The Pleasures of Solitude

In my post on grief and gratitude, I discussed some of the emotions that come to the fore in the termination phase of psychotherapy.  With the client I described in that post, another issue has recently become prominent:   the loneliness of personal responsibility balanced by the pleasures of solitude.

Diane began a recent Monday session by telling me she had the strong urge to fill me in on all the details of her weekend, to spill out her experience in a mindless way very familiar to us.  Throughout her treatment, she would communicate in that fashion because she wanted to feel that I was a part of her experience, as if I were there at her side going through life with her, always available to process that experience and to do her thinking for her.  She knew she felt a little angry and rebellious, as if to spill all those details would be an act of defiance.   In recent months, we’ve focused on the need to communicate in a different mode:   instead of unloading her experience in a mindless way, she needed to digest that experience first and decide which details should be communicated, what she intended to say and what she felt to be the crucial issues.  In other words, as the end of her treatment approaches, the responsibility to think for herself has shifted increasingly onto her own shoulders.

During that Monday session, she went on to discuss an article she’d read, about the rise of binge drinking among middle-aged professionals.  It made her recognize that her alcohol use had been creeping up lately as she faced various stressful situations in her life; she felt the need to get it more under control. This topic reminded her of early struggles with substance abuse when we first started working together. In those days, she used to carry a moralistic and disapproving “Joe” around in her mind; he held her to very harsh standards with no areas of gray, banning drug and alcohol use entirely, and came down hard when she slipped.  She often felt resentful toward this “Joe”, as if she were a teenager and “Joe” the unreasonably strict parent; over time, however, she came to obey his rules.  Now, she said, even though “Joe” still appeared in her thoughts, she didn’t believe in him in the same way.  She’d come to feel that the issues weren’t so black-and-white.

Her next thoughts were about her husband, and his recent health scare.  Diane worried that she might have to face a major crisis after the end of psychotherapy.  She also talked about her oldest daughter and some self-destructive behaviors that reminded Diane very much of her own younger self.   She wondered how best to help her.

“So many issues to deal with alone,” I pointed out.   How to cope with her husband’s illness, how to manage her relationship to alcohol, how to help her daughter.  Diane is struggling with fact that she’s increasingly alone with personal responsibility for her life; part of her wants to regress, to go back to being the rebellious teenager and dump her experience into me, forcing me to think about it for her.   She’d like to feel that I’m the disapproving parent and she the disobedient child but can no longer believe it.  As the end of treatment approaches, she knows she’s alone with responsibility for herself and it frightens her. I touched on this theme in my post about existential aloneness.  To some extent, this is an issue we must all confront; in my experience, it’s central to the successful termination phase of psychotherapy.  Diane’s “rebelliousness” used to dominate her, placing me in the role of parent; now, she feels she has to be the parent and deal with that rebellious part herself.   She’s worried that she might not be up to the job.  Her feelings of anger about aloneness and responsibility are strong.

Later in the session, however, she talked about practicing clarinet, which she’d begun to study six months ago, fulfilling a lifelong wish to play an instrument.  Over these months, we’ve talked on occasion about the frustrations of being a beginner (a familiar theme), but for the most part, practicing has felt like a pleasure rather than a burden.  As a younger woman when she’d tried to learn the piano, she’d hated the experience and rebelled against the need to practice, dropping lessons after a short time.  With the clarinet, in contrast, as frustrating as it felt at times, she loved to play.  She has repeatedly described how she’d begin to practice, become entirely absorbed in the experience, and look up later to find that almost two hours had passed.  Sometimes, in the face of family and career demands, she longs for more time alone to practice.  For the first time, she feels as if she has a relationship to music as a player and imagines continuing throughout her life.

To be able to experience pleasure in solitude is one of the compensations for the existential fact of aloneness. In the latter part of this session, Diane and I talked about her deepening relationship to herself; I know that may sound a little hokey, but the capacity to enjoy the experience of being alone with oneself makes the existential facts more bearable.  It’s an important experience for me, too.  As a pianist, I strongly relate to Diane’s experience of practice, how absorbing and gratifying it can feel. Also, as I’ve developed the content for this site, it has felt deeply meaningful and satisfying to be alone with my thoughts, finding ways to express myself clearly, trying to distill my experience into something useful.  I guess you could say I enjoy my own company.  Diane has come to enjoy her own company, as well.  It’s a crucial part of a meaningful life.

