How to be alone
Many of us dread being alone. We find isolation uncomfortable or downright scary. If you want to know just how eager we are to avoid it, consider a scientific study that offered people a choice between giving themselves electric shocks or being alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes. Believe it or not, many chose the electric shocks.
But here’s the good news: Being alone is a skill. And, just like any other skill, you can get better at it with practice. I want to suggest that honing this skill now can help you get through this pandemic winter. Instead of dreading being alone, you can lean into it.
Whether you’re skipping holidays with your family in an effort to contain the current coronavirus surge, or quarantined in your room because you have Covid-19, you’ve probably felt at least a momentary surge of panic at the idea of being physically cut off from your loved ones for days or weeks or months.
That’s a reasonable feeling: Social distancing is brutal. Full stop. Human beings have evolved over thousands of years to take comfort in one another’s presence, so when we’re isolated, it hurts us on a physiological level.
At the same time, we can probably recognize that some of our fear about being alone is not unique to the current pandemic. It’s a fear that has lurked in us for years, as we’ve forgotten — or perhaps never really learned — how to sit with ourselves, including with our uncomfortable thoughts and emotions.
“I think most of us are afraid to be alone with ourselves because getting to know ourselves is a very fearsome process,” Jack Fong, a sociologist who researches solitude at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, told me. To keep this fear at bay, lots of us have a podcast or TV show constantly playing in the background, or a rotation of friends we call one after another.
Many factors have conspired to make us bad at solitude. They’re mostly not our fault. As Jenny Odell lays out in her book How to Do Nothing, we live in a culture where sociability and constant connectivity are rewarded, and where choosing to be by yourself marks you out as a loser, crazy, possibly immoral.
And when we do find ourselves alone, we’re increasingly at the mercy of an attention economy that bombards us with ever-present, ever-pleasant distractions. With external stimulation always just a click away, it’s never been so easy to avoid our inner worlds. Why would you sit with a feeling like boredom or sadness if you can distract yourself from it by texting a friend, or bingeing a Netflix show, or launching a Zoom call?
And indeed, these technologies are the salves everyone seems to be proposing for pandemic-induced loneliness. Don’t get me wrong: They can be genuinely useful. Like I said, loneliness hurts us physically as well as mentally. I live alone, so to stay sane, I’ve engaged in my fair share of Zoom dance parties.
Nevertheless, these fixes feel unsatisfying because they’re all about how to avoid being alone instead of just, well, being alone. And that avoidance stands to make us even more scared of our solitude. Decades of psychology research have taught us that trying to escape a distressing emotion is a bad long-term strategy; it teaches our brain that we can’t handle that emotion, and our distress actually grows more intense.
So how can we use this opportunity not to escape solitude but to lean into it? We can learn from people who figured out how to do this long before the coronavirus came knocking.
What we can learn from survivors of solitary confinement
For starters, we need to distinguish between voluntary solitude and enforced solitude. Plenty of people who’ve experimented with the former — hermits and monks, philosophers and artists — have worthwhile lessons to teach us about being alone. But it’s people in the latter category whose experience is most instructive for us now.
Consider what Keith LaMar, who’s been in solitary confinement in a supermax prison for 27 years, recently told Mother Jones. I want to be clear that I think solitary confinement is a form of torture that should be abolished, and it makes our self-enforced, tech-enabled isolation look like a walk in the park. There is simply no comparing the two.
Yet LaMar — as well as Jason Rezaian, a journalist who survived solitary confinement in an Iranian prison — have discussed their experiences in the context of the wide-scale quarantining going on now, in an effort to help us through this period. So let’s consider LaMar’s insights:
Being in solitary confinement is really just being thrown upon yourself: You’re running around, just like people do in your regular life, and now all of a sudden you’re confronted with yourself, and find that in a lot of cases you haven’t really put anything into yourself to occupy yourself. Everything is outward directed. That’s what happened to me 27 years ago, and what happens to a lot of guys who are initially thrown into this situation — it’s like being thrown into the ocean. You have to learn how to swim. You have to learn how to deal with yourself.
I’ve been lucky in a lot of ways. My cell has a bookshelf with three shelves, and there’s a table to sit and write. I have a lot of music, books to read. Not to distract myself from myself, but to take me deeper into myself. I paint, I work out, I do yoga, I meditate.
