Many cultures have a tradition of seeking out extended periods of solitude for spiritual enlightenment and growth, developing physical strength and fortitude, as a rite of passage into manhood, and for psychological health. Americans have largely departed from this healthy practice by overcrowding our lives with electronic media, desperately having to stay in contact with others through Facebook, or compulsive texting, frantic email checking, or plugged into iPods. I have become accustomed to watching a family or a couple sitting on a park bench, in a beautiful sunset, ignoring each other and the sunset, heads down, texting. Our face to face communication skills our deteriorating. We are losing our connections with each other, our world and ourselves. Deliberately taking some time alone can yield many benefits.

There is a difference between being alone, and being lonely. Loneliness is an empty, bitter dull ache; a yearning or longing for companionship. Being alone is peaceful, comfortable, and relaxing. Loneliness is forced upon us; being alone is a choice. Loneliness is dreaded and avoided, sometimes with acts of desperation. Being alone is welcomed. Alone time really means time without distractions, or tending to others, or others thoughts or words in your head. Some people also desperately fill every moment so they don’t have to think, and they are fearful of what they encounter in solitude and slice. Traumatic memories that they normally shut out can intrude. For some, silence is torturous for a good reason.

For others, there are real benefits from spending some time alone- whether it is only an hour or two, or a few weeks or months. If you have a family, an hour or two may be a lot to ask. If you are single, and especially recently so, being alone can be even more important, for your health and well-being, and you can recover from the loss of a relationship by re-framing it as needed down time.

The benefits of solitude include:

1. You experience that you can be alone; you don’t need a relationship to be happy.

Some people make themselves- and others- miserable by staying in a bad relationship. Sometimes the reason for lingering in an unhealthy relationship is fear of being alone. I have to be with someone in order to be someone. Someone is better than no one. I would rather be alone than be with someone unhealthy. A friend or lover is supposed to enrich your life, not be a burden and exhaust you. As a clinician I have talked to women as well as men who have endured horrific physical and emotional abuse because they are more horrified at the thought of being alone than they are scared of being seriously injured or killed by their husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend/lover. Challenge the message that our society imposes on us about the need for a relationship. There is strength and dignity is taking some time between relationships.

2. You can work on yourself.

Alone times measured in weeks, months, or even years can be time for you to take inventory and work on you, including in ways that will make you healthier for your next relationship. Again, in my role as a clinician, a recommendation for people who are new to recovery from addiction is to stay out of relationships for two years. I have talked to couples who are in a disaster because they met in rehab, and got married a month later. This is not going to turn out well. The first year, get a plant (a cactus down not count). A leafy green plant you have to water, trim, and tend to. If the plant is still green at the end of the year, get a fish. If this fish is still swimming after a year, then you are ready to try a relationship. This advice can apply to those who are not burdened by an addiction as well.

3. You can unplug and shut off the stress.

We are under an onslaught of electronically delivered information these days. Try leaving your cell phone at home once a week. Don’t check your email one day a week. Don’t pick up the phone when it rings. Let it go to voice mail, and respond later- when you choose to. This will not be easy for many people. I have asked my Psychology students to go without their phone for as long as they can; most reported severe anxiety and tension, like they were missing out on things. Or they had difficulty functioning, meeting people, or finding places, or making choices unaided. Most were unable to tolerate three days without their phone. All of our electronic devices contribute to anxiety and stress.

4. You can notice things others miss out on.

Some alone time can open your mind up to observations that you normally bypass due to the distraction of others company. Introverts are listeners and observers. We pick up things that others miss out on. This adds to a sense of wonder and awe about everyday things. I love the smell in the air just before it rains, or smelling a bag of fresh ground coffee. When was the last time you paused and noticed something amazing?

5. You learn about people and the world.

How much do you really pay attention to what is going on around you?

Have you ever spent an afternoon people watching? Psychologists do this to research human behaviors- it is called naturalistic observation. It can be done for the sake of your own learning as well. Look for the similarities and differences in people.

6. You can experience gratitude.

What do you have in your life you are grateful for? How often do you take the time to feel happy about what you have, who you are, and where you are in life?

7. Solutions to problems can emerge spontaneously- you will get aha.

You may find solutions which have long eluded you suddenly becoming apparent. The solution was already there, it was obvious, but it was eclipsed by all the noise in your life.

8. You can get projects and tasks done that you have been putting off.

Now is the time to work on that to do list which seems to get longer and longer- not just the one written down, but the one in your head; all the things you want to get done and never find the time for.

There is real value in alone time. If you are an introvert, you already know this. If you are an extravert, you may want to try it to experience more personal growth.

 

Written by David A. Porter, MA, LADC
Private Practice clinician
Adjunct Faculty in Psychology and Criminology
Freelance Behavioral Science writer