Phonies Don’t Like Spending Time Alone; Authentic People Do

People who are true to themselves tend to enjoy their own company.

Posted Jun 28, 2020

You know them when you see them – the phonies in your life. Maybe they are sycophants. They laugh too loudly at unfunny jokes. They say things you know they don’t believe, because they think that then, other people will like them. Or the “right” other people will like them, the ones they are trying to impress. They are trying too hard.

That may be too harsh. We all care at least a little about what other people think, even if we insist that we don’t. Trying to fit in is understandable, and probably has its advantages. But compared to understanding who you really are, and then living accordingly, it also has its costs.

You probably don’t like being with people who seem inauthentic. It’s uncomfortable. Well guess what? They don’t like spending time with themselves either. That’s one of the costs of phoniness – it is no fun being alone with yourself.

In contrast, people who are authentic have a great big advantage: they like their own company. Spending time alone doesn’t scare them. They don’t worry about being lonely. Their alone time is something they value. It is important to them and they benefit from it.

How Do We Know Who’s Authentic?

I’ve been learning about the psychology of truly enjoying your solitude from Thuy-vy Nguyen, a social psychologist at Durham University in the UK. I’ve already shared her work with “Living Single” readers in two previous posts, here and here.

Nguyen measures authenticity with the Index of Autonomous Functioning. The index includes three sets of items. Here are some examples:

Congruence: Your actions are consistent with who you really are

  • “My decisions represent my most important values.”
  • “My actions are congruent with who I really am.”
  • “My whole self stands behind the important decisions I make.”

Resistance: You are less susceptibility to being pressured or controlled by others

Resistant people disagree with items such as these:

  • “I believe certain things so that others will like me.”
  • “I do things in order to avoid feeling badly about myself.”
  • “I try to manipulate myself into doing certain things.”

Curiosity: You are interested in your own feelings and reactions, even the unsettling ones

  • “I am interested in why I act the way I do.”
  • “I am deeply curious when I react with fear or anxiety to the events in my life.”
  • “I like to investigate my feelings.”

Nguyen’s belief is that people who fit these three descriptions – their behaviors are consistent with who they really are, they are not that vulnerable to social pressures, and they are curious about themselves – will be the kinds of people who truly enjoy spending time alone. Their solitude is something they savor for its own sake. They are not just running away from other people because other people unnerve or annoy them.

How Do We Know Authentic People Really Like Being Alone and Aren’t Just Hiding from Other People?

Nguyen and her colleagues asked the people in their studies, just after they had spent some time by themselves, why they had spent that time alone. Those who truly valued and enjoyed solitude agreed with statements like these:

  • “I found it enjoyable to be in my own company.”
  • “I was alone because having time to myself is an important part of my day.”
  • “I was alone because solitude is one of the things I value in my life.”

Taken together, those kinds of attitudes represent what Nguyen calls “autonomy for solitude.” Your time alone is a choice. It’s autonomous. You want to spend time alone, for positive reasons. You aren’t getting pressured or forced into it.

In four studies, Nguyen and her colleagues Netta Weinstein and Richard Ryan first asked participants to complete several personality scales. The Index of Autonomous Functioning (measuring authenticity) was always one of them. Introversion was always another. Sometimes other measures were included, too.

Then, the participants answered survey items every day for somewhere between 5 and 14 days. The “autonomy for solitude” items were always included.

In all four studies, it was the authentic, autonomous people who were especially likely to say that they had been spending time alone because they enjoyed and valued having time to themselves. Inauthentic people, who I call the phonies, were especially unlikely to be alone because they wanted to be. They were less likely to find the time they spent with themselves to be important or valuable or beneficial.

In two of the studies, Nguyen and her colleagues asked participants about other reasons for spending time alone that could be more about avoiding other people rather than enjoying the time you have with yourself. Participants indicated the extent to which they agreed with statements such as:

  • “Today I wanted to be by myself rather than with others.”
  • “Today I had a strong desire to get away from others to be by myself.”

Those kinds of sentiments indicate a “preference for aloneness.” Those people want to be alone, but not necessarily because they genuinely enjoy and value their solitude.

In both studies, authenticity had nothing to do with that sort of preference for solitude. Authentic people were not any more or less likely to want to get away from other people. Their alone time was more about what they got out of being alone, apart from any consideration of whether they wanted to be with other people.

You Can Like Your Time Alone – or Not Like It – Regardless of Whether You Are an Introvert or an Extravert

In her studies, Nguyen measured introversion by asking participants how they see themselves. Introverts were those who were very unlikely to see themselves as outgoing, talkative, assertive, or full of energy. They were much more likely to see themselves as reserved, quiet, shy, or inhibited.

Introverts, who are reserved and sometimes shy, were not any more or less likely to enjoy their time alone than the more extraverted people, who are outgoing and talkative. You can be outgoing and talkative and full of energy, and still very much want and appreciate and enjoy spending time alone. Some outgoing people savor their solitude and others do not.

What does seem to matter is whether you are an authentic person, who is not easily buffeted by other people’s pressures or expectations or attempts to control you. If you are authentic and autonomous, you probably genuinely enjoy your time alone.

Curiosity About Yourself: Why Should That Have Anything to Do With Liking Your Alone Time?

The characteristics measured by the Index of Autonomous Functioning include more than just authenticity and resistance to social pressures. People who are dispositionally autonomous are also curious about their own emotional experiences.

I wondered, at first, whether that meant that when they looked inside, they liked what they saw. Judging from the items, though, that does not seem to be the whole story. For example, autonomous people tend to agree with the statement, “I am deeply curious when I react with fear or anxiety to the events in my life.” They get rattled, just like everyone else. But even when life is upsetting to them, they don’t try to run away from their own thoughts or emotions. They sit with those unpleasant feelings, alone, and try to figure out what it all means.

Some scholars believe that there are different kinds of introversion, and the kind that is about socializing (not being outgoing) is just one of them. Jonathan Cheek and Jennifer Grimes, for example, described several different kinds of introverts (discussed here), including “introspective introverts.” Those introspective or thinking introverts agree with statements such as:

  • “I have a rich, complex inner life.”
  • “I generally pay attention to my inner feelings.”

That sounds a lot like the curiosity of dispositionally autonomous people. Maybe, then, it is only the social kind of introversion that is irrelevant to the genuine enjoyment of solitude.

When I write about Nguyen’s research again, I will explain how it has helped me understand people who are single at heart. (I’m one of them.) There was something about the way some of them talked about their lives that I had found perplexing until now.

References

Nguyen, T. T., Weinstein, N., & Ryan, R. (2018, August 20). Unpacking the “Why” of Time Spent Alone: Who Prefers and Who Chooses it Autonomously?