I’ve watched quite a few people fall apart, lose their minds. But I went in another direction. So 27 years later I’m still sound in mind and body and spirit. I attribute that to just reading and cultivating myself. That’s the thing, when you’re thrown upon yourself, you realize you are more equipped than you realized. A lot of the system keeps us from realizing our own power. It’s a good opportunity for people to tap into that. … Hopefully young people being forced to stay home outside of the mainstream curriculum are able to get a glimpse of themselves and start pulling on that thread.
There’s a lot of wisdom in this perspective. In fact, it echoes many of the key observations scholars have made over the years about solitude.
First, there’s the idea that to succeed at solitude, you have to accept that you’re being “thrown upon yourself” — to confront your reality rather than opting for distraction. Then you have to “put something into yourself” — to make solitude a generative practice that takes you deeper into who you are and develops you further.
Matthew Bowker, a Medaille College researcher who studies solitude, says something very similar in The Handbook of Solitude. He notes that being adept at being alone “implies the capacity to generate meaningful and valuable experiences in the internal world, for if one wishes to be when alone and not merely to wither or starve, one must be able to generate and possess some of the vital stuff of being.”
In other words, you’ve got to quit seeing solitude as an experiment in subtraction, and start seeing it as an experiment in addition. What you’re adding is your self — a true self, because at last it’s you who’s building it, not anyone else. You’re no longer looking to other people for their attention or approval.
The psychologist D.W. Winnicott often drew a distinction between the “authentic self” and the “false self.” Without realizing it, he said, we look to other people to scaffold our sense of who we are. It’s they who perform the construction of our identity. When we’re alone — when their judgments and preferences are no longer there to shape our self-concept — it tends to break down. That can be terrifying. But it can also be a gift. Because when the false self falls away, it leaves space for you to build a more authentic self.
What we can learn from people who pretend to live on Mars
Another key ingredient to successful solitude, psychologists have found, is having a clear sense of purpose.
Steve Cole, a researcher at the University of California Los Angeles, studies interventions designed to help people cope with loneliness. He’s found that the ones that work tend to focus not on decreasing loneliness but on increasing people’s sense of purpose. Recalling one pilot program that paired isolated older people with elementary school kids whom they’re asked to tutor and look out for, Cole told Vox, “Secretly, this is an intervention for the older people.”
Philosophers have also noted the fortifying effects of a clear sense of purpose. “Nietzsche said if you find purpose in your suffering, you can tolerate all the pain that comes with it,” Fong, the sociologist, told me. “It’s when people don’t see a purpose in their suffering that they freak out.”
In 2003, Kate Greene moved into a geodesic dome on top of a Hawaiian volcano, where she spent four months pretending to be an astronaut on Mars. NASA funded the experiment because it needs to know how human beings deal with isolation, so that real missions won’t go kaput just because someone gets lonely. In a recent essay, Greene confesses that she had a hard time living in the dome. Separated from her loved ones and troubled by confusing information from mission support, it was hard to remember her sense of purpose. But when she did, it made all the difference, she writes:
Remembering that we were doing something that might be good for the future of human exploration and maybe even humanity kept me grounded when I wanted to be flying and let me fly when I felt heavy and stuck. To be part of something historic, to do something potentially grand for others — it was remarkable how focusing on that was often enough.
Billy Barr, who’s been living alone in an abandoned mining shack high up in the Rocky Mountains for almost 50 years, has very similar advice. He says we should all keep track of something.
In his case, it’s the environment. How high is the snow today? What animals appeared this month? For decades, he’s been keeping track of the answers to these questions, and his records have actually had a serious influence on climate change science.
Now, he suggests that people in isolation get through the coronavirus pandemic by participating in a citizen science project such as CoCoRaHS, which tracks rainfall.
“I would definitely recommend people doing that,” he told WAMU. “You get a little rain gauge, put it outside and you’re part of a network where there’s thousands of other people doing the same thing as you, the same time of the day as you’re doing it.”
He and Greene both also emphasize the importance of routines — the little daily rituals that anchor us in time and give shape to a day.
The rewards — and risks — of solitude
Isolation has many virtues. But, harnessed incorrectly, it can also harbor danger.
First, the virtues. A long line of nature writers — from William Wordsworth and Henry David Thoreau to Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver — have described how solitude allows them to reconnect with nature, and through nature, a deep bliss. Many artists insist that isolation is necessary for creative work. “I paint with my back to the world,” said the painter Agnes Martin, because “the best things in life happen to you when you’re alone.”
