From the 20th Century societies have placed great emphasis on the importance of personal relationships. An implicit and general consensus reigns over our culture - it is believed that meaning and fulfillment in life is to be found primarily through relationships with others.
This idea formed the core of the 20th century psychoanalytic school called Object Relations Theory. Human beings, according to this school, are first and foremost social beings whose primary need is to develop secure and rewarding relationships with others.
According to David Bowlby, who was member of the the psychoanalytic movement;
“Intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person’s life revolves, not only when he is an infant or toddler or school child but throughout his adolescence and his years of maturity as well, and on into old age. From these intimate attachments a person draws his strength and enjoyment of life and, through what he contributes, he gives strength and enjoyment to others. These are matters about which current science and traditional wisdom are at one.”
David Bowlby, Attachment and Loss
Most therapists and psychologists of the 20th century assumed that psychological health and emotional maturity can be gauged by the ability to develop secure relationships.
The overemphasis on the importance of personal relationships has diverted our eyes from the importance of being alone.
Love and friendships, while important components of a life well-lived are not the only source of meaning and fulfillment in life.
Within us all, there exist two opposing drives: the drive for love, friendship, and a sense of a community with others: and the drive towards individuation, independence, and autonomy.
The society overemphasized the importance of satiating the former drive, and all but ignores the importance of satisfying the latter.
Deriving inspiration fromAnthony Storr's book; Solitude: A Return To The Self,
we can try and investigate how happiness, meaning and fulfillment in life, can be found by gaining an appreciation of the importance of solitude and learning how to master the art of being alone.
"The Capacity to Be Alone"
Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, was among the few who challenged this view of personal relationships.
In his paper titled "The Capacity to Be Alone" , Winnicott argued that the capacity of an individual to embrace and thrive in solitude must be considered a determinant of psychological health.
“It is probably true to say that in psychoanalytical literature more has been written on the fear of being alone or the wish to be alone than on the ability to be alone; also a considerable amount of work has been done on the withdrawn state, a defensive organization implying an expectation of persecution. It would seem to me that a discussion of the positive aspects of the capacity to be alone is overdue.”
The Capacity to Be Alone
Solitude and Self-transformation
Many individuals who have learned the art of being alone have understood that solitude can be used as a fertile setting to stimulate self-transformation.
A lot of us today are over-compliant, meaning we choose a way of life that is expected of us instead of one that resonates with our inner core.
We develop a personality designed primarily to please others, and in the process remain oblivious to our deepest needs.
Blind to our true feelings and instincts, we reach a point in life where we feel our life is meaningless.
Instead of approaching life as an experimental canvas upon which to discover our true self, we adapt ourselves to external expectations and consensus opinion.
One of the ways to escape an over-compliant personality is to seek out solitude for the purpose of stimulating a transformation of the self.
One can use periods of solitude to reconnect with their true needs and feelings, and tune back to their inner compass- the sole reliable guide directing one to fulfillment.
As Anthony Storr, wrote;
“It appears, therefore, that some development of the capacity to be alone is necessary if the brain is to function at its best, and if the individual is to fulfill his highest potential. Human beings easily become alienated from their own deepest needs and feelings. Learning, thinking, innovation, and maintaining contact with one’s own inner world are all facilitated by solitude.”
Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return To The Self.
Along with Anthony Storr, the philosopher Michel Montaigne as well as the psychologist Carl Jung understood the vital importance of solitude.
For Michel Montaigne, solitude was necessary in order to retain freedom from the constraints imposed by others;
“We must preserve a little back-shop, all our own, entirely free, wherein to establish our true liberty and principal retreat and solitude.”
For Jung, the capacity to be alone was vital for "inner-work" - that is, exploring the inner depths of the psyche, the "mini-cosmos" within.
“The years when I was pursuing my inner images were the most important in my life – in them everything essential was decided.”
Creative Work and Solitude
Creative work grants us a unique opportunity to change our self-identity by self-reference.
Through the exploration of our imagination, and the attempt to materialize novel creative works in the world, we can redefine our worldview and transform our sense of self.
For as Storr puts it;
"The creative person is constantly seeking to discover himself, to remodel his own identity, andCarl_Spitzweg_042 to find meaning in the universe through what he creates. He finds this a valuable integrating process which, like meditation or prayer, has little to do with other people, but which has its own separate validity. His most significant moments are those in which he attained some new insight, or makes some new discovery; and these moments are chiefly, if not invariably, those in which he is alone."
Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return To The Self.
Solitude in the Modern Day
Solitude is a key ingredient in the quest to satisfy the drive for individuation, independence, and self-realization, yet in the modern day, true solitude is becoming increasingly difficult to find.
We rarely experience solitude. Instead, many of us spend our time alone watching TV, or obsessively zoned in on our computers or smartphones.
As more and more individuals cut themselves off from experiencing true solitude, they will likewise find it increasingly difficult to individuate and become a separate and unique self-realized individual.
Immersed in the opinions, ideas, and expectations of others- even when alone - they will automatically conform to the socially accepted worldview, and take a path in life that is expected of them, instead of one that fulfills their deepest needs and does justice to their uniqueness as individuals.
Solitude for Self-actualizers
Solitude is essential for the few devoted to the individuation process - to become the person you are capable of becoming by actualizing your higher potentials.
One must make time and create space to be alone with their thoughts: either in meditation, exploring your "inner images", or engaged in creative work.
Periods of solitude will connect you to the deeper aspects of your self, allow you to discover who you really are and what you really want out of life, and give you the ability to engage in self-transformation via self-reference.
Solitude will also grant you respite from the world.
The noise, busyness, and troubles which plague the world can at times be overwhelming and wreck destruction on the health of our psyche.
Solitude, especially in the times we live in, can act as a much needed antidote to the craziness of the world.
“When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.”
- Object Relations Theory
- Attachment and Loss
- Solitude: A Return To The Self.
- Why You Should Spend More Time Alone
- Michel de Montaigne
- Carl Jung
- William Wordsworth