Finding Your Own Way:

Do you have a difficult time being alone?   Some people avoid this experience by having the television or radio constantly playing.  Other people fill up every free moment with social engagements so they never have to be alone.  On the other hand, many people spend a lot of time alone but have no real relationship with themselves.  Some workaholics love their work and find it deeply meaningful; some use it as a way to avoid themselves as well as other people.  What about you?

In what ways do you enjoy the pleasure of your own company?  Reading, watching television or movies and spending time on the Internet can either provide escape or bring you closer into contact with yourself, depending on how you use them.  Do you think about what you read or hear? Does it feel meaningful to you?  Do these experiences have a numbing effect or do they make you feel more alive?  What about hobbies?  Do you engage in any solitary activities that matter to you?

Try sitting alone in a room, without any sensory stimulation — no music or TV.  Quiet your thoughts and see how you feel, simply being alone.   Many people find the anxiety this experience arouses hard to endure for very long.   What about you?  Sometimes when I’m caught up in distractions, I try to stop thinking and focus on my feet upon the ground, the air going in and out of my lungs.   Sometimes this brings me into contact with a lot of anxiety, and I realize why I want to keep myself distracted; at others, it makes me feel calmer, more present in my life and self-aware.

In the best moments, it feels uplifting, and I’m glad to be who I am, inside my own skin. For me as I get older, there’s an increasing pleasure in solitude.  It’s not about avoidance.  It has nothing to do with the important people in my life; those relationships matter deeply to me, but I need time to be alone with myself as well.  What about you?  Do you need time alone and how do you make use of it?

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

What Do We Owe to Those Who Are Dying?

Do we exempt people who are dying from the expectations we usually have for other people, such as consideration, fairness and reciprocity?

Self-Love and the Sense of Well-Being

Self-love does not mean feeling the emotion love for oneself as an object, but rather reflects a state of wholeness and integration, where we accept the entire range of our emotions but feel driven by neither narcissistic defenses nor the demands of our superego.

The Interpretation of a Dream

An example of dream interpretation with a client in psychotherapy, with some thoughts about Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.

14 comments

    I love my solitude….I think there has always been so much “drama” going on around me, that I relish my alone time. I do whatever I feel like doing at the time, frequently I read, sometimes I’ll watch a movie, oft times I’ll listen to music, or journal. I love to spend time outdoors. Take a walk, or just sit out on the deck with my dogs and a cup of coffee. I love watching the birds at the bird feeder…feel the sun (sometimes) on my face. Laughing at my dogs at play, real belly laughs. There are so many pleasant things I enjoy doing with myself, I really do enjoy my own company. And oh, I left out, checking out important and edifying sites on the net !!

    Joe, I really enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for making the connection between solitude and dampening the existential anxiety. I often see clients hide behind their stress because of this fear. I even used to do it myself when I was in my early 20’s.

    I am glad that you pointed out the connection between people rattling off their weekly activities so they feel less alone. Clients do it, i have done it, and I have several friends who do it. I think it is one of the big reasons people come to therapy, so they feel less alone. And as you pointed out so well, life can get really hard and we walk it solitary.

    I teach a mindfulness class and recently one of the participants mentioned her worry that if she sat in silence she would not be her “quirky self” and she prized herself on being quirky and anxious. I explained that it was just the opposite that she would be coming home to more of herself without the anxiety, it is a paradox.

    I really enjoying reading what you have to say.
    Renee

    I am a homebody by nature. I love to read, work on my art, practice Tae Kwon Do, and my curiosity has led me to become a thoroughly engaged researcher. This was not always the case.

    It wasn’t until I became sober (around 9 years ago) that my “alone time” became productive instead of “depression time”. I learned to enjoy life, time with friends, and the serenity of my own sacred space. I cannot find the words to express how important it is to me to have my own private place of peace and calm. To meditate, to read, to sing and dance (because no one is watching, lol), pull weeds from my garden or to just lay next to my dog and stroke his velvety ears while watching shows on my DVR (or favorite DVD’s), or even the wind dancing through the tree tops.

    One of the biggest things I learned after becoming sober is that the only person I really HAVE to live with is ME. I had to clean my life up so I could “like” me, “respect” me, and “believe” in me. This is now my reality. And while I enjoy sharing meals with friends, going to movies, volunteering, and learning through higher education, the value I place on my “sovereign” time …. is priceless.

    I enjoy being alone. There is always something for me to do besides laundry, cleaning, cooking, etc. Reading, crocheting, knitting, praying, walking and listening to music are relaxing.

    What this also makes me think of is the need to feel contained…I remember in my earlier days the need to share EVERYTHING with one person, to feel like they could contain my entire experience for me.
    I love your blog!

