The difference between the two and why one is the solution
“Loneliness is painful; solitude is peaceful.” — Henri Nouwen
Sometimes we have a hard time navigating between our relationships with others and our relationships with ourselves. We build out our communities and personal relationships to the detriment of our own wellbeing.
And sometimes we do this deliberately — to avoid the discomfort of the task of siting with ourselves.
Loving others isn’t an escape from the work of loving ourselves
In all about love bell hooks writes,
“We all long for loving community. It enhances life’s joy. But many of us seek community solely to escape the fear of being alone.”
And she’s right, of course. So many of us fill our lives with constant distractions — especially partners and other people — to avoid the deafening discomfort of being alone in our own company.
I know of a girl who was so uncomfortable in her own company after a breakup that she couldn’t go to the grocery store alone, and scheduled out a big meal to cook every Sunday in order to have structure to combat the stillness of her life.
Instead of sitting with herself, within it, she shuttered it out, banging literal pots and pans and averting her attention to the task of easy-to-follow directions to drown out the question, “what next?”
Had she had a partner at the time, she’d probably be doing this with him. Because we do this with people, too. But it’s not an actual fix.
In Reaching Out Henri Nouwen writes,
“No friend or love, no husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness”
He goes on to say,
“Instead of running way from our loneliness and tying to forget or deny it, we have to protect and turn it into fruitful solitude… Loneliness is painful; solitude is peaceful. Loneliness makes us cling to others in desperation; solitude allows us to respect others.”
“Learning how to ‘sit’ in stillness and quietude can be the first step toward knowing comfort in aloneness.”
Love requires self-love, and self-love is built in solitude
“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.”
Rather than a need for privacy or avoidance of others, solitude is the place where we can truly look at ourselves, build self-love, and develop our authentic selves.
For as much as we advocate “talking about” and “feeling” our emotions, we don’t spend nearly enough time just sitting with them.
We’re so quick to throw them out on the table, as though we can get over them by moving along to the next step. But that’s not how it goes.
We have to learn to sit with our own experience, to own our emotions rather than combating or quelling them. We have to breathe in acknowledgement; then breathe out acceptance — until we find salvation and self-love, only found in our own stillness.
Some short tips to get started:
- Try meditation. There are tons of great entry-level resources available, including a number of free apps, that will help ease you into meditation starting with short, gently-guided sessions. The benefits of meditation are immense, especially for quieting our minds and being at peace with our own selves.
- Sit in silence and just observe your surroundings as they are. Try going to a coffee shop and, rather than retreating away from what’s going on into our internal thoughts, try instead acknowledging and mentally “embracing” everything that’s there — without judgement or emotion. If a coffee shop makes you anxious, try this at home.
- Breathe. It’s amazing how often we don’t fully breathe, especially when we’re feeling anxious. Any time you’re feeling anxious, simply take slow, deliberate breaths. Be aware of and focus on your inhalation… and exhalation. Repeat.
- Acknowledge each emotion, thought or feeling as it comes. Rather than suppressing emotions or distracting ourselves from them with other things, work to see each thing, face it, name it — and then gently set it down rather than indulging in it or letting it snowball. Gently acknowledge, in your head, “I am feeling anxious.” And then breathe and set it down. If it comes back, simply acknowledge it again — and set it down again.
- Be gentle with yourself. Don’t stress if it’s tough, or if the exercises don’t make sense at first. It’s simply about being comfortable in our skin, and it takes baby steps to get there. If we’re gentle with ourselves and keep at it, eventually we will develop security and ease and happiness in our skin.