Most world religions, even if they’re ambivalent about solitude as a long-term path, acknowledge that it’s useful for fostering spiritual insight. The Hebrew Bible says Moses spent 40 days alone on Mount Sinai before receiving the Torah. In the Roman Empire, Symeon the Stylite lived on top of a 60-foot pillar — for 37 years! Hinduism and Buddhism both have rich traditions of solitary forest dwellers. And Christianity has countless recluses; my favorite is Julian of Norwich, who at age 30 asked to be permanently shut into a cell so she could have visions of God and write about them.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton and the psychologist Carl Jung both pointed out that dissociating from society allows us to perceive and call out its illusions. “I am a solitary,” Jung wrote, “because I know things and must hint at things which other people do not know, and usually do not even want to know.”
Nietzsche, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, suggested that solitude can heal us from an overstimulating culture (“Flee, my friend, into your solitude! I see you dazed by the noise of men”) and reconnect us to ourselves (“go into isolation … seek the way to yourself”).
But isolation also comes with its fair share of danger. The problem is that, as Nietzche’s Zarathustra puts it, “whatever one brings into solitude grows in it, even the inner beast.” That can mean anxiety, or melancholy, or some other kind of distress. For this reason, the philosopher said “solitude is ill-advised” for many people.
“Nietzche was prescient enough to know that solitude is a dangerous project,” Fong told me. “If you are not ready for it, the cave you enter can be a very scary place. For those who have unresolved issues that may not have been attended to by a mental health expert, this may not be a good place to go.”
That’s why psychologists typically recommend gradual exposure. If being alone is scary to you, ideally you want to seek it out in small doses first, and then — once you’ve proven to your brain that it can in fact tolerate the distress — slowly increase the dose. If you’re in the midst of a full-blown panic attack, that’s not a good time to practice honing a new skill; you may need to first soothe the distress a bit. Engaging the senses to bring yourself back into your body is one commonly recommended way to do that (it’s no coincidence that everyone on social media is now baking sourdough bread and planting fragrant herbs).
Unfortunately, a pandemic doesn’t allow us to take the stepladder of solitude as gradually as we might like. It’s not ideal, but even under these circumstances, we can build up to the skill of being alone.
How to practice “distress tolerance skills” for being alone: A practical guide
The best step-by-step guide I’ve read for this purpose comes from the Centre for Clinical Interventions, supported by the Australian government’s department of health. Psychologists there have published a comprehensive guide to developing “distress tolerance skills.” It’s free, it’s online, and it uses an evidence-based approach rooted in cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based therapy. It’s worth checking out the whole guide, but I’ll give a capsule summary of the process it recommends.
First, accept the distress you’re feeling. Instead of engaging in your usual escape methods for avoiding uncomfortable emotions (whether it’s bingeing TV, numbing out with alcohol, or whatever), commit to doing the opposite: Stay with the emotion.
Second, watch the emotion. Noting how it’s manifesting in your clenched muscles or using imagery to describe it (“this feeling is not me, it’s just like a cloud floating past in the sky”) may help you detach from it a bit. Keep observing it until it naturally subsides.
Third, turn your attention back to a task you want to do in the present moment. It can be a simple inward task like focusing on your breath, or an outward task like volunteering to help people in need during the pandemic.
Expect that the distressing feelings will come back. But know, too, that by actually facing them rather than running away from them, you’re teaching yourself that you’re strong enough to handle them.
If this is sounding a bit familiar, that’s because it echoes the strategies laid out by the experienced solitaries we met above, like the survivor of solitary confinement and the woman on the ersatz Mars mission. Accepting your isolation, letting it take you deeper into yourself, remembering your purpose — these are tried-and-true strategies for successful solitude. You will find the same strategies echoed in other sources, from contemporary Western psychologists and mindfulness teachers to ancient Buddhist texts.
And perhaps there’s some comfort in that. As alone as you might feel right now, remember that many human beings have experienced isolation before you, and they’ve left you their best tips for how to make the most of it. In a sense, you’re in community with them right now.
You’re also in community with the friends and family you have access to through your phone, Zoom, and so on. We should absolutely keep using these distance-collapsing technologies.
But there’s a difference between using them from a place of desperation, where we’re scrambling to generate a constant stream of chatter to distract us from our aloneness, and using them from a place of mindfulness, where we’ve already faced the distress of being alone and experienced it naturally subside. When we do the latter, psychologists say, that Zoom dance party becomes a reward for approaching rather than avoiding our solitude.
Reporting for this article was supported by Public Theologies of Technology and Presence, a journalism and research initiative based at the Institute of Buddhist Studies and funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.