We talk all the time around here about the value of rest and recovery. We know how critical time off is to emerge with stronger muscles and healthier tissue. We also know what the optimal recipe is – stop training, sleep, eat.
We grasp that philosophy for recovery from physical exertion, but what do we do to recover from mental exertion? Our recipes for recharging from our work are more nuanced and variable. My personal refresher comes in the form of solitude.
A few days back, my older son, Chase, went to prom for the first time as a tenth-grader. I took some time in the morning to ensure that his suit was tight and ready to roll, visiting the tailor for his coat and pants. I settled in to work. By the time I saw him off in the early evening, I had only spent time with Chase and a few minutes with his mom. For the rest of the day and evening, I was blissfully alone.
People make this error, thinking that being alone means being lonely, and not being alone means being with other people,” Cacioppo said. “You need to be able to recharge on your own sometimes. Part of being able to connect is being available to other people, and no one can do that without a break.
We don’t have to cut off all communication to reap the benefits of solitude. I certainly was still connecting to others. Throughout the day and during my evening of watching our minor league games, I was communicating regularly via emails and texts. My day was productive, though I had my own space.
The ability to not respond immediately (though I did) was critical. If someone is standing directly in front of you and asks you a question, you have no choice. You must respond, and you must respond immediately. There is no socially acceptable way to be introspective while having a conversation in person.
Person 1: So are you planning on doing that thing?
Person 2: Silent pondering
Person 1: Ummmm, what’s wrong with you?
We spoke some time ago about effective listening. I value the ability to process and fully understand what my conversational partner is communicating before jumping right back in with a reply, particularly in a serious discussion.
To wrap up my late evening, after the games were over, I walked in the hills and enjoyed the blackness of the night. There was full cloud coverage and no visible moon. As I walked, I connected with how happy I was in complete solitude. I knew I wouldn’t encounter another human, and that was refreshing.
The pleasure I derived from my midnight stroll doesn’t affirmatively make me an introvert, but it might. The popular definition of introvert is one who derives energy from being alone, while an extrovert recharges from being around other people. From Susan Cain, author of Quiet:
Introverts prefer quiet, minimally stimulating environments, while extroverts need higher levels of stimulation to feel their best. Stimulation comes in all forms – social stimulation, but also lights, noise, and so on. Introverts even salivate more than extroverts do if you place a drop of lemon juice on their tongues! So an introvert is more likely to enjoy a quiet glass of wine with a close friend than a loud, raucous party full of strangers.
It’s also important to understand that introversion is a far cry from shyness. Shyness is the fear of negative judgment, while introversion is simply the preference for less stimulation. Shyness is inherently uncomfortable; introversion is not.
Continually forcing ourselves into interaction without ever removing ourselves to contemplate the world around us is the equivalent of never taking a recovery day from weight training. We aren’t giving our minds what they need to rebound healthier, stronger and ready to tackle the day. We need not spend hours or days isolated from other humans. Taking just a few minutes of our day to allow our minds to process all that has transpired makes us better communicators and strengthens our ability to relate to others.
All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.
The discomfort we experience from the inability to be alone has a lot to do with how comfortable we are with ourselves. From the Huffington Post:
If the world around you feels trustworthy, you experience the world as safe. But if you have an early childhood experience when your parent could not or did not meet your nurturing and safety needs, you don’t feel secure in your world — and as an adult you have to keep trying to bring people into your world to soothe that feeling
Whether because of a traumatic childhood experience or just simply a lack of practice, I believe we should strive to avoid dependency whenever possible. Having to be surrounded by others gives control and power to someone else. Learning to be comfortable with our own thoughts and the world around us suggests we can make an affirmative choice when we engage, instead of being pressured by society’s rules.
Even if you are recharged by being stimulated by others and seek it out regularly, an emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us. Certain tasks and thought processes are best carried out without anyone else around. Even the most socially motivated among us might benefit from regularly taking time to ourselves if we want to be as fully developed as possible and be capable of optimal focus and critical thinking. Susan Cain continues:
When you’re working in a group, it’s hard to know what you truly think. We’re such social animals that we instinctively mimic others’ opinions, often without realizing we’re doing it. And when we do disagree consciously, we pay a psychic price…Forty years of research shows that brainstorming in groups is a terrible way to produce creative ideas. The organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham puts it pretty bluntly: The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”…solitude is a crucial (and underrated) ingredient for creativity.
That’s heavy. And maybe a little one-sided.
Spend some time with yourself. Then decide for yourself.