Recharge versus Retreat—Making Time Alone Meaningful
We all need time to ourselves—time to rest, recharge, and reflect.
But it’s important to distinguish between finding meaningful alone time (see Alone) and escaping from our connections or retreating from our engagements. All of us, even the most extroverted, have times when we don’t have any more energy for people. We also need time to ourselves to gain perspective on what is happening in our lives and to plan for our futures. This time is not only important for our mental health, it’s also a critical aspect of a meaningful and fulfilling life. We have to have time to ourselves to truly get in touch with what we’re after and where we’re going, to maintain our connection with who we are at our cores, and to understand our values and passions. BUT we have to make sure we have a healthy balance and aren’t avoiding people or problems when we need to engage.
Avoidance or running away
Ugh … I just can’t face that right now.
We’ve all had times when we want to turn away from our problems. During the times when challenge after challenge piles up and we’re completely overwhelmed, it’s very natural to freeze or shut down (see Movement). There are ways of coping with this (see Handling Yourself in a Crisis), and one of the most important is being honest with yourself. Sometimes it’s fine to say, that’s enough, I’m shutting down for a while, then come back with renewed energy or a fresh perspective. But we should guard against withdrawing from people or problems by running away—by denying our problems and the need to face them. It’s OK to take a break, but when we find ourselves avoiding people or rationalizing our behavior to others (or, more problematically, to ourselves), that’s when we need to reassess our alone time and make sure we’re finding the balance we need to both take care of ourselves and to engage in our lives.
When you’re introverted or shy
If you are shy or introverted, it’s even more important to be intentional about your alone time and to truly understand how it fits into your life. Being introverted is not the same thing as being shy. Introversion means expending energy being with people and recharging when alone. An introvert may be perfectly comfortable with being around people—they may even thrive on it—but they will ultimately have to get away to regain their energy. Shy people, on the other hand, have a certain level of discomfort around people, and may prefer being alone.
In both of these cases, it is important to understand your motivations for wanting to be alone. As someone who is both introverted and shy, being around people is quite challenging for me. When I was younger, I was painfully awkward around people I didn’t know—mingling at a party or a professional conference was agonizing. It took years for me to understand my relationship with people and how to handle them. As I evolved as a person, I gained confidence, and engaging with people has become much more natural for me. I’m still shy, but I’m able to manage it. I’m also able to manage my introversion by building in alone time into my schedule. If I have to travel for work and be around people for extended periods, I build in significant alone time when I return.
It’s vitally important for anyone who’s shy or introverted to not only understand their desire to be alone, but to be completely honest with themselves about it.
Making the most of our alone time
Many of us have frequent periods in our lives when we just feel spent—when we have no energy or enthusiasm. This may be related to sleep or diet, but it is just as likely related to the relative time we spend with people and time we spend alone. It’s important to manage our energy. When we’re alone, we need to make sure that we’re not doing things that continue to deplete our energy. It’s important to plan downtime when we’re alone (see Nothing). Downtime might involve creative or recreational pursuits and doing things that don’t require physical or mental energy. It might mean meditating, reflecting, or engaging in some other internal exploration that helps us to know ourselves better. Part of quality alone time is rest and recovery, and part is developing a vision and a path forward—neither of which we can do effectively when we’re with others.
As we become more intentional about our alone time, it will be easier to manage our energy so that our time with people and time alone is balanced for maximum energy and benefit. This will ensure the time we spend with people is meaningful, productive, and fulfilling.
We all need time alone, so that when we’re with people, we’re energetic, focused, and genuine.