The Power of Solitude

Spending time alone with ourselves may not be easy or even desirable. But it’s key to getting to know who we really are.

Illustration by Marta Sevilla

Most of us are afraid to be alone.

I’m talkin’ no cell phone, no Wi-Fi alone. When was the last time you were by yourself and didn’t try to sweeten, avoid, or supercharge the moment? Were you fearful, anxious, or hungry for something more?

We are awash in studies telling us that we need each other to survive and to be happy. And it’s true, we do. But when we lose the ability to be alone with ourselves, our overstimulated nervous systems suffer from no place to rest and recharge. Self-imposed solitude triggered by social anxiety, schizophrenia, or other psychological disorders can constitute a health risk, says psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Mary V. Seeman in a review published in 2016 in the journal Psychosis. “But,” she writes, “[solitude]  can also reap benefits such as recovery of a sense of self, renewed harmony with nature, escape from sensory overload, stimulation of creativity, or awakening to spirituality.”

Our mind is expert at taking bits of information and creating a storyline. One of those stories is that being alone is so terrifying, anything else is preferable.

Mindfulness helps cultivate this beneficial solitude, which has psychological and physiological perks. When we practice anchoring our attention to a single focus like the breath, the body and nervous system gear down from operating in relentlessly high-stress states. Without cortisol and adrenaline pumping you into high alert your body has better conditions to relax. In this more peaceful state you can enjoy a slower pace to look around and experience a wider array of life. You’re able to let go, to not feel afraid to be alone, which means you’re no longer grasping at ways to push away your fear. You can begin to enjoy what it’s like to be with yourself and feel calm. And as you learn to be alone you can learn how to be brave and honest with how things are right now. If you can cultivate your ability to be OK with being alone, you may come to appreciate that you can create all the conditions you need to be content with yourself and in life.

Sometimes the unfamiliarity of being alone can feel awkward, painful, or just plain wrong. You may feel like Groucho Marx, who said that he didn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member. The thought of making friends with yourself may feel weak or silly. That’s just another form of fear, which has many faces.

Spend enough time by yourself and you’ll notice all kinds of thoughts bubble up and pass away. Hateful thoughts. Painful thoughts. Fearful thoughts. Our mind is expert at taking bits of information and creating a storyline. One of those stories is that being alone is so terrifying, anything else is preferable.

That’s where time and patience come in. When you first approach this idea it’s natural that you might feel the same aloofness or hesitation you experience in any new relationship, so take it slowly. As you train your ability to be alone, without suspicion or disdain, you may begin to relax. Spending more time with yourself increases your ability to recognize the forces at play in your life. When you contemplate being alone, what do you feel? Are you holding your breath? Are you clenching your stomach, right now, or your jaw? Which emotions are being triggered by your lonely movie? It’s OK to have these feelings; you don’t have to like them.

The next time that the tight squeeze of loneliness commands your attention, let that feeling be your cue: first take a breath; develop an attitude of gentleness and kindness. Be present to whatever you are feeling. Lean into your sadness, your pain, your joy. Let yourself be shy as you gently get to know you. There is nothing to fear when you come to yourself with an understanding heart. Allow yourself the freedom to discover how unlonely being alone can be.

This article appeared in the June 2017 issue of Mindful magazine.