Matters of the Mind: From loneliness to solitude, a journey worth trying

With the onset of the global pandemic, social distancing became a necessary precautionary step in containing its spread — the months establishing feelings of loneliness and isolation in many.

While the feeling of loneliness is not new and existed within us and our homes well before Covid times, the last few months have brought forth an important discussion to the fore.

How do we cope with loneliness? It was never considered a health concern, but is now widely accepted and a frequently reported negative emotion in counselling sessions.

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Multiple cases of anxiety, isolation and feelings of despair, complaints about not being able to endure the distance from friends and family, have had Covid-positive patients breaking down in mandatory isolation, making us turn our heads towards the stigmatised, the judged, and the mocked.

From ‘time out’ in childhood, being locked up in bathrooms, to extended punishments of solitary confinements in jails for people who are worse than others, loneliness is ingrained in our heads as a serious ‘punishment’. Socially, we easily judge and generously label people as ‘loners’, ‘weird’, ‘shy’, ‘unfriendly’, ‘unconfident’, ‘not fun-loving’ or such, often creating deep cracks in people’s self-concepts.

Movies, social media and advertising contribute heavily to this faulty understanding of loneliness.

Just like happiness, sadness or hopelessness, loneliness is a feeling, elicited within us, by our own thoughts. Between the trigger/stimulus of being by oneself and our feelings/responses, there is a very powerful space that we unfortunately fill with previously heard, seen, learnt or popular belief. This leads us to the conclusion: ‘I am no good if I am alone’, and that ‘there must be something wrong with me’.

It is time to take a wiser look at loneliness.
It is time we learn to transform loneliness into solitude.

While being alone is a state of absence of anyone around us, loneliness is a negative feeling, marked by a sense of isolation, as if something is lacking or missing.

People may feel lonely even when they’re at a party with familiar people. Then there are others who can spend time alone without feeling lonely.

Solitude, on the other hand, is a state of being alone, without feeling lonely. It is a positive, transformational, constructive, creative and an effective state to engage with oneself.

loneliness, loneliness coronavirus, solitude, matters of the mind, pandemic anxiety, dr shwetambara sabharwal, well-being, indian express lifestyle While being alone is a state of absence of anyone around us, loneliness is a negative feeling, marked by a sense of isolation, as if something is lacking or missing. (Photo: Getty Images/Thinkstock)

Altering the perception and association of ‘being alone’ with loneliness, sadness and misery, to ‘being alone’ and actually enjoying the solitude, needs motivation, conviction and practice.

If we can encourage ourselves to explore, embrace and even choose solitude, we can save ourselves from many psychological and social stressors, with or without people, with or without the pandemic.

Solitude provides time and opportunity to ask important questions, build an authentic self-concept, contemplate, grow and learn. It helps with self-discovery, developing resilience, directing our minds to calm and relaxation, rest and restoration.

I am not glorifying being alone. Of course, it is important to be with people, enjoy meaningful relationships, connect and bond with others. So many of our joys are tied to our relationships.

But being dependent on people for happiness, self-worth, to feel complete, secure and special, can wear us out and, in fact, leave us feeling more lonely and anxious.

My attempt here is to carve a tool for you to use, in those moments when you are by yourself, to awaken, feel fulfilled, complete and whole within yourself, independent of the presence of individuals, however, valued by us.

Solitude, like healthy eating, exercise, meditation and adequate sleep, can prove to be an essential component for our well-being.

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You might quip at a therapist listing out virtues of being alone, but just for the sake of exploration, choose it, schedule it, practise it and use it to change your journey.

The experience of solitude will help us better understand ourselves, change the popular blind belief that loneliness is a personal failure or an unbearable experience.

Building solitude into our daily life can help reduce our feelings of loneliness, because we won’t be such bad company after all to ourselves anymore.

I often reminisce about my internship days — dinners by myself, long after friends had eaten with their families. I often welled up while chewing, my mouth too dry to swallow. I conspicuously remember transforming a lonely meal into delicious solitude. Those moments of solitude became priceless early lessons for an aspiring psychologist.

Take a moment to challenge your perceptions of loneliness, notice your needs and desire for contact, consistent presence of people around you, the intrusive internet, addictive social media, the crutch of constant dialogue or conversation with someone else. Include and schedule soothing soulful silent solitude into your daily routine. That is your invaluable ‘present moment’, your ‘powerful now’, with you being your friend, where you can hear your voice, develop, decide and dare to dream, learn enlightening lessons, be compassionate and really just be you.

(The author is a Mumbai-based psychologist and psychotherapist)

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