Loneliness vs. Solitude

As a psychotherapist I’ve sat with many individuals feeling overwhelmed by or fearing the state of being alone. Some are in relationships, yet struggling to feel connection. Others are fairly new to the area with unfamiliar roommates, or have suddenly found themselves single and alone for the first time. Frequently they have not had the opportunity to become acquainted with and relax into the abundance of gifts that solitude has to offer.

Loneliness and solitude differ in that loneliness is a sense of sadness brought on by feelings of isolation or lack of companionship, and can be felt when in the company of others, while solitude is the state of being alone, it is a period of time one often chooses to enjoy spending alone. Loneliness may occur following a breakup, the loss of a loved one, or any socially disruptive event. It can be a symptom of a social or psychological issue such as chronic depression, and is associated with higher levels of stress, greater risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and a weakened immune system.

Feelings of loneliness resulting from isolation are sometimes a sign that we need to reach out to another, call a friend or family member, strike up a conversation with a stranger, or volunteer in our community. Yet it is also beneficial to make room for some alone time. Solitude, by choice, can be just as important as relationships are in the impact it has on our wellbeing.

Solitude’s Gifts

Solitude is experienced in a wide variety of ways, some of its many rewards include:

A deeper consciousness of oneself – Time to self-reflect can generate more comfort with who you are, greater awareness of what you value, and changes to self-concept.

Increased creativity – Alone time can make space for original thoughts and ideas to emerge and flourish, triggering a flow state.

A greater sense of freedom – The constraints of others will have less or no impact, and their judgments and opinions less influence when in solitude.

A deeper attunement to nature and to the spiritual – Making space to commune with nature, source, God and Goddess enhances feelings of expansion, connection, and reverence for all of life. This openhearted sense of interconnection is a great antidote to loneliness.

“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.” – Bell Hooks

If we know that we have meaningful relations with others, loneliness can be avoided when in solitude. In learning to be happy alone, the happiness we bring to and feel in relationship is strengthened. When we are comfortable with ourselves rather than coming from a place of dependency we enhance one another’s lives.

Some people are naturally quite comfortable being alone while others need to cultivate it. How To Be Alone is a charming and inspirational visual poem by Tanya Davis and Andrea Dorfman:

You With You

“If you are at first lonely, be patient. If you’ve not been alone much, or if when you were, you weren’t okay with it, then just wait…” – Tanya Davis

Mark Nepo writes, “our most frequent obstacle to experiencing the fullness of life” is “our hesitancy”, knowing when to go inward, when to reach out, and having the courage to do so. This hesitancy “keeps us from being either fully alone with life or fully alone with each other”, and that “being half anywhere is the true beginning of loneliness”.

The following from The Book Of Awakening by Nepo is a gentle meditation to help one sense when to reach out and when solitude is called for:

1. Sit quietly and let a point of loneliness that you carry rise to your awareness.

2. Breathe slowly and feel, if you can, which way you need to lean with it: more into yourself or more into the world.

3. Breathe deeply and try to move your heart in that direction.

“Often, in our solitude, we can discover the miracles of life, if we take the time and risk to be alone until the glow of life presents itself.” – Mark Nepo

Solitude can help us to cultivate a sense of gratitude and strengthen empathy. Promoting clearer thinking and the ability to be more present with others are yet two more benefits of solitude.

So the next time you find yourself feeling lonely ask, “can I relax into this moment, can I engage my curiosity if only for just a few minutes, can I give myself permission to spend quality time with myself?” If solitude is an unfamiliar state take baby steps, you may be surprised to find that one day soon you cherish these moments with yourself.

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