Loneliness vs solitude: what's the difference?

"Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement." Alice Koller

In these weird times of social isolation, I’ve been thinking more and more about loneliness and solitude, and how important it is to distinguish the two concepts. If we can learn to recognise the potential harm vs benefits of these two states of being, we can put strategies in place to ensure we’re taking care of ourselves. So, what is loneliness? Loneliness doesn’t actually have anything to do with being physically alone. Loneliness is a feeling of being alone in the world - something that can still be felt even when surrounded by a crowd of people. Although it’s a normal feeling, and certainly something to be expected during social isolation, prolonged feelings of loneliness can potentially become harmful to our mental and physical health. What is solitude? Solitude is spending time alone. Some people are naturally more inclined to seek out and find fulfilment in solitude than others. But, given that we begin and end life on our own, and we spend a lot of time alone in between, most of us would benefit from learning to embrace periods of solitude - regardless of how social we consider ourselves. Although solitude can be beneficial in helping to nourish ourselves, recharge, ease stress and provides an opportunity for reflection, it’s important to watch out for when this might start to turn into loneliness (something that is more likely when we are forced into solitude, rather than choosing to be in our own company). Being able to enjoy the benefits of solitude can make for a really fulfilling life for anyone, but how much solitude we enjoy will differ for everyone. Personally, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I realised I needed to actively make more time for solitude, to carve out time to relax and recharge away from others. Although I love being social (most would initially call me an extrovert), being around people all the time is actually quite draining for me. I now make ‘me-time’ a part of my routine every day to prevent myself from burning out. It also ensures that when I am around others, I can then give them the energy and time that I really want to. So in this period of forced isolation, how can we try and reduce our inevitable feelings of loneliness, and ease into the benefits of solitude? Here are some of the tips I've learnt along the way:

  • Look for opportunities to connect: whether it’s saying hello to a neighbour as your walk past during our daily exercise, or having a socially-distanced chat to the supermarket worker or barista making your essential takeaway coffee.

  • Prioritise quality of connection over quantity: instead of feeling like you have to Zoom or FaceTime a multitude of different friends every day, perhaps focus on making regular time to connect with one or two of your closest friends or family members, but it doesn't have to be every single day. These interactions will feel more special, nourishing and rewarding.

  • Try out constructive activities in solitude: there are many ways in which you can ease yourself into being alone - but constructive, engaging activities (like cooking, reading, writing, creating etc.) are likely to give you a sense of personal achievement and a more positive view of yourself. It will be helpful if you can reflect on the pleasure these activities give you, rather than the fact that you’re alone.

  • Book in time to try and practice useful solitude: How often and for how long you actively try and practise useful solitude is completely up to you. You might like to start by setting a timer and giving yourself a few minutes each day of dedicated time to yourself, and then adjust this up or down depending on what you need.

  • Let yourself figure it out as you go along: Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to avoid feelings of loneliness altogether - it’s inevitable that we will all feel lonely at times, and that’s ok - try and recognise when you’re feeling lonely and perhaps reach out to a friend for some connection. Likewise, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to enjoy your own company all the time - just have a go, ease into it and eventually you will discover what kind of activities you enjoy doing on your own, as well as figuring out the amount of solitude that’s beneficial for you as an individual.

Ultimately it’s up to you to recognise how you as an individual need to nourish yourself. But I must admit, social isolation is probably as good as a time as ever to start trying to embrace your solitude if you can.

Searching for inspo of some activities to try on your own? Look no further than Retreat Yourself 101 - you can download your free copy here.

I'd love to hear what you think - do you enjoy spending time in your own company? Is it something you actively avoid? Send me an email or leave a comment below.

Em x


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