NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

What's the Difference Between Solitude and Loneliness?

We live in a world where we're often bombarded by overstimulation to our senses.  Whether this involves our increased accessibility with cellphones, texts, voicemail, social media, the ability to get "breaking news" 24/7 on cable news and the Internet, or the hustle and bustle of living in New York City, this overstimulation can exhaust us.  

Solitude: The State of Being Alone Without Feeling Lonely

Solitude vs Loneliness
Being able to enjoy times when we're alone so we can experience peace and a sense of solitude can help us to relax and de-stress from these overstimulating environments.  It's part of taking care of ourselves.  

But for many people, being alone isn't about solitude at all.  It's about feeling lonely and abandoned. This makes it hard for them to de-stress.  

How can we understand the difference between being alone with a sense solitude vs being alone and feeling lonely? 

In this blog post, I'll explore loneliness and solitude.  First, I'll start with loneliness, including feelings of loneliness that we all feel, and a much more pervasive type of loneliness connected to feeling abandoned.  Then, I'll explore solitude, what it means, how to experience it, why some people have problems experiencing solitude and how to overcome this problem.

It's important to understand that everyone feels lonely at times in their lives. Often, people who are not in relationships imagine that if they had a partner, they wouldn't ever feel lonely.

  • Even if You're in a Relationship, You Can Feel Lonely at Times: Even if you're happily married or partnered, you can feel lonely at times. Your spouse or partner will not always be perfectly in synch with your emotional state all of the time, even in the best relationship.  You might also be with a partner who is emotionally avoidant and disengages from you emotionally (see my article Feeling Lonely in a Relationship).

Feeling Lonely in a Relationship

  • Attributing a Negative Meaning to Occasional Loneliness: Acknowledging and accepting occasional loneliness is part of mature adult development. But if you attribute a negative meaning to being lonely (e.g., you're a "loser," no one wants to be with you), you're going to have a very different perspective about occasional loneliness than someone who accepts it as normal.  Berating yourself for what is normal will also erode your sense of self (see my article: Changing the Negative Stories You Tell Yourself).
  • When Being Alone Triggers Feelings of Loneliness and Abandonment: Occasional loneliness is different from a pervasive feeling of being lonely and feeling abandoned most of the time.  When adults, who haven't learned to enjoy a sense of solitude, are by themselves, they will often go to great lengths not to be alone--even if it means being with people that they don't like. If there's no one around, they often keep themselves constantly distracted by keeping the TV on (even if they're not watching or listening to it), by overeating as a form of comfort, by drinking too much or using illicit drugs, smoking cigarettes, and so on. Even though they might realize they're exhausting themselves by keeping themselves distracted, it's preferable to them than dealing with feelings of loneliness and abandonment.
A History of Emotional Neglect as a Child Can Trigger Loneliness When You're Alone as an Adult
During the course of childhood development, if a young child doesn't have a fairly consistent and reliable loving presence, he or she feels abandoned.  Later on, as an adult, being alone often triggers feelings of loneliness and abandonment.

With nurturing caregivers, who are "good enough," we learn to play on our own in the presence of our adult caregivers. At around the age of three, if all goes well, we become a little more independent, being able to tolerate some alone time because we had a good early foundation with our caregivers.  

We learn to use our imagination to enter into our play and fantasy world while mom or dad is in another room nearby.  A child of three will often check back to see where mom or dad might be, and having seen that his parent is nearby, the child can go back to playing, feeling safe and secure.  More than likely, if all else goes well, this child will grow up to enjoy a sense of solitude from time to time.

But for adults who have a history of feeling emotionally abandoned as children, being alone can often feel intolerable. There is no comfort or solitude in being alone. They never learned to be alone.  Being alone means being abandoned, lonely and unworthy of love.

If being alone is intolerable, they need someone around to distract themselves from their uncomfortable feelings.  If they eat in a restaurant by themselves, they feel self conscious and fear that others are looking at them and thinking that they're alone because no one wants to be around them. If they have to go to a social event where they don't know anyone, they fear that no one will talk to them. They might even avoid going out alone because of the uncomfortable feelings that it provokes in them.


What is Solitude?
Solitude is being able to enjoy your own company, feeling peaceful and relaxed, when you're by yourself at times.  If you can enjoy solitude, getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life is an important part of managing your stress.

How to Enjoy Solitude as Part of Self Care

The following are brief examples of enjoying solitude:

Marie:  Marie enjoys getting up early, before her husband and children wake up, to spend an hour or so on her own quietly sipping tea in the kitchen and reading a book. It's part of her self care routine.

Solitude as Self Care

She and her husband have a loving relationship. They enjoy spending time together as well as with their children, but Marie feels that this one hour in the morning that she has to herself before her busy day begins helps her to ease into her day in a more relaxed and quiet way. She values this time and, occasionally, when something happens where she can't spend this hour of solitude in the morning, she realizes that she is more likely to feel more frazzled during the rest of the day.

Bob:  Before he goes to bed, Bob likes to spend a half hour or so reading a favorite novel. While his wife is preparing for bed, Bob enjoys going off to the den, where it's quiet and he can have some time for himself. 

Solitude: Enjoying a Favorite Novel

This has been his nightly ritual for the five years that he and his wife have been married. At first, his wife didn't understand why Bob needed this time at the end of the day. But soon after they got married, his wife realized that she also felt more relaxed and refreshed if she also took this time to take a bubble bath, meditate or listen to music before she and Bob went to bed.

Laura:  Laura likes to take a walk in the park near her office at lunch time. Getting away from the busy phones and the demands of her job helps her to come back to the office feeling renewed and relaxed. 

Solitude as a Way to Relax

There are just enough people in the park so she feels safe, but not so many that she feels intruded or impinged upon. She can take an hour or so to lose herself in the beauty of nature or she can watch the dogs playing in the nearby dog run section of the park. She feels connected to nature at the same time that she also feels a sense of comfort with herself. On days when she spends her lunch hour working, instead of going to the park, she feels much more tired and stressed out by the end of the day.

Getting Help to Overcome a Sense of Loneliness and Emotional Isolation 
The good news is that if you've never learned to feel the comfort of solitude and being alone triggers feelings of alienation and loneliness, you can learn to overcome these issues in therapy.

There's no "quick fix," but many people have overcome this problem.   It's never too late to learn how to overcome the discomfort and fear of being alone. You can learn to enjoy solitude so you can have times when you can relax and enjoy your own company.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist. 

I work with individuals and couples.  

I have helped many clients to overcome trauma their fears of being alone (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.