.
That’s shocking to hear when these days the word “spinster” carries a negative connotation for women who are unmarried. Now, thankfully, it’s very rare that you would hear someone call a woman a spinster in a serious tone, but if were were to hear the word, even in jest, we’d immediately assume she was rejected, lonely and unhappy.
While we’ve made many strides in the cultural arena in talking more about the benefits of being alone, there still remains this uneasy, cringeworthy element of the thought of being alone. Once we fully understand the benefits of being alone though, I think we may begin to shift our perspective.
Despite the negative meanings we’ve loaded into the concept of “being alone”, solitude is actually very beneficial for us. Just ask Hemingway, Anais Nin, Rilke or Mary Oliver. Ask any creative individual and they’ll say the same thing. To quote the founding father of neuroscience, Santiago Ramon y Cajal: “Oh, comforting solitude, how favorable thou art to original thought”. The act of creating requires solitude. You have to be in a room by yourself, thinking and creating. Solitude invites and encourages us to become productive, authentic and creative. It’s only by being alone that one can tap into that ingenuity and vulnerability to have an honest dialogue with oneself.
But, alright. Not everyone is an Ernest Hemingway or Rainer Marie Rilke. Most of us may say to ourselves that we’re not creating any big masterpieces, so why seek out solitude? Even if we want solitude every now and then, we may not see having that alone time as being a priority. Think about it; do you consider having time alone to be just as important as your other habits of self-care? Is it as important as sleeping, eating, reading, or bathing? Your first knee-jerk reaction may be to say no, it’s not. Here’s why you may want to reconsider.
We need solitude for one very important reason: to get to know ourselves. How well can we know ourselves when we cram every waking moment with going out, meeting other people, TV shows, and social media. How can we listen to that inner voice we all have in our minds when we’re constantly listening to other voices. Learning about yourself requires us to be alone, observing our own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. This cannot be done with outside stimuli that’s distracting us from ourselves. Without having that time, we’re not able to sit in silence as we ask ourselves important questions and listen for the answers that come up. “What do I really want out of this relationship?”, “Do I really want to take this job?”, “Why did that comment hurt me so much”. You’d be amazed what answers and thoughts emerge; it’s an incredible source of guidance and reconnection with your internal compass. The more we avoid being alone, the more we avoid understanding our thoughts and emotions. And the less we understand what we’re thinking and feeling, the less ability we will have to live in our truth and fulfill ourselves.
When I tell people how much I enjoy spending time by myself, I’m met some looks of skepticism, disbelief or discomfort. Some people rush forward asking if I’m okay, or wonder why. Some of my peers have told me that the idea of being alone, even just in their own house, makes them feel uncomfortable, scared, or like they’re missing out on something. It’s understandable given the social connotations of being alone we’ve all grown accustomed to. Sure, being alone can seem scary. But think about it—when you picture being alone, what comes to mind? Most of us don’t visualize ourselves being alone, but rather being lonely. Now that we know the distinct difference between those two, can we consider spending time by ourselves in a more positive light? If we can, we stand to learn so much more about ourselves and in turn be able to do the internal work to align with our values and purpose.
One way to warm up to the idea of being alone is to practice meditation. Meditation gives us a brief chunk of time to be alone with ourselves, and to observe our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. Awareness meditations, specifically, are a perfect start to this journey. “Awareness” means being aware and present of the moment. This includes being aware of your senses, as well as what you’re thinking and feeling. Only by becoming aware of what you think and how you feel can you understand what’s going on inside you. And only by understanding what’s going on inside you can you have a deeper consciousness of yourself.
You might be thinking, “Well, I don’t know how to meditate”. You might be wondering where you would even begin. For precisely this reason, we’ve worked to create a series on the Meditopia App that is dedicated to explaining the foundations and basics of meditation.
I’ve recommended Meditopia to many friends for many different reasons. The most drastic changes I’ve seen from my peers has been around their ability to sit alone with themselves in solitude, and in this stillness, learn so much about themselves. The more they’ve practiced these meditations, the more they talk about a sense of peace, confidence and security in their everyday activities.
If spending time alone seems like an uncomfortable or even terrifying prospect, try to start small. There are “Quick Start” options in Meditopia that feature “1 Minute-Long” and “3 Minutes-Long” meditations. While 10-15 minutes of alone time may be too much at first, 1-3 minutes is absolutely within your reach. Over time, you’ll find you’re able to sit longer and longer with yourself.
You might still be hesitant about giving yourself that time to spend with yourself. But think of it this way; How can you have healthy relationships with others – be they friendships or romantic relationships – if you don’t have a healthy relationship with yourself? If you don’t really know yourself, or if you’re uncomfortable or scared of spending time by yourself, then why would anyone else be willing to spend time with you?
Share with us below your thoughts on being alone. How does spending time alone make you feel? If you’ve worked on spending more time alone, what has been the most helpful for you?