Humans need to connect with each other; it is a biological imperative. We also need solitude. Solitude calms our nervous system, increases our creativity and heightens intimacy with our friends, family and lovers. Connection and solitude sit at two ends of a continuum. Move beyond social connection and you find overwhelm. Move beyond solitude and you find isolation and loneliness.
Our Personal Continuum
Each of us has our own way of viewing this continuum, and our own opinions on what different steps of this spectrum should be called. You may find it helpful to put your