Appearances Can Be Deceiving (2. Solitude and Loneliness)

All that glitters is not gold, and alone is not always lonely.

Last week I began a series on behaviors that are often mistaken for one another. Elsewhere I’ve called them “multi-source behaviors,” in the sense that one single behavior might originate in different psychological spaces. Last week we saw how fidgeting and restlessness could be interpreted on the one hand as evidence of impatience, but on the other as evidence of boredom. One must stay vigilant to the possibility of multiple meanings behind behavior and not always assume we know the meaning of a grimace, a smile, or a frown. A simple “What’s the meaning behind that frown?” can often prevent bad feelings and a trip down the wrong inferential path.

A commonly misperceived behavior is the state of being alone. All too often, Gregarious Groupies try to nudge Solitary Singles into joining them on the assumption that the Solitary Single is lonely. But, being alone does not necessarily entail loneliness. We are built differently. Some of us have high thresholds for the afferent and efferent nerves,

1996 Jocassee Quiet Solitude, by anoldent CC BY-SA 2.0
1996 Jocassee Quiet Solitude, by anoldent; CC BY-SA 2.0

such that the 105 decibels of sound at a football game may not phase us because we have a high threshold for noise, while those bombarding decibels would wear me down because of my low noise threshold. After the game, you’d be ready to party, and I’d be ready to be private. I would not be lonely, but quiet and (probably) alone, or at least with another quiet person.

I remember a couple from graduate school days in Chapel Hill. He had a lower sensory threshold, she, a higher. He read in the library most days, while she taught junior high school choral music. He would arrive home in the evenings not lonely from a day at his library study carrel way off the beaten path, but, in fact, mentally energized from a day of reading and thinking. She would get home eager to talk through her day with him, not in the least exhausted from the hustle and bustle of hormonal youth trying to harmonize. When she spied him opening a book shortly after getting home, it was “What do you have against people? Talk with me!” And this was met with his “What do you have against quiet? Get comfortable with yourself!” Over time they learned to respect each other’s differing traits—they’re still married after 50 years.

These two were extremes—extremely introverted and extremely extraverted, the one energized by solitude, and the other energized by society. Then there are folks like me—ambiverted—ready for society after a day of study, or ready for study after a day of society. I give out of society juice after being in the thick of the action for too long and must get quiet, which usually (but not necessarily) means being alone, or with my ambiverted partner, Jane. On the other hand, I give out of solitary juice after extended study sessions (mostly writing and reading), and am ready for some social stimulation.

Loneliness happens when a soul has run out of fuel for being alone and is ready for some action but finds none. Most of us manage our needs for solitude and society successfully. When we begin to feel lonely, as in having had enough solitude and are now ready for company, we know where to look. Reaching out for contact could be satisfied by playing with a loved pet at one extreme or going to visit family or friends at another. Often, the simplest cure for loneliness is an open-ended question. Sometimes when I fly, I am ready for solitude, and I blank out the persons sitting on either side as I read. Other times I have just emerged from extended solitude and am ready for society, so I ask one of my seatmates an open-ended question and hope that an engaging conversation ensues.

So the learning is to never assume you know a person’s mental state when you see them alone. Ask. Then either let them be alone, or engage them based on their response.

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