How To Stave Off Loneliness And Embrace Solitude Instead
Illustration by Mr Federico Babina
A 2014 study by the University of Virginia discovered that participants would rather subject themselves to an electric shock than be alone with their thoughts. So, whatever anyone wants to tell you, what we are going through is tough, especially if you live on your own. Well done, then, for making it so far.
At the same time, lots of us, writers to name but one group, have always lived and enjoyed lives that involve long periods of being alone. As Ms Whitney Houston once sang, the greatest love of all is self-love. And what better way to enjoy one’s marvellous self than on one’s own? In our inter-connected, and previously hyper-socialised world, however, people who embrace being alone can seem outside the norm.
Mr Michael Harris, author of Solitude: In Pursuit Of A Singular Life In A Crowded World, says there is a crucial difference between loneliness and solitude. Loneliness is the result of an adverse reaction to being on your own, while “solitude is a productive and contented time spent alone”. He believes there are all sorts of benefits to solitude, including increased creativity, better self-knowledge and, paradoxically, a greater appreciation of the company of others.
So here, with the help of a few mental health experts, are our tips for how to manage loneliness and make the most of solitude.
First things first. “Accept and normalise that this is a lonely time,” says Dr Charlotte Fox Weber, head of psychotherapy at The School of Life. “We are instinctively drawn to socialise and be with people. What we are being asked to do is extremely hard and emotionally punishing. Acknowledging the challenge is key.”
One of the ways in which you can help yourself to accept the situation is to face up to your feelings. “There’s an incredible relief that comes with externalising the horrendous silence of loneliness,” says Dr Fox Weber. “Just finding the words to admit it takes courage and brings comfort and acceptance. Don’t just think it, say it. Either to yourself or another person. Saying it makes you realise that this is a survivable situation emotionally.”
02. Embrace stillness
Living under lockdown or in quarantine is hard, there’s no doubt about it, but reframing your situation can work wonders on your mindset. “The word ‘isolation’ immediately imbues you with a sense of exclusion and restriction,” says life coach Ms Michelle Roques-O’Neil. “Try to change your perspective around this word. Instead of restriction, think retreat and look at your home as a refuge and a sanctuary.
“In Taoism, life is seen as a dance between yin and yang in which the two forces are of equal importance. In fact, the yin, the more reflective and inward principle, actually gives birth to yang, the action. Somehow, we’ve lost this relationship with life. Try to embrace the stillness by meditating or journalling and take some time to review your life and the way you live it.”
She recommends picking up a copy of The Artist’s Way by Ms Julia Cameron. “It focuses on creative recovery, not specifically as an artist, but from the perspective of how fulfilling the design of your life is,” she says. “Are you following your passion or working from a place of expectations and status? Is your life authentic to you? If prosperity is an issue, she has another book, The Prosperous Heart, which deals with spending patterns and the beliefs that created them. Again, they work to help you to be more present and happy in your daily life.”
03. Consider a digital detox
The temptation to binge away time aimlessly on Twitter and Instagram can be hard to overcome at the best of times, especially at the moment. Even the much-vaunted Zoom app has its limitations. Unshackling yourself from your devices (ie, your only connection to the outside world) might seem counter-intuitive, but the technology that supposedly brings us closer together can create the illusion of intimacy. “Connect virtually, but acknowledge that it’s just not the same as being in the same room with people,” says Dr Fox Weber. “Once you accept that it’s not the same as real-life socialising, expectations are much more manageable.”
Ms Roques-O’Neil goes back to the idea of embracing solitude. “Try an unplugged day free of social media,” she says. “Be creative, give yourself complete freedom to love-bomb yourself with pursuits you enjoy but were rationed because of previous schedules. Put on your music, dance, move, sing, express. If you’re too hyper, try grounding pursuits such as reading, cooking or mastering the zen of sourdough, kombucha, kefir or kimchi. Use old papers and magazines to make a collage. Use it as a vehicle to explore a feeling.”
04. Create deeper connections
Time alone can help us think about the people we want to spend more time with and how we want to spend it. “We’re social creatures, so relationships are part of our DNA,” says Ms Roques-O’Neil. “Culturally, we’ve always looked for those who are like-minded, whether it be art, music or fashion. Again, here is a wonderful opportunity to connect more deeply with friends and loved ones and make time for proper exchange and conversation. Reach out to people whom you previously didn’t have time to chat to. Perhaps create a virtual book or film club that meets once a week.”
Dr Fox Weber believes that a simple phone call can also work wonders. “There’s such intimacy and closeness hearing someone else’s voice,” she says. “And there are even certain benefits to not having to deal with non-verbal communications. You can speak more easily and more openly in many ways. I feel very strongly that social-distancing is the wrong term. It’s physical-distancing, but that’s not to say we must be emotionally distanced as well.”
05. Keep a journal
The simple act of keeping a handwritten diary or journal can help to release stress and tension. It will also be a fascinating chronicle to look back on years from now and may even provide great material for that book or novel you never got round to writing. To be clear, we’re not advocating that you fully self-actualise during lockdown like Ms Gwyneth Paltrow. Lots of people, especially those with kids, are busier than they’ve ever been. Rather, a journal is primarily a way in which to vent and release anxiety on the page and is especially helpful for taking the emotional heat out of dilemmas.
“Having a place to express and explore your feelings and ideas in their rawest state, unfiltered and unedited, can really help,” says Ms Roque-O’Neil. “The best time to do it is first thing in the morning. By committing to this as a daily ritual, you create a space in which to voice irrational feelings, but also to explore buried frustrations. It can also be a creative resource where you can explore ideas and dreams.”
06. Make the mirror your friend
If a tree falls in the woods and you’re wearing an amazing outfit but everyone is self-isolated and can’t witness it, does it matter? In a word, yes. “Not being witnessed makes many of us lonely, so noticing ourselves goes some way to making up for this deficit,” says Dr Fox Weber. “Look in the mirror and see what’s appealing. Make a point of smiling and noticing the colour of your eyes. Really look and observe. In other words, show up for yourself. We can find it easier to show up for other people, but we need to keep showing up for ourselves.”
Mr Teo van den Broeke, style and grooming director of British GQ agrees. “It’s incredibly important to maintain a close semblance of normality during lockdown, not only to keep you sane during this time, but also to ensure that it won’t feel too mad going back to real life when it’s finally over,” he says. “Continue dressing and grooming yourself like you’ve got somewhere to go. Putting on a shirt and tucking it into some trousers that are held up with a belt (a belt!), as opposed to just pulling on a pair of sweatpants and forgetting to wear underwear again, will get you into a frame of mind where you can get some work done, rather than just slob on the sofa watching episodes of Unorthodox (Tiger King is so last month). Likewise, ensuring you shave regularly will help you maintain a sense of dignity and pride and will, in turn, prevent you from getting too down in the dumps about the whole situation.”