Are you feeling the pressure of aloneliness? How to recognise it and take action
It’s the New Year and most people will have had a whirlwind of a Festive season. The level of busyness cranks up for many and there is very little time to be truly alone- even in these times. Culturally we don’t value time alone and tend to fear it, a sign that we have a problem and might feel lonely. Yet the there is often a tension between having a full life and having time to just ‘be’. This tension has been researched by Robert J. Coplan and colleagues in a concept they call ‘aloneliness’.
Here I explain how this cultural narrative has resulted in so many people feeling exhausted and how we can shift the narrative and our behaviours to one that is more balanced.
The word a-loneliness has been defined as a negative feeling that arises when a person does not have enough time alone. It is the antithesis of loneliness when someone feels too alone. Coplan refers to the paradox of solitude where we recognise the benefits of time alone, such as in meditation, but at the same time perceive being alone negatively in most areas of our lives. Being too busy and not getting enough time alone can have an impact on mental health. If you are feeling tense or your mood is low, with just too much to do, could you be feeling alonely?
The need to ‘do’
We are all aware of FOMO- Fear Of Missing Out which seems to have burrowed inside us. We twitch when we aren’t doing what others are doing. Not to have adventures means we are having a miserable life. There are of course lots of benefits to socialising, and doing new and novel things. It stimulates our brains and builds complexity.
Of course, this is generalising. Not everyone has a hectic life, and not everyone lives by the mantra of FOMO. But enough people do to warrant examining the feeling of aloneliness. Research has found that feeling alonely is negatively correlated to wellbeing, meaning if you feel you really need some time alone but just can’t get it, it affects your health. Just how it affects you depends on how much solitude you really want. If you don’t get the balance right it becomes a problem.
Benefits of alone time
We seem to easily forget that our brains need time to process data and time alone helps it do that. When was the last time you did nothing? I don’t mean watch T.V. or look at your phone. I mean do nothing. Just sit or stand and have no activity to do. Some people like to meditate and that’s a good way to calm your nervous system. Being alone helps us reflect and it is important for our identities. When we have no time to connect to ourselves we don’t know who we are. Even highly sociable people benefit from a little time alone.
Of course, too much time alone can lead to loneliness and is equally not good for wellbeing. The problem we have is the social narrative is a bit one sided. It raises issues of spending too much time alone but does not encourage us to spend any time alone.
Solitude is a state of mind rather than a state of being. That means you don’t actually have to be totally alone to be in solitude. If you go for a walk in the park at lunchtime there are other people about, even work colleagues, but you can absorb yourself in your own space.
Finding the sweet spot
We all have different level of needs between being alone and not being alone. There is no one formula, we need to work out our own balance. This is called the Goldilocks Hypothesis. Only we can find the ‘just right’ bowl of aloneness!
But first we need to change the narrative. For instance, we assume adolescent time alone is always negative and a sign of withdrawal, but studies have shown that time alone is really good for their mental health, and helps adolescents work out who they are and become more independent. It is a necessary part of growing up. But it doesn’t stop at this age. Adults of all ages need to find the balance that is right for them. We need to change the narrative to one that welcomes time alone.
Building the capability to find that ‘just right’ space of aloneness
If you don’t already I would encourage you to do some focused meditations. This may just be a few minutes a day, and will help you tune into your emotions and thoughts. It’s not about doing mantras and doing full blown meditation because you are stressed, but about noticing how you are and what you need. This will strengthen your ability to spot when you need time alone during times of busyness.
Try this exercise by Eugene Gendline who developed the area of focusing:
Sit quietly and ask yourself: what’s between me and feeling fine?
Don’t answer intellectually, just sit and pay attention to the feelings in your body. Let your body answer in its own time.
When something comes up that you are curious about, think about the quality of the felt sense: explore the feeling and shape of it.
What one word would best describe it? Find the right fit between the feeling and word.
Then ask “What is it about the whole problem that makes it so [word}?”
What would it feel like it if was ok? Let the body answer this.
Doing this regularly will help you tune into your felt sense and notice what is going on more easily.
Expand your vocabulary
Sometimes we don’t know how to explain how we feel because we don’t have the right words. By learning more words we expand our range of experiences. When you are able to more easily put a label to the times when it is enjoyable when you are busy from times when it is too much, and when time alone is and isn’t enjoyable, you start to build your conceptual knowledge base. You can then quickly notice when you are falling into aloneness, or loneliness, and that awareness will help you change it.
Keep a diary
For a few weeks make a regular note of how your day went, times when you were enjoying things and times when you were not. Notice when you felt too busy, not busy enough, days when you had a good balance, and days when there was too much of one thing or another. Find the pattern so you can work out how to optimise the ‘just right’ amount of time alone.
Enlist the help of others to create new habits
The chances are that you are super busy because you have lots of responsibility. Other people are involved in your life and you can’t just stop doing things. Who can you turn to when you need help to find the balance? Speak to them about wanting to even out the right about of time alone and time not alone. Find new ways to do things that allow you to maintain better balance.
Take up a creative hobby
When undertaking a creative task, such as knitting or painting, it draws you into concentrating on the activity even if you are in a room with other people. So if time totally alone seems untenable, can you find time to do a simple craft exercise which allows you to concentrate on what you are doing? You could make something to sell, or make all the cards for the family birthdays. Doing something creative, spending time in solitude, and having something productive at the end seems like a win-win!
Still feeling unsure that solitude is a good thing anyway?
In research it was found that for those who created a habit out of solitude and normalised time alone, they began to change their attitude to it. It became less negative and more welcome. It doesn’t matter what you do when alone, and you can keep busy with gardening or reading (although I wouldn’t suggest spending time on social media as that is a whole other mental health issue!). What matters is taking some time to be with yourself and be comfortable with that.
Coplan, R.J. et al. (2021). Social Withdrawal and Aloneliness in Adolescence: Examining the Implications of Too Much and Not Enough Solitude. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 50. 1219-1233
Coplan, R.J. et al. (2019). Seeking more solitude: Conceptualization, assessment, and implications of Aloneliness. Personality and Individual Differences, 148. 17-26
Coplan, R.J. (2018). Leave Well Enough Alone? The Costs and Benefits of Solitude. In J.E. Maddux (Ed.). Well-being and Life Satisfaction. Routledge.
Gendlin, E. T. (2003). Focusing: How to gain direct access to your body’s knowledge. (25th Anniversary edition). Rider
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