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Overcoming the Fear of Solitude: 10 Thoughts

Some prefer a mild electric shock to solitude; gratitude may be the answer.

 © Rita Watson 2017
Source: © Rita Watson 2017

Has the fear of solitude kept you from hearing the sound of your own inner voice? Silence and solitude, it seems, come too close to being alone and lonely. Explored in the writings of psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Dr. Carl Jung, we have been reading about solitude recently in interviews given by Jack Fong, Ph.D., a sociologist at California State Polytechnic University. Dr. Fong encourages people “to explore their solitude," and his views have appeared recently in "Virtues of Isolation," The Atlantic.

Some people are so averse to solitude -- time spent just relaxing or thinking -- that in one experiment reported there were participants who opted to give themselves a mild electric shock rather than be deprived of "external sensory stimuli." Scientific American "People Prefer Electric Shocks to Tedium." It was based on a study from Timothy D. Wilson, Ph.D., a social psychologist at the University of Virginia.

For Science, Wilson et al. reported on a series of studies which noted that participants preferred mundane external activities to being alone in a room for 6 to 15 minutes “with nothing to do but think.”

College student participants were asked to spend time by themselves with no cell phones and no writing implements. They were tasked to sit in a chair, to stay awake, and "to spend the time entertaining themselves with their thoughts."

Researchers asked participants to rate how much they enjoyed being in a room with nothing to do. Of 409 participants, nearly half said that they did not like the experience. When asked to do the same at home for six to 15 minutes, a third said that they had cheated.

[Researchers found that what made thinking difficult was the participants' focus on their own shortcomings.]

Without training in techniques such as meditation, it seems that it is difficult "to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there." As such, people prefer "doing to thinking." Science Magazine.

I was reminded of a story in Morton Kelsey’s work, The Other Side of Silence: Meditation for the Twenty-first Century. An Episcopal priest and Jungian therapist, he tells of a minister on the verge of a nervous breakdown who went to Dr. Jung for help. The prescription given to him was this: “Work just eight hours a day and sleep eight.”

Instead the minister read books, listened to music, and remained frazzled. Dr. Jung is said to have admonished, “But you didn’t understand. I don’t want you with Herman Hess or Thomas Mann or even Mozart or Chopin. I wanted you alone with yourself.” (Also discussed in A Serenity Journal: 52 Weeks of Prayer and Gratitude, Watson, 2000.)

Overcoming the fear of solitude and silence

Many of us are afraid of solitude and silence because it is during those moments that we so often meet the side of our personality that we wish we could bury, our shadow side. What often happens with our shadow side is that we transfer a perceived personal inferiority in ourselves onto someone else and view it as the other person's "moral deficiency." Most often, we dislike the person who can be a reflection of an unpleasant aspect of our own personality.

Here are 10 thoughts/ exercises that include facing your shadow side and overcoming the fear of solitude by embracing moments alone with gratitude. It would be helpful if you used a good notebook as a start. Doing so might give you a basis for later thinking about issues, problems, and solutions in solitude without using writing tools.

  1. In a good notebook, list your positive qualities
  2. Next, make a list of your flaws -- be truthful, no one else needs to see this.
  3. Ask your best friend if you really do possess these positive qualities.
  4. Would you dare to ask someone to tell you what he or she sees as flaws?
  5. Review the two lists side by side and think of how you might turn around a flaw to eventually become a part of the positive qualities list.
  6. Express gratitude for yourself, for your positive qualities.
  7. Next express gratitude that you are able to admit to your negative traits which you have the opportunity to change.
  8. Be grateful for the situations that you find challenging, or even distressful, oftentimes good can come from such situations -- as the Phoenix in Greek mythology rising from the ashes.
  9. Be grateful for your surroundings and, if they are not pleasing to you, think of how you might improve them.
  10. Use silence to think about challenges you are facing and begin to think about and visualize solutions.

These ten thoughts require thinking and reflecting. Some of these you can do while out walking -- if you unplug your earphones or turn off music. Use solitude and silence as a way to tune into your positive self and be grateful. It is not a new or unique theory. Those who practice mindfulness or meditation have an advantage in the world of solitude, because in silence they can thrive and achieve a certain peace of mind.

Ponder the words of 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal: "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone."

Copyright 2017 Rita Watson


Wilson, Timothy D. et al, "Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind," Science 04 Jul 2014, Vol. 345, Issue 6192, pp. 75-77 /DOI: 10.1126/science.1250830

Watson, Rita Esposito, A Serenity Journal: Fifty-two Weeks of Prayer and Gratitude, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ., 2000.

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