Psychology, Self-Development, Videos

Solitude and Self-Realization: Why You Should Spend More Time Alone

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The following is a transcript of this video.

“Do not die of another person’s misery.”

Baltasar Gracián

While there are countless ways that we sabotage ourselves, sometimes our problems are not generated by us, but by the people who surround us.

“A single joyless person is enough to create constant discouragement and cloudy skies for a whole household, and it is a miracle if there is not one person like that. Happiness is not nearly so contagious a disease.”

Nietzsche, The Gay Science

There is an emotional osmosis that exists between human beings, and as Nietzsche points out, this osmosis is particularly strong in terms of negative states of mind. But the dangers of a poor social environment are not limited to the catching of a bit of anxiety, pessimism, or anger, rather our social environment can affect us in more perverse ways and one of which is in acting as a barrier to self-realization. The reason for this is simple: if everyone around us is living below their potential, if our family members, friends, and peers are passive, apathetic, overly anxious, or chronically worried, it will be very difficult in the presence of such people to muster up the belief that we can be any different. For this reason cutting the chains of an unhealthy social world can be a necessary first step to the unfolding of our inner potentials and to becoming more a self-realized, or in Carl Jung’s terminology, a more individuated man or woman:

“Here one may ask. . .why it is so desirable that a man should be  individuated. Not only is it desirable, it is absolutely indispensable because, through his contamination with others, he falls into situations and commits actions which bring him into disharmony with himself . . .[and] acts in a way contrary to [his] own nature. Accordingly a man can neither be at one with himself nor accept responsibility for himself. He feels himself to be in a degrading, unfree, unethical condition. But the disharmony with himself is precisely the neurotic and intolerable condition from which he seeks to be delivered, and deliverance from this condition will come only when he can be and act as he feels is conformable with his true self.”

Carl Jung, Two Essays in Analytical Psychology

Acting in conformity with our true self is already the task of a lifetime. But to do so when surrounded by corrupting influences turns this task into one of Herculean proportions. If we feel that the social world we occupy is thwarting us in this regard what can we do about it? The ideal solution is to find a new social world to transition into, one that is composed of people who uplift us and who possess the traits that we wish to cultivate. Spending more time around people who are walking their own path of self-realization can be a great way to encourage us to do the same. But sometimes this ideal solution is not possible. For with so many people in a state of disharmony in the modern day, finding a healthy social world to embed ourselves in can prove quite difficult.

If we can’t find a better social world to transition into then another option is to diminish the time we spend with other people and to spend more time alone. This may seem like a prescription for mental illness as a life void of interpersonal relationships is usually looked at as a sure path to mental deterioration. But a retreat into a more solitary existence, if used constructively, is an excellent way to promote personal growth and to manifest a more meaningful life.

“The capacity to be alone is a valuable resource when changes of mental attitude are required. After major alterations in circumstances, fundamental reappraisal of the significance and meaning of existence may be needed. In a culture in which interpersonal relationships are generally considered to provide the answer to every form of distress, it is sometimes difficult to persuade well-meaning helpers that solitude can be as therapeutic as emotional support.”

Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self

Solitude promotes self-change as it frees us from the needs and expectations of other people and so allows for the inward reflection that is necessary to better learn who we are. But solitude is also the ideal state for the use of our imaginative faculties and it is our imagination that introduces us to the possible and that shows us what we could become.

“Suppose that I become dissatisfied with my habitual self, or feel that there are areas of experience or self-understanding which I cannot reach. One way of exploring these is to remove myself from present surroundings and see what emerges. This is not without its dangers. Any form of new organization or integration within the mind has to be preceded by some degree of disorganization. No one can tell, until he has experienced it, whether or not this necessary disruption of former patterns will be succeeded by something better.”

Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self

One way we may decide to re-organize the patterns of our life is to take a more permanent step away from the social relations that defined our past, and to focus our energy on cultivating a vocation and a purpose to our life. For while many in the modern world see interpersonal relationships as the primary source of life’s meaning, our culture may have swung too far in this regard and in the process neglected another important hub around which a meaningful life can be built, or as Storr explains:

“I am less convinced that intimate personal relationships are the only source of health and happiness. In the present climate, there is a danger that love is being idealized as the only path to salvation. When Freud was asked what constituted psychological health, he gave as his answer the ability to love and work. We have over-emphasized the former, and paid too little attention to the latter. . .exclusive concentration upon interpersonal relationships has led to failure to consider other ways of finding personal fulfilment . . .”

Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self

In his book Solitude: A Return to the Self, Storr details the lives of many famous individuals who took this path of orienting their life around the hub of their work and who in the process created meaningful lives. Writers such as Beatrice Potter and Anton Chekhov grew up in horrible social conditions but before they fell into an absolute pit of despair, they discovered meaning through their work and learned that creativity, and the inner order it promotes, can be an effective antidote to the outer disorder of a sick social world. But as Storr points out there are also countless individuals who do not suffer from a particularly harsh social environment, but who still choose to make their interests and their work the primary hub of meaning in their life. Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, two men who devoted their lives to studying the factors that promote human flourishing, are two individuals who chose this very path.

“It is surely remarkable that, when they came to write their autobiographies, the two most original analysts of the 20th century devoted scarcely any space to their wives and families, or indeed anything save the development of their respective ideas. Both Freud’s An Autobiographical Study and Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections are exceptionally uninformative about their authors’ relations with others. We may applaud their discretion, and sympathize with their desire for privacy; but we may also justly conclude that their own accounts of themselves demonstrate where their hearts were centred.”

Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self

If we choose to take this path and to use a retreat into solitude to re-orient our life around the hub of a vocation, this process can also be the means to a more fulfilling social life. For in finding an intrinsically rewarding form of work and then spending the necessary time to become good at what we do, we will become more sure of ourselves and less in need of the validation of others. We will, in other words, become a higher functioning man or woman and in the social world, at least in terms of mental health, it is like that attracts like. The more we move in the direction of self-realization, the more we will gravitate towards others who are doing the same. Furthermore, as we become more self-reliant and less demanding of other people, as occurs with those who find meaning through their work, our existing relationships may also improve as a direct result, or as Storr explains:

“Our expectation that satisfying intimate relationships should, ideally, provide happiness and that, if they do not, there must be something wrong with those relationships, seems to be exaggerated. . . It may be our idealization of interpersonal relationships in the West that causes marriage, supposedly the most intimate tie, to be so unstable. If we did not look to marriage as the principal source of happiness, fewer marriages would end in tears.”

Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self

This retreat into solitude is but one of several techniques we have explored over the past several videos that can be used to promote our mental health and to improve our life. Many people after hearing of such things, may experience a momentary feeling of optimism and a shot of encouragement, but then quickly return to doing what has always been done. No change is made and life goes on as before. In the final video of this series, in an attempt to counteract this passivity, we are going to provide a way to frame our life that may encourage us to be bolder in our choices and more courageous in our actions. For the mistake many of us tend to make is to overlook the fact that sometimes it is not change that presents the gravest dangers, but rather the choice to remain the same.

“Why do people keep repeating the same self-destructive behaviour?” wrote Alexander Lowen. “To answer [this] question, I would compare the character . . . to a shell. To step out of character is like being born or, more accurately, reborn. For a conscious individual this is a very frightening and seemingly dangerous move to make. The cracking of the shell is equivalent to a confrontation with death. Living in the shell seems to guarantee survival, even if it represents a severe limitation on one’s life. To stay in the shell and suffer seems safer than to risk death for freedom and joy. This is not a consciously thought out position.”

Alexander Lowen, The Voice of the Body

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Edvard Munch - Death in the Sickroom - Google Art Project
Hanna Pauli - Friends - Google Art Project
Master of the Large Jars - Peasants Carousing (ca.1635)
Francesco Hayez 025
Alessandro Magnasco - Satire on a Nobleman in Misery - 36.14 - Detroit Institute of Arts
A golden treasury of songs and lyrics (1911) (14586572189)
Adriaen Brouwer - Inn with drunken peasants
The Concert (A Musical Party)
Peter Paul Rubens - Self-Portrait in a Circle of Friends from Mantua - WGA20355
Edvard Munch - Golgotha (1900)
Edvard Munch - Rue Lafayette (1891)
Johan Christian Dahl - Man Meditating by the Sea - Strandparti i måneskinn - KODE Art Museums and Composer Homes - BB.M.00147
Johan Christian Clausen Dahl - Landskap i måneskinnet (1823)
Inspiracion de Cristobal Colon by Jose Maria Obregon, 1856
SA 40873-Joan Huydecoper van Maarsseveen (1769-1836)-Vermoedelijk lid van de Familie Huydecoper
Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Luncheon of the Boating Party - Google Art Project
Anna Klumpke - Portrait of Rosa Bonheur (1898)
Chekhov 1898 by Osip Braz
Gerrit Dou - Scholar sharpening a quill pen
Carl Spitzweg - Die Lektüre
Emile Friant-Les Amoureux-Musée des beaux-arts de Nancy
Carl Spitzweg 069
Leon Wyczółkowski - Portret kobiety
Malczewski Jacek Wytchnienie
Zichy,Mihaly - Az emberi tehetetlenseg