- Although many struggle with being alone, it is part of the human condition.
- Recent findings suggest that adults who frequently seek solitude time use specific strategies to make time alone enjoyable and constructive.
- Time alone gives us a chance to direct our attention to self-care and self-discovery.
There’s no denying we are social creatures. Yet being alone is also part of the human condition. Some psychologists consider solitude a basic human need just as important as relationships (Buchholz, 1997) and view the ability to be alone as a sign of healthy emotional development (Winnicott, 1958).
However, many people struggle with being alone. Some find it boring, lonely, or anxiety-inducing. Others are objectively isolated and wish they weren’t alone. Still, others crave solitude but can’t find the time or space for it.
Despite these barriers, many of us could benefit from learning how to have a better experience of solitude, whether we enter into it by choice or not. The problem is that we often don’t know how.
It Takes Skill
Researchers have speculated that there must be skills associated with the capacity to be alone, just as people learn social skills to navigate the world of relationships successfully. Recent findings suggest that this is indeed the case. Analysis of interviews with adults who frequently sought out time in solitude (but weren’t lonely) revealed that they use specific strategies to make time alone a constructive, enjoyable experience.
Connect With Yourself
Positive solitude appears to be rooted in self-connection. Rather than focusing on other people, time alone gives us a chance to direct our attention to self-care and self-discovery. The adults in this study shared that this happens in three ways:
Skill 1: Enjoy solitary activities. People who enjoy solitude find a lot of satisfaction and meaning from solitary pursuits—whether that’s getting absorbed in a hobby, reading for pleasure, or getting out in nature by themselves. They rarely experience boredom when they’re alone and genuinely enjoy their own company while doing things they find interesting.
Skill 2: Feel and regulate your emotions. In the initial space of solitude, buried emotions, memories, or problems can surface. Rather than avoid distressing feelings, we can learn to engage in what psychologists call integrative emotion regulation in which we approach those emotions with curiosity. We can use the privacy of our alone time to explore our feelings without judgment. Accepting and expressing these emotions safely helps us self-regulate and release stress.
Skill 3: Be introspective. People who enjoy solitude are willing to self-reflect. They spend time considering their behavior patterns, reflecting on their values, or contemplating the bigger picture. Introspection is not the same as rumination, where our thoughts turn over the same material without resolution or go round and round about situations we can’t control. In contrast, introspection invites self-awareness, bringing us closer to insight about who we are.
Protect Your Time
This set of skills creates structure and boundaries for solitude to occur.
Skill 4: Make time to be alone. Benefiting from solitude starts with carving out time in the first place, a skill that can be difficult when balancing relationships and work. Often it means negotiating with your partner or family for time and space to be alone. It helps to explain that everyone will benefit if you get some time to yourself, because you’ll feel recharged and ready to reconnect.
Skill 5: Be mindful of how time in solitude is spent. Using alone time “well” means different things to different people, but the crux of this skill is paying attention to what you actually need out of your time alone. Scrolling on social media or watching television may feel restorative after a stressful day at work… or it may distract you from more fulfilling pursuits.
Skill 6: Validate the need for solitude. This skill is especially relevant for people who were raised in families or societies (like the U.S.) that value extraversion more than introversion. In these cases, the desire for solitude is often framed by the culture as a deficit, as something that is odd or antisocial. This skill helps us recognize the bias in these cultural messages and reframe solitude as healthy and normal.
Find a Balance
The final two skills involve the ability to create a healthy balance of time in solitude and time with others.
Skill 7: Listen to your solitude signals. Feeling drained? Irritated? Tempted to hide in a closet for a few minutes just for some peace and quiet? These are all cues that the outside world overstimulates you—too many people, activities, or demands on your time for too long. Our bodies send us predictable signals when we’ve hit our limit and need some time alone. The adults in this study said they learned over time that heeding those signals pays off—when they gave themselves the solitude they needed, they avoided those states of depletion even in small doses.
Skill 8: Know when to exit solitude. It is equally important to know when it’s time to leave solitude and seek the company of others. The two most common cues are boredom and loneliness, signaling that you are actually understimulated rather than overstimulated, and that the solitude you craved earlier has likely served its purpose. It is also possible to be alone for too long. If you begin to feel isolated or your thoughts turn to self-harm, then break your solitude and reach out to someone who can support you.
These eight skills are probably not an exhaustive list. They were based on a small, exploratory study with adults living in North America. Additional skills may be identified when considering a range of cultures, personal histories, and circumstances. Nevertheless, it's one more step toward understanding how we can embrace solitude in our everyday lives and make the most of it.
Buchholz, E. (1997). The call of solitude: Alonetime in a world of attachment. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Roth, G., Vansteenkiste, M., & Ryan, R. M. (2019). Integrative emotion regulation: Process and development from a self-determination theory perspective. Development and Psychopathology, 31, 945-956. DOI: 10.1017/S0954579419000403
Thomas, V. (2021). Solitude skills and the private self. Qualitative Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/qup0000218
Winnicott, D. W. (1958). The capacity to be alone. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 416-420.