There is no doubt that solitude is a challenge and to maintain balance within it a precarious business. But I must not forget that, for me, being with people or even with one beloved person for any length of time without solitude is even worse. I lose my center. I feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces. I must have time alone in which to mull over my encounter, and to extract its juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it.
~May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude
I figured out while I was still in my twenties that when I spent a fair amount of time around other people, I then had to spend some time by myself to recharge. At the time, I never would have called myself an introvert. After all, I liked being around other people. I was a performer. I choreographed and taught dance. I went out disco-dancing with friends till the wee hours of the morning.
Back then, the generally accepted image of an introvert was a painfully shy person who could barely look you in the eye or have a conversation and would rather stay home and read than be around other people. (They certainly wouldn’t be comfortable getting up in front of people to perform!) Nowadays, however, introverts and extroverts are a little better understood, and I’ve come to realize that, although there are people who would be surprised to hear me say so, I’m a classic introvert.
There are a lot of articles out there these days about introverts and extroverts. You can take any number of quizzes to see which you are. One article I read a few months ago observed (correctly) that it ultimately comes down to energy: introverts give or expend energy when they’re around other people, and extroverts receive or absorb energy when they’re around people. This is why introverts feel drained when they’re around other people for too long without some alone time to refuel and recharge.
“I lose my center. I feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces.”
I couldn’t have said it better. If I don’t get some alone time every day, I start to feel scattered. If this goes on for an extended period of time, I start to feel emotionally brittle, even fragile. If it goes on for a really long time, I get cranky and irritable. Me without my alone time is not a good thing.
So I knew ahead of time that last week was going to be a challenge: two different house guests in the same week, followed by traveling to a good friend’s out-of-state wedding—which would involve spending many (10+) hours in a car with someone else (I’d offered to share the trip with another friend of the bride) and staying at the home of friends with multiple people, sharing meals and bedrooms and bathrooms. (Translation: zero alone time.) As much as I wanted to attend my friend’s wedding, and in spite of the fact that the people I would be spending the weekend are good friends, I knew being around a crowd of people 24/7 for four days in a row was going to leave me exhausted.
The weekend alone would have been a stretch for me, but just to make things interesting, the night before my traveling companion arrived (she was spending Thursday night with me so we could get an early start on Friday), I got a call from a friend whose daughter-in-law was stranded at the Raleigh-Durham airport due to a cancelled flight. Could I pick her up and let her spend the night with me? Sure, I said.
Make that three different house guests in one week.
Then, the day before the trip, I got another call from another friend attending the wedding: One of the bride’s good friends (whom I had met only once) was financially strapped and couldn’t afford to pay for the gas it would take to get to the wedding (it would have been at least a 14-hour round trip for her). The bride really wanted her friend at the wedding. If she could get to my house, could she ride the rest of the way with me/us? Again, the answer was: Sure. Of course.
It was just one more person, but it was a person I didn’t know very well, and I think most folks would agree that it takes more effort and energy to hang out with someone you don’t know than it does to be around an old friend. Add to this my natural tendency to take charge and take care of others in group situations, and, well…you get the idea. A lot of energy expended, even before we arrived.
The weekend was, as expected, perfectly lovely in so many ways—good friends, wonderful food, lots of laughter, and a lovely wedding—but by the time I finally got home and crawled in my bed Sunday night, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. The next morning, I still felt zapped. The good thing? I work mostly from home, so I was able to get up, have my coffee and breakfast, and sit down at my computer to work—all without seeing or talking to a soul.
Bliss. Balm. Replenishment.
At this point in my life, I know myself well enough not to be surprised that it’s taken me several days to recover from last week. Although I’ve had to work and walk the dog and feed the cats and do the laundry as usual, I’ve allowed myself to luxuriate in the peace and quiet of my little house and not be around other people unless absolutely necessary.
Luckily, I no longer feel guilty about this or think it’s weird. It’s just who I am. Once my battery is recharged, I’m fine. I go back to balancing sociability with solitude—and even look relatively “normal” to the outside world.
Any introvert will tell you that he or she worries about whether he or she spends too much time alone. After all, society still tends to look askance at us introverts, so we tend to second-guess ourselves. However, I’ve reached a comfort level with my need for solitude in the last few years. I’ve accepted that it is indeed a need and that it doesn’t make me strange. And since it seems I’m being called more and more to the writer’s life, solitude is not only a personal but also a professional necessity for me.
Most importantly, as someone who tries to follow inner guidance in making decisions and finding my way forward in life, having the opportunity to be silent and listen for that “still, small voice” is vital. A friend currently living with her parents recently lamented not having “mental and emotional space” at her parents’ home, and I understood exactly what she meant. Especially these last three or four years (during which I’ve experienced a lot of twists and turns on my life path), having the time and space to listen and sort out my thoughts and feelings and next steps has been crucial.
The past year has been a coming home for me in several ways. I’ve physically come home to North Carolina, and I’ve also “come home” to some parts of myself that I lost touch with over the years for one reason or another. But even more, this year has been about coming home to my true self, about accepting all of the different parts of me—even the ones that other people might not relate to or understand—and giving myself permission to be me.
A little over a year ago, I started following Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) on Facebook. I’ve come to look forward to her posts, which often contain insights that speak to the path I’m following. Yesterday morning, she said something in her post that goes along with the theme of this post:
“I feel like I can look at the world with more love and clarity than ever, and just say, ‘You do you; I’ll do me’…”
Every day I’m becoming more comfortable with “doing me” without apologizing for myself and my needs. There will always be times when I have to stretch myself to the limits of my introvert boundaries, and there will always be times when the only possible answer to a request is Sure, but knowing what I need to do to take care of myself when such situations arise will enable me to continue to balance being who I need to be for me with being there for the people in my life.
Earlier tonight I found this Audrey Hepburn quote:
“I have to be alone very often. I’d be quite happy if I spent from Saturday night until Monday morning alone in my apartment. That’s how I refuel.”
That says it pretty well. Solitude is my mental/emotional/spiritual refueling station. I have to stop in on a regular basis or I eventually run out of steam—and then I’m no use to myself or anyone else. Acknowledging my need for solitude and organizing my life to accommodate that need is a way for me to love both myself and the world; I’ve learned over the years that it’s pretty much impossible to do the latter without the former.
“Never forget that solitude is my lot . . . I implore those who love me to love my solitude.” ~Rainer Maria Rilke