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September 2013

THE VALUE AND SCARCITY OF SOLITUDE

Margaret L. Stoll, Ph.D.

As a society, we increasingly value contact and communication. The growing number of options to talk, text, twitter, get on-line, email, or chat, indicates our desire to ‘be connected.’ Social networks such as Facebook both demonstrate and foster the trend toward greater public display and sharing of personal thoughts and actions. While there are myriad uses for and benefits to this ubiquitous rapid availability and transparency, the consequences also should be considered.

One problem is the scarcity of solitude. It is not uncommon to hear of people feeling fear or panic when realizing that they are without their cell phones or have lost internet connection. Even when alone, people are often watching television, DVDs or Blu-ray, listening to the radio, podcasts or MP3 players, playing video or computer games or using their computers. Admittedly, all of these devices serve a function but simultaneously they interfere with a person being alone and responding to themselves rather than ‘being entertained.’

Being alone allows us to learn about ourselves, to discover our own preferences, pleasures, thoughts and rhythms. Many people have personalities or lifestyles whereby they accommodate or acquiesce to others. Being alone offers, if not forces upon them, an opportunity to know themselves in another way without the need to modify or suppress in order to please or care for another.

Ultimately, in order to ‘choose’ to share one’s life with another person we must be able to tolerate being alone. Otherwise it is not a choice but a necessity to avoid being alone in order to survive. But with the ability to choose we can be objective enough to select someone with whom we will be compatible.

Even within a relationship there are benefits to solitude. By having separate time and experiences we have more to bring to the relationship. We must be able to be alone or separate in order to fully know and appreciate ‘the other’ for who they are and not just as an extension or caretaker of ourselves.

The developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Eric Erikson defined the primary task of human psychosocial development during the infant’s first year of life as the need to develop basic trust. For this trust to develop the baby must have an adequate amount of alone time alleviated by generous amounts of physical and emotional closeness with its caretaker. Through this, the baby learns to trust its ability to withstand the alone times and that mother does return.

As adults we also benefit from trusting and valuing solitude. Many forms of artistic creativity require solitude and attunement to one’s knowledge and skill. Introspection, which by definition implies being alone with one’s inner thoughts and feelings, facilitates insight and growth.

Even in this densely populated, technologically driven world, there are things we can do to experience the benefits of solitude. They can be as simple as taking a walk, minus the headphones. A hike through nature can be even more conducive to reflection, relaxation and mindfulness, which is the act of directing one’s focus on the present moment. Writing spontaneous thoughts in a journal or meditation also fosters attention to our inner life.

Ironically, psychotherapy can be a catalyst to knowing oneself and getting comfortable being alone. In a one-on-one therapeutic relationship both people are focused on understanding, supporting and improving the well-being of one person. Often, through psychotherapy, a person becomes more comfortable being alone as he or she has less need to avoid the painful thoughts and feelings that surface when not distracted and engaged.

Solitude, balanced with connection and interaction with others, enhances the individual and the qualities they bring to our community. We would do well to be mindful of this and to encourage alone activities including breaks from our technology; televisions, telephones and computers. Accordingly, we may discover how interesting and satisfying we, alone, can be.

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Dr. Stoll is a Clinical Psychologist practicing in Redondo Beach and Glendale. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. Dr. Stoll can be reached at (310) 375-3607 or margaret.stoll@gmail.com

Copyright 2013 by Margaret L. Stoll, Ph.D.
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