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How to Be Alone with Yourself

Solitude can feel like liberation or captivity depending on our mental state.

Key points

  • The feeling of solitude can be deeply enjoyable.
  • Sometimes, being alone allows us to be trapped in our own minds.
  • Someone experiencing self-loathing will find solitude unbearable, but may also be used to it.
  • To break free from self-loathing and enjoy the freedom of being alone takes focus and effort.
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Sometimes, we choose solitude.

We may need time to ourselves or have projects best completed away from others. We may also, paradoxically, prefer solitude because our connection to others, in our own minds, at least, is better when we are alone. It is difficult, for instance, to imagine a poet writing a love poem in the presence of the beloved. Physical separation may distill affection to its essence, its purest form.

More importantly, there is a kind of freedom in solitude that we rarely if ever experience in the company of other people. The presence of another is a limit on freedom. Nietzsche wrote that some people steal our solitude without offering us company. There is truth to that. Whether foregoing solitude is a good idea depends on what we get in return. Exchanging freedom for deep human connection is generally worth it. Trading it for superficial communication may be worth it only for people with a particular temperament.

It is not only superficial communication that may be less desirable than solitude. Relationships that involve hostility and little closeness may be so as well. We are lonelier with some people than we would be by ourselves. Those who choose to be alone regularly, and who sometimes get branded “loners,” are likely people who are acutely aware of the costs in freedom that the company of another imposes, as well as of the uncertainty of the reward.

Unchosen Solitude

At other times, solitude, with all its freedom, is involuntary and undesired. In the novella Alone, sometimes translated as Days of Loneliness, August Strindberg describes a solitary middle-aged man for whom loneliness has become such a burden that he experiences the chatter of a young family next door that reaches him through the walls of his apartment as a kind of lifeline: if he is destined to spend his life alone, at least he can imbibe the sounds of the togetherness of others.

Can a person in this position find company? Probably, though sometimes, this becomes increasingly difficult with time as people who live alone may become used to complete freedom and require a lot in exchange for sacrificing it.

We may also feel alone without solitude. For instance, we may experience isolation on account of having a terrible secret or carrying a burden no one else knows about. People in such circumstances may be surrounded by others who love them and whom they love in turn. In some cases, no amount of love suffices. Burdens borne in private—whether they be secrets or hardships—often lead to profound isolation. If you are dying and no one knows, it may seem to you that an impassable ravine separates you from everyone else.

In those cases, sharing with others, if we can muster the strength to do so, may help, though admittedly, some burdens—death, for instance, cannot be fully shared. We all die alone, though it helps to have a loved one hold our hand.

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Young woman touching mirror in autumn forest
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There is, however, a variety of painful loneliness that’s almost entirely self-imposed. The cause of it is self-loathing. Negative feelings for oneself may lead both to solitude and to loneliness. I will take these in turn.

While egomania is not attractive in the long run—though it may be appealing in the short term as it gives rise to self-confidence and a kind of energy and desire for life we often like in others—people at the opposite end of the spectrum, those chronically prone to negative self-evaluation, may have trouble maintaining friendships as well. This is for various reasons but perhaps, the main one is this: if we don’t like ourselves, we may have a tendency to interpret everything another says as either validation or rejection. When in the company of people who don’t like themselves, we instinctively feel that we are not allowed to relax. We worry that anything we say could be interpreted as a slight, or otherwise as a lack of respect or lack of love. This can be exhausting. Few are willing to “play a therapist” for another regularly, and a need that one’s friend do so makes a friendship asymmetric.

There is another, and possibly deeper, reason why self-loathing leads to loneliness. Negative self-evaluation makes us lonely in our own company. It sours and spoils solitude for us. We cannot enjoy its freedoms. We do not have those freedoms, in fact. The solitude of a self-loather is unfree. It resembles, rather, a relationship with a tyrant that one cannot escape, because the tyrant is in one’s own head. Self-loathers may succeed in silencing the oppressive inner voice temporarily when in the company of a person who cares for them, but as soon as they are left to their own devices, they resume the psychological analogue of self-flagellation.

Is There Anything That Can Be Done?

Sometimes, our perspective on ourselves is distorted: we fail to see things in proportion and become excessively focused on a minor flaw that appears big only in our own eyes, a tendency that, in another context, I call “flaw fixation.” In that case, an attempt to simply look at the matter more objectively is often what’s needed. We may ask ourselves why we believe forgetting someone's birthday makes us a terrible person while we don’t think the same lapse in memory would say anything about another person's character. Reflecting on questions such as this may help disrupt the pattern of negative self-evaluation.

Of course, changing the way we think about a matter does not automatically change the way we feel about it, and it is the feeling that, in the end, undermines wellbeing. Nonetheless, changing thoughts is a start.

At other times, we pick up on genuine flaws in ourselves that ought to be corrected, but instead of correcting them, we pour our energy into self-criticism. For instance, a person may spend hours blaming herself for not working instead of simply working, while another may excoriate himself for a falling out with a valued friend instead of trying to smooth things over.

Why do we do that? I would conjecture that it is because we come to embrace our own pattern of self-loathing. It is as though we are in an abusive relationship with ourselves, and we've grown accustomed to that relationship's cold comforts. We know its ins and outs. We prefer the cycle of self-abuse to taking a risk and improving our lives. We take refuge in the familiar.

That is the trap. Another person forgives our failings after we've been punished. Self-loathers don't forgive their own. Their self-punishment is never enough, somehow. It continues day after day, because they don't want it to end. Ending it would mean releasing oneself from one's own inner tyrant. Then one must ask, for the first time, "Where to now?" And one must accept the risks and uncertainties of freedom.

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