In 2002, Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert rented a small hut on a remote island in Indonesia to experience complete isolation after a messy divorce, after the loss of her house, and almost exactly a year after September 11th.
Her story is not unique: millions of people eagerly await planned silent retreats, road-trips, or meditation lessons so that they can finally let go of that something. Gain mental clarity. Get back on their feet.
But alone-time is only popular when it is contingent on that something, when a tragic life event or confusing change leaves a person yearning for order, for peace in their own mind. However, once alone-time is sought out for no particular reason other than to feel joy with oneself, it is an instant stigma: pegged “selfish,” or “pathetic,” or even “lonely.”
But alone is not lonely. Lonely can happen with a lot of people bubbling on the periphery of someone’s life, but not really there to talk, to relate, to listen. Alone is having a firm attachment to the world, yet taking time to grow personally and nurture your soul through independence.
Despite the clear difference, these two words seem to share a mutually negative connotation in society. Afraid of looking like loners, young adults are saving introspective activities like journaling or solo-dates for extreme circumstances: only when that certain something lurks uncomfortably in their minds.
On most occasions, they choose, instead, to get lost in a crowd of people that might never come to understand them or empathize with them as human beings.
But being alone can be empowering without acting as an antidote to anything; seeking such time by yourself is a clear sign that you feel you can always return to a group of people, or person, and receive a compassionate welcome.
In her groundbreaking 1969 study called “The Strange Situation,” psychologist Mary Ainsworth observed a group of infants as their primary caregiver left the room, a stranger came in, the caregiver subbed in for the stranger, and various other combinations of these two individuals were presented. Based on the infant’s level of distress when the caregiver left, as well as the degree of excitement when the caregiver came back, Ainsworth deduced that there were three main attachment styles formulated during childhood: secure, avoidant and ambivalent.
The key indicator of a secure attachment style– most common and preferable among infants– was the young child’s degree of independence when their caregiver was present. Somewhat counterintuitively, infants that were securely attached didn’t mind venturing out of their caregiver’s grasp and exploring their environment.
Thus, when humans instinctively know that they have full emotional support from someone who cares, they stop fearing being left to their own devices. Brent Crane summarizes this notion wonderfully in his article on isolation for The Atlantic: “The difference between solitude as rejuvenation and solitude as suffering is… the ability to come back to social groups when one wants to.”
Not only is independence from others a sign of a positive emotional environment, but it is sometimes an absolute necessity. According to the optimal arousal theory of psychology, a person must sustain a certain level of external and internal stimulation in order to achieve the most “optimal” physical performance and mental well-being.
While this theory is used to justify people’s urge to engage in leisurely activities or, in contrast, ones that make them feel “wired,” the concept should also aid our understanding that spending time by yourself is much-needed and even applaudable.
Since everyone’s optimal arousal threshold is unique, there need not exist a code of conduct for when an individual should and shouldn’t spend time alone.
Alone-time is a biological necessity to maintain homeostasis, just as legitimate as drinking when thirsty and eating when hungry. So, when a person is unable to find time for themselves, they have the potential to initiate a vicious cycle of physical and mental ailments.
Under tight societal restrictions, despite the overwhelming evidence in support of solitude, it can be hard to create new space in your life for focusing inward. However, small adjustments in routine can help transform alone-time into something of a treat, sparked by and sparking joy. For solitude to be associated with joy and not darkness, a shift in our collective mentality also has to occur: accepting that spending time alone is not necessarily contempt for others but respect for the self.
Once this idea is embraced, we can all embark on honest, unapologetic journeys to finding ourselves, together.
Featured image via Negative Space