This post is the last of a four-part series.
So, no, life is not a solo journey. Instead, it’s a balance of togetherness and separateness. If you’re still not a believer, consider what happens if we take the phrase “solo journey” literally. Try spending all of your time alone and see how that works for you.
It hasn’t worked well for prisoners. Since torture is no longer a legal form of penal discipline, the most toxic punishment meted out to prisoners is solitary confinement. Most cannot handle it; many experience irrevocable damage to their mental health. Too much separateness is not viable.
Neither is too heavy a dose of togetherness. As a recent study reveals, more important than whether you are an extrovert or an introvert is how you value autonomy—the need for time alone to renew your energy so you can enjoy your time with others. As it turns out, introverts often do not enjoy time alone more than extroverts. Why? Their time alone is often a reaction to their feelings of discomfort in social interactions.
This phenomenon relates to why, as Sarah Wright of the University of Canterbury and I found in a recent study, loneliness is not the objective act of being alone, but a subjective, distressing feeling associated with the perception that your relationships are not as robust and meaningful as you desire them to be. For this reason, too much togetherness—continually being surrounded by others—can lead to more loneliness than being alone.
How, then, can we strike this balance between togetherness and separateness? Pay attention to what your emotions are telling you. Remember, you only experience an emotional state when something is important to you. If you did not highly value social relationships, you would never feel lonely.
To strike this ethereal balance, attune to the moments in your day or week when you feel lonely. Ask your loneliness, “Why have you shown up?” and “What are you here to teach me?” Then reconsider how you are going about your social life and make some changes.
If you are attempting to become closer to someone who replies to your phone calls with a text, acknowledge that this relationship is unlikely to provide the buffer against loneliness that comes from meaningful social connection. Instead, use this time to develop relationships with people who may not be as “cool” and popular, but are genuine, kind, possess values aligned with your own and, most importantly, are willing to reciprocate your efforts.
Conversely, recognize when you are in need of solitude to renew and revitalize your social energy. Acknowledge that while loneliness is a negative, distressing emotion associated with being alone, solitude is a positive, strengthening emotion associated with being alone. Design periods throughout your day and week for meaningful aloneness when you are feeling strong and resilient.
One of the primary mistakes many of us make is to take time to think about our lives when we are feeling weak. Have you ever stayed home sick from school or work and then started thinking about your life and larger goals?
Big mistake. In these moments, our physical weakness transmutes into a negative emotional lens that casts a dark pall over anything and everything in our lives. You muse about your larger goals and thoughts emerge such as, “I’ll never reach that goal—it’s just too much of a stretch,” or “If I try to do that, other people will see that I’m an impostor.”
To create the self-relationship you need to truly become your best self, carve out daily times for aloneness when you tend to feel strong, such as after exercising, singing, dancing or spending time with a good friend. Allow your physiological, sensory feelings of strength to set the stage for an ideation about your life that is suffused with positive, fortifying energy that leads your thoughts not toward what you can’t do, but what you can.
As University of Arizona management professor Allison Gabriel found in a recent study, your loneliness can act as a negative source of rumination that cascades you further into a hole of depression you will have trouble exiting from. Alternatively, it can serve as a positive source of motivation to reengineer how you approach your relationships.
What does this distinction depend on? Whether you believe in your ability to develop the relationships you need to survive and thrive in your life. To invite these positive beliefs into your consciousness, create regular periods for time alone that are more likely to be permeated with strength. Conversely, avoid extensive thinking during the daily moments when your thoughts tend to be dampened by pessimism and negativity.
With these strategies in mind, you can transform your loneliness from the dampening emotion that once propelled you into a downward spiral of awkward social encounters followed by rumination and self-doubt. Instead, your loneliness can become an impetus for renewing your relationships and experiencing the social growth you desire. With your personal development and social progress as companions, your life will no longer feel like a solo journey.