Being alone (and with others)
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Dr Jason Spendelow, Clinical Psychologist & CBT Practitioner
22nd August, 20140 Comments
How and with whom do you spend your time? One issue that stands out is the choice of whether to spend spare time alone or with other people. Individuals often define themselves in terms of whether they are/are not 'people persons'. It seems that there is an expectation that you will categorise yourself in one of these ways. So, the first point to make is that YOU DON'T HAVE TO DO THIS! Being perceived as living on the extreme of one of these planets means you are potentially going to be given a hard time. Too social, and you might be labelled 'needy'. Too solitary and you might be judged to be a loner. This is pretty unfortunate because neither is objectively good or bad, but society seems to jump in and place value judgements on both such orientations.
Whether socialising or 'me time' is good or bad probably depends on a more complex set of considerations. These might include (but not limited to) evaluating the circumstances you're in, how these situations make you feel, and to what extent you can switch between solitude/social time. Selecting how much social contact you have should be something you can do flexibly. This involves having some awareness of when it might be best to spend time with others vs alone. Operating at the extremes might well lead to problems.
Cause for concern may also arise if your preference for social/alone time leads to distress or negative implications for yourself (and/or those around you). For example, there's nothing wrong with spending a weekend in your own company (unless you beach yourself on the couch in your underwear with pizza crumbs on your belly while watching re-runs of an Australian soap opera). But if you have done that every weekend for two years and are feeling quite depressed, this is likely to be a counterproductive strategy.
As hinted above, one of the challenges in managing your preferences for social vs alone time are the value judgements that society can place on both these states (particularly at the extreme end). As someone who prefers time to her/himself, you might be labelled as 'unsociable', 'grumpy', or 'odd' in extreme circumstances (in addition to the 'loner' tag). This can be a particularly difficult situation to cope with because humans are seen as inherently social with society geared towards people being together. For example, as romantic couples, teamwork on the job, and being pro social media.
Being single can be a real challenge as adults age because it goes against the norm in most Western societies. "Have you got a man yet!?", "Still don't have a girlfriend? What's wrong with you?" Conversely, if people think you're too social, you might be described as 'needy', 'emotionally dependent', or 'scared to be alone'.
What about people who like to spend a reasonable amount of time on their own? It is really important to give yourself a break (if you need to) and remind yourself that it's OK to be 'private'. This can be hard if you feel a lot of pressure in your life to be a certain person. But humans are incredibly varied. It is important to ram home the message about raising the alarm when faced with negative consequences. Many mental health problems affect levels of social contact. Depression is a good example where social isolation can occur. Obviously, this situation is not OK because the social isolation is more the result of being depressed, rather than a free and healthy choice. The other common mental health issue of relevance here is anxiety (particularly social anxiety and panic).
If you wish, you could think about explaining to others your preference for spending time alone. You may have done this already. To maximise your chance of success with this strategy, you could potentially explain the benefits for you. This could help someone understand why you have this preference. Also, it pays to be on the look out for situations where other people take your preference personally. For example, someone may think you don't want to spend time with them. It can be helpful to talk about this but, at the same time, you should not feel that you have to give long-winded explanations if you don't want to.
The only person who is guaranteed to be with you from the first until your last day is yourself. So, I think it's a great life skill to be happy in your own company.
The word 'introvert' has not been used in this article until now. If you feel this is an unfair title to slap on someone, you might be interested in Susan Cain's book 'Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking'.
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