    Thanks, Marla. I remember feeling exactly the same way when I was in my 20s, although I didn’t really understand it the way you’re describing until I was much much older.

    Hi Marla and Joe,
    Good therapy can provide what poorly attuned parenting has not: the quiet space to focus on the self and not others. If focusing on others has allowed an individual to feel loved or at least to avoid anxiety and depression, the therapist may initially need to provide the containment function for that adaptive focus, as well as concern, interest and curiosity for those precious moments when the clients’ real self is expressed. I believe that the extent to which the real self is discovered, constructed, and experienced correlates to one’s ability to be tolerate and enjoy solitude.

    I’ve never had a problem spending time alone. If anything, I seek solitude more than I should – my life should be balanced better in this regard. I enjoy my personal times for many reasons. I like to read, do a lot of writing, meditate, reflect over my life in positive ways, write/perform/record music, paint/take photos, continue to educate myself in many fields, ect. I can not imagine my life without a certain amount of time put aside for solitude every week.
    What I have a problem understanding is that there are so many people that I know that are very uncomfortable being by themselves. I believe however that this is because, in the last few years, I been exposed to a large number of people who are trying to recover from drinking and drug addiction (my census poll of people is probably tainted).
    The last 3 years in particular, have been spent living/working in recovery half-way houses. Many people living here can barely stand more than a few seconds without the comfort of constant distraction. Most need to fall asleep with a TV, or radio on. Some wake up and before their feet hit the ground, have to put on their headphones for their mp3 player.
    I remember when I was staying in rehab centers and things like Walkmans were discouraged, because they were considered ‘Isolation Tools’. For a long time I assumed they meant isolation from others, but one morning I remember watching this guy brushing his teeth a 6AM with music blasting in his headphones and it dawned on me that they were worried about isolation from one’s self.
    I don’t know why its so hard for many, except to think that they have not reached, or actively avoid, what it takes to make peace with oneself and the world. Most recovery programs offer knowledge and suggestions for action that can make life in recovery a lot easier to live. Unfortunately it is a difficult path to affect change. It is not only a matter of knowledge – much more important is personal action and the experiences that follow.
    My past is filled with many poor choices and regrets. If I let myself be consumed with things like regret, anger, fear, guilt, hopelessness, low self-esteem, and melancholy – I’d probably avoid solitude also. Hell, I’d avoid staying clean and sober!
    I am very grateful for where my attitude about life has led me to today. My times of solitude have become one of the biggest blessings that I cherish.

    You’re absolutely right to identify the weight of regret, anger, fear, guilt, etc. that recovering addicts have to face, and why they have such a hard time being alone with themselves. I think this is often the reason why they get trapped in the addictive mode, why it’s a vicious cycle of accumulating pain and regret they try to avoid by continuing to use. Especially if the person has been an addict for a long period of time, the agony of remorse for all the wasted time, precious years that can never be recovered — that alone has to be close to unbearable. Thanks, Steven.

    That’s a main focus when I help people and myself in recovery. As addiction gets worse, it is not that the drug ‘pulls’ at them more (ask any addict and they will admit that the pleasure from drug use will diminish over the years). Instead, addicts are ‘pushed’ more to the drugs because reality (sobriety) becomes more and more uncomfortable.

    “Do you have a difficult time being alone? … Other people fill up every free moment with social engagements so they never have to be alone. On the other hand, many people spend a lot of time alone but have no real relationship with themselves. Some workaholics love their work and find it deeply meaningful; some use it as a way to avoid themselves as well as other people. What about you?”

    Dr. Burgo,

    Thanks for this post and your reflections. Being a beginner on learning how to be alone with me, I value the feedback from you and others on this sometimes very scary possibility.
    I have learned to admit to and feel my feelings, finally without acting out in therapy. Now I am learning about solitude. Many things like overworking, internet use, alcohol, driving fast, and other behaviors that were self-destructive, I used to numb my feelings, and being in the moment. I learned that I love reading, listening to music, and taking a quiet walk in the woods. Because my therapist could sit with me, contain my feelings and fear, and still show his caring and presence, I believe that’s how I learned to start to let me be with me. Before was way too scary because of flashbacks. Now, not so much!

    Yes, I do think that’s one of the ways it can change — with a therapist able to sit with and “contain” you. It sounds like you have a very good therapist and I’m glad you’ve discovered the pleasures of solitude!

    Thanks for the post. I love to be alone, but that’s a problem that I am in the process of resolving. After a year of therapy, I noticed that I have no friends. No social life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.