How An Introvert Finds Solitude In The Company of Others

Crowds of people, their collective narrative and unified mind wear me out. So I developed my own narrative to keep me sane.

black and white image of a girl in a crowd looking at the camera for article by Larry G. Maguire

Photo by Justice Amoh on Unsplash

Crowds of people, their collective narrative and unified mind wear me out. So I developed my own narrative to keep me sane.

A few years ago, when I was building a business, I took the recommendation of my then business partner to join a local business network.

So I did.

And I hated it.

Every Friday at 7:00 am for four years, I had to switch on a disingenuous version of myself. I was compelled to talk shite with people I didn’t connect with, (although there were a couple with whom I did), and pretend to be someone I was not.

Others there pretended too — that was the culture.

I’ve no doubt some felt at home being Mr or Mrs chatty pants, front and centre, full with pretence, bathing in the glory of attention at being number one in referrals for the month. But I didn’t — I felt like an alien. I was forgoing myself for the sake of a lead or a sale, preoccupied with being busy and forgetting the importance of time alone.

It’s not like I needed to be there. The prior years from 2001 were kind to me based on genuine connections I had made in sporting and social circles. Without precondition or ulterior motivation, people got to know the authentic me and referred me business.

But I was chasing gold. I spent every moment trying to land new business and fight fires. I neglected the customers who supported me in the early days, and crucially, my sense of self-integration.

“A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.” ― Arthur Schopenhauer

These days it’s different. I work alone mostly, and on occasion, I’m working in company, I generally keep to myself. That’s not to say I’m not friendly and open or that I ignore people. The truth is the contrary. But when I’m in my work, I need to be left alone to concentrate even if there are others around. It’s kind of a, finding solitude in the company of others, type of thing.

Needless to say, I stay away from organised networking events, especially those held by organisations bent on using my attendance and that of others as a marketing exercise.

It’s not that I’m not socially awkward or averse to company. I enjoy being with other people, and I, like everyone else, seek companionship. It’s just if I’m going to be with people; I prefer the intimacy of one-to-one conversation over crowds.

I find there’s greater depth available in that.

You see, I’m fundamentally introverted, a nerd, interested in technical things and meaningful discussion. In a room full of people, I’d rather stand on the edge than find the centre. I take my time, and if I engage with you, I’ll do so because I’m interested in genuine conversation and not because I want to sell you my shit.

There are many people like me, people who retreat from the noise and vibrancy of bright shiny things. It’s not always the case, but we often prefer the intimate and the solitary to the superficial noisy collective.

However, it’s a constant battle.

When I was younger, others would tell me “don’t be so unsociable”. I was a shy kid, and that insistence from well-meaning others only served to make me question myself and my motives.

Thankfully though, I’ve gotten over that for the most part. Today I am unapologetic.

You see, the popular narrative of current times suggests we should all be out there “crushing it”, building our personal brand and hustling for the big win. It’s a blanket social ideal that offers no consideration to the merit of introversion and time spent in solitude, and I think it’s damaging.

“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
― Henry David Thoreau

I regard the truth of the matter is that many of us are uncomfortable in solitude. To be alone with only our thoughts is a fate worse than death, it seems. So we use avoidance coping to deal with our loneliness anxiety. We believe that to be valuable and worthy members of society that we must contribute and be productive.

We keep ourselves busy doing everything and anything. We fill our days with as much as possible — kill that to-do list! Show your bosses and clients that you’re a doer!

Folly.

Smartphones don’t help. App creators are voracious in their pursuit of users because monthly active users equal dollars. So at what expense?

Physicist Alan Lightman calls the always-on nature of things, The Grid. He says that it is an addiction. In his book, In Praise of Wasting Time, he recalls a conversation he had with Ross Peterson. The New England psychiatrist said that in his view, the source of increased depression and anxiety in teenagers is their “terror of aloneness”. Lightman says this terror is intimately connected to the intense always-on world in which we live.

He offers evidence from a 2015 study of social media use of 13-year-olds at the University of California and the University of Texas. The research findings found that “there is no firm line between their real and online worlds”.

Lightman also cites Psychologist Jean Twenge from her book, iGen. Twenge quotes research that says since 2007 and the advent of the iPhone, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children agreeing with the statement “A lot of times I feel alone”. Correlation, perhaps, but interesting nonetheless.

“I was a man who thrived on solitude; without it I was like another man without food or water. Each day without solitude weakened me. I took no pride in my solitude, but I was dependent on it. The darkness of the room was like sunlight to me.” ― Charles Bukowski

To exist, for many of us, it seems, to be someone of significance within our particular social circle, there must be feedback from other members. They are vital to our existence. To be alone and exist as a valid human being is impossible. It’s like a tug of war, in fact. It’s like the self is split between the world of people and the world of the inner self. I know what I prefer, I’m just not too sure how to resolve the conflict. Perhaps I can’t.

Regardless, I don’t think there is teaching anyone how to become comfortable in solitude. You either are or are not. If crowds of people you need to feel alive then so it is for you. For me and many others, it is the opposite.

I’ll still enter crowds and be with other people — it’s unavoidable, and to be honest, not entirely unwelcome. I’ll go there and wear a mask and pretend, just like everyone else. The difference is, when I retire to myself, I can take off the mask and be comfortable on my own.

I think that’s vital for a healthy mind.

In solitude, there is power, peace and integration, something that cannot be found in the company of others. So I will retreat to that as often as possible.

“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.” ― Virginia Woolf

Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. Every morning you’ll find me sharing a new thought on life, art, work, creativity, the self and the nature of reality on The Reflectionist. I also write on The Creative Mind. If you like what I’m creating, join my email list to receive the weekly Sunday Letters

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