How To Be Alone

The first misconception that requires disproving is one that haunts us every day.

Alone = Lonely

I come from a family of 14 siblings.  Privacy was rare.  But I craved alone time so much more than playtime with my brothers and sisters.  Mother was an extrovert, and felt that everyone else should be an extrovert as well, and so I often got punished for sneaking off and reading a book, or climbing a tree as high as I could so no one could find me.  Mother never trusted me for that reason.  She felt I was “hiding” something.  She was the sort to demand to know your every waking through, and would interrogate us mercilessly for nuggets of information.  It’s perhaps redundant to say that she and I did not see eye-to-eye on much anything.

As a self-avowed introvert, I cherish my alone time, and have never felt lonely.  So why does society have such a hard time with those of us who prefer our own company over the company of others?

There is a serious cultural problem with solitude. Being alone in our present society raises an important question about identity and well-being. 

How have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world, at least, at a cultural moment which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfillment and human rights, and above all individualism, more highly than they have ever been valued before in human history, but at the same time these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves? (Sara Maitland, How To Be Alone)

Not only an enormous contradiction, but a conundrum as well.

We apparently believe that we own our own bodies as possessions and should be allowed to do with them more or less anything we choose, from euthanasia to a boob job, but we do not want to be on our own with these precious possessions.

We live in a society which sees high self-esteem as a proof of well-being, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person.

We see moral and social conventions as inhibitions on our personal freedoms, and yet we are frightened of anyone who goes away from the crowd and develops ‘eccentric’ habits.

We believe that everyone has a singular personal ‘voice’ and is, moreover, unquestionably creative, but we treat with dark suspicion (at best) anyone who uses one of the most clearly established methods of developing that creativity – solitude.

We think we are unique, special and deserving of happiness, but we are terrified of being alone.

We declare that personal freedom and autonomy is both a right and good, but we think anyone who exercises that freedom autonomously is ‘sad, mad or bad’. Or all three at once.

In 1980, US census figures showed 6 per cent of men over forty never married; now 16 per cent are in that position . . . ‘male spinsters’ – a moniker that implies at best that these men have ‘issues’ and at worst that they are sociopaths.  

How in the world have we come to this conclusion, that being “alone” equals not only loneliness, but sociopathic behavior as well?  Must we live in fear of being cast out as psychotic based solely on the fact that we prefer to be alone?  (Sara Maitland, How To Be Alone)

I say: absolutely not.

For years, up until the age of 14 when I finally grew weary of such invasion of my privacy and fled home, mother and siblings exhorted me endlessly about partnering up with someone, anyone.  Otherwise I would find myself alone for the rest of my life.

To me, that sounded like a wonderful prospect.  Alone?  Forever?  Sign me up!

But no, it was ‘selfish’ to live on my own and enjoy it.  There must be something terribly wrong if I choose not to live the remainder of my days with another.  Maybe I was a psychopath.

Solitude, the kind we elect ourselves, is met with judgement and enslaved by stigma. It is also a capacity absolutely essential for a full life.


Fear is what brings about such stigmatism from society and alas, our peers.  Others project their own fear of loneliness onto others because they have never figured out how to be truly alone.

While it might be easier in some ways to be paired up with someone — only having to pay half the bills comes to mind — the sheer endurance of such a thing is anathema to those of us who truly thrive in our solitary lives.  We don’t feel compelled to share our every thought or idea or action with someone else.  We are not attention seekers or party people, unless it behooves us to be so.  We have spent so much time and energy exploring our inner landscapes, that we come to realize, at last, that knowing ourselves so deeply and richly is fulfilling and meaningful in their own rights.  We no longer need to put ourselves into the chaos of society and the world at large.

“Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your won presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.” – Alice Koller

A study from the University of Virginia found that many people are so uncomfortable with quiet contemplation that many of them – and especially men – would rather experience minor electrical shocks than spend time alone with their thoughts. Humans inherently are uncomfortable with themselves, and that translates into extreme discomfort at being alone.  And it’s no wonder, as we’re exhorted from birth to fully participate in society.  Not to do so brought trouble down upon our heads.  Negative reinforcement at its finest.

I know Alone well, 

We have spent years together

It’s time for goodbye.

Tyler Knott Greso

In order to enjoy solitude, one must first face those fears that cause us to run willy-nilly back to our comfort zones.  Once we become comfortable hearing our own thoughts, or hearing our own blood as it moves through our bodies, we can then relax into knowing that solitude is a privilege and a blessing for those of us who do not function well or for long in the cacophony of the world.


7 thoughts on “How To Be Alone

  1. Are you & Maria Popova (brainpickings-DOT-org) in cahoots? I had to laugh seeing that you both cited Sara Maitland’s book on the same day! Serendipity is TEH AWSUMOSITY! (And I HAD to go in search of this book!) B-D

  2. After four years of delicious alone time which confused family and friends alike, I have once again succumbed to being around people on a constant basis. It was fun while it lasted. Thanks for your posts. I can be alone guilt free now.

  3. I’m pretty sure I realized I would one day be a writer when I learned that my inner life was SO much more interesting than anything else. 🙂 thank you for your thoughts!

  4. I love this. I love being alone even though I am great at meeting strangers and conversing with them at social gatherings. I can be the life of the party, but I also love backpacking alone, taking myself on dates, eating alone and creating a dream world with myself.

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