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Sometimes I Just Want to Be Alone—Is That Normal? (Part 1)

Everyone needs a room of one’s own, some more often than others.  In Part I of this series, clinical psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explores some common—and not so common—variations on the state of seclusion.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
October 7, 2013

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“I need some time alone.” 

There are a thousand reasons to utter this phrase.  Time alone may mean basking in the peace of a silenced phone and a stack of books after a non-stop workweek.   It may mean time to write, compose, code, tinker, or otherwise revel in creative solitude.  Or, the request may be yelled by a sullen teenager through a slammed door.  Or it may be your rationalization to avoid potential social awkwardness.

Time spent in solitude exists on a spectrum.  Some people can entertain themselves for days on end, while others prefer constant companionship.  What’s healthy and best for your life is ultimately up to you.  Here are some common variations on solitude:

Solitude Type #1: Introversion

Sandy is a graphic designer.  Her best ideas come when she’s alone in her cozy office or working solo in a café with her laptop and the comforting buzz of strangers.  She has a close circle of friends and loves to hang out one-on-one over dinner or a glass of wine.  She’s never been a fan of parties or work conferences, but she can muster the motivation to go a few times a year, and usually comes home exhausted but glad she went.  Occasionally she’ll go a whole weekend without seeing anyone, but she revels in her freedom, tries out new recipes, or curls up with stacks of magazines.  After a weekend alone, she comes back to work on Monday recharged and with a clear head.

It is a great time to be an introvert like Sandy.  Introversion, at long last, is enjoying its glory days.  It is even, dare I say, trendy.  In an increasingly frenetic, team-based, social network-saturated world, the state of working and playing alone has gained value and respect, perhaps precisely because it is increasingly rare. 

Roughly half of Americans are introverts.  Introverts, true to the word, have a rich internal life.  They are happiest absorbed in a novel, writing code to create the next Facebook, or working in the garden with sunshine and butterflies as company.  They are attentive listeners.  They look before they leap.  Susan Cain, bestselling author and introvert advocate, writes, “There’s a word for ‘people who are in their heads too much’: thinkers.”

Introverts do enjoy social interaction, but usually prefer one-on-one conversations or the intimacy of a small group rather than a bar full of strangers or a raucous house party.  Many introverts report having to be “on” while socializing, which may be taxing but ultimately satisfying.  Introverts gain energy by being alone, while extroverts gain energy by being with others.

Solitude Type #2: Taking Off the Mask

Megan is a sales rep.  She puts on her game face at work and knows how to work a room, all smiles and handshakes.  She is a leader on her team and prides herself in being a role model for her younger colleagues.  A master at how to read any customer, she tailors her conversation and actions to close the deal.  She is exhausted at the end of the day, her face hurts from smiling, and she craves being alone so she can finally be herself and let down her guard.

Like Megan, many people present themselves to the world with a certain image.  The “social self” is, in short, the self you show the world.  Projecting it allows you to identify with a group.  The social self can create a sense of belonging and appropriateness, but cast too far from the true self, can simply be exhausting.  It is one thing to behave in a professional manner, but another to project a different persona.

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