The Psych Central Report

Isolation or Time Alone?

By Alex Williams
March 2006

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I would like to say a few words in defense of spending time alone. Many of us here at PC are familiar with the strategy of isolating ourselves when we feel unwell, and that can be a very unhappy place to be. However, it doesn’t follow that we have to be unhappy when we choose to spend some time alone. There is a difference between enjoying time alone and feeling isolated, or cut off from others, which can be a very painful and lonely experience.

Having been brought up in a needy and chaotic family, one of my ingrained childhood beliefs was that I would only be somebody if I was with other people, and that being alone was a waste of time and a sign of personal failure. I was always competing for attention and trying to be seen and heard by others, sometimes frantically.

This was a debilitating state to be in. Only years later did I realize that we can find value within ourselves, much more than in the different faces we present to the world. I think I learned this through studying at university, when the long hours of reading counted just as much as the time spent in the common room. I started to realize that I was studying for myself, my own development, not to show off to others. What mattered to me was the quality of my personal progress in the subject and my final degree. I think it was during these years that I learned the fundamental difference between loneliness and time alone.

I often think of the great thinkers, the religious mystics, the lone explorers, and I wonder: How these people could be any less valuable than gregarious socialites? Of course they are not. What matters is that they have a sense of direction and commitment and they do what they want to do. I have spent periods of my life in a very sociable way, and other periods focused on my own interests. In each case there has been a reward, only of a different kind. The more social periods have been fun, buzzy, but with a greater feeling of responsibility to others. The alone periods have been simpler, and often more personally productive, as I am not beholden to others in joint projects or a workplace. The psychologist Anthony Storr develops this idea in his inspiring book "Solitude: A Return to the Self." 

I used to think that my pattern was somehow unusual, but I’m not really so sure these days. Reading Stephen Batchelor’s book "Buddhism Beyond Beliefs" I was taken with his comment that sometimes we want to be in the hustle and bustle of the world and sometimes we want to withdraw, to recharge our batteries and rest ourselves in quiet contemplation. There is a time and place for both modes of being. Stephen Batchelor feels that this is a perfectly natural process, and that we shouldn’t try to push ourselves when the time is not right for us.

So, I think that we should be careful before we start to feel guilty about spending time alone. Society seems to hold a stigma against ‘loners’ and I believe that we should never allow stigma to rule our lives. What really matters is how we feel. If we feel miserable and lonely, then of course time alone is not the best thing for us, and a friendly face is most welcome. One of the first signs of depression is a withdrawal from the world, and it is sometimes hard to recognize when this is happening to us. But, if we feel at ease and comfortable with the peace of the world, then time alone is not in itself a bad thing. When I am in my quiet times, I don’t feel lonely, and I see friendly faces all over the place, but I don’t always feel that I need to go deeper with anyone in particular. It’s a good place to be.

Of course, it is important to note that ‘time alone’ doesn’t mean being totally alone all the time, or even every day--it just means being able to spend some time alone happily and constructively. Just that. This can be doing some absorbing work, or just chilling out with a movie. All that matters is feeling good about ourselves, and I very often feel good when I am on my own.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 2 Mar 2006
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It is never too late to give up your prejudices.
-- Henry David Thoreau