Health

What Introverts Can Teach Us About Being Alone

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NNot only is introversion not a health risk, but introverts may have something to teach the world about how to be comfortable alone.

“There’s a pleasure that introverts take in observing and taking the world inside of them. That’s a skill that can be cultivated, says Dr. Laurie Helgoe, author of Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life is Your Hidden Strength, and associate professor of Behavioral Science at the Ross University School of Medicine. Because America is an extrovert-focused society, introverts learn social skills in order to be more outgoing, but rarely are extroverts taught solitude skills, Helgoe says.

Teaching adults — and kids — to be okay on their own could head off the perception that alone time is inherently distressing. “Learning to be content in your own company is a vital life skill,” writes educator Dannielle Miller, who teaches reliance and self-esteem in Australian schools. Helgoe agrees, also calling the capacity to be alone a “higher-level skill” for kids.

Because America is an extrovert-focused society, introverts learn social skills in order to be more outgoing, but rarely are extroverts taught solitude skills.”

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To cultivate these skills, people should imitate what introverts like to do, Helgoe says. She suggests participating in activities that elicit inspiration without being surrounded by a gaggle of acquaintances. This may include reading or attending group experiences like lectures, concerts, sporting events, or a political rally — solo. “That group experience of connection can transcend any individual relationship,” Helgoe says. Practicing these activities (in the same way that introverts are advised to rehearse how to make small talk at a social event) may help the lonely person find connection and confidence in solitude.

The endurance hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis says she is proof that enjoying time spent alone can be learned. When she tackled the Appalachian Trail solo, she says she felt “awkward and lost” at first. “The more I got used to it, the more I realized it was awesome,” she says. “It was such a gift not to feel like I needed to react or respond or produce — I could just be. And that is the moment I started to learn about who I was.” Pharr Davis continues to solo hike because she finds silence enables her to “feel true peace.”

It’s important to remember that everyone gets lonely sometimes, including introverts. Solving the loneliness epidemic will mean looking more deeply at the reasons why people are lonely — whether it’s due to loss, a lack of access to a community, a fundamental discomfort with themselves, or a misperception of how life “should” look due to social media influence. There won’t be a one-size-fits-all answer, says Perissinotto. “One of the challenges is that if we only take a generalist approach and don’t think further about how people are lonely, we are going to fail at solving it.”

Assuming that people who prefer solitude are lonely reveals a cultural bias toward extroversion that’s unhelpful. If introversion can be accepted as a natural state of being — one that might even lend resilience — it could lead to a clearer understanding of who is truly suffering from loneliness, and how to combat it. We might even ask different questions, says Perissinotto. “If you make it to age 90 and you’re living alone, what are you doing right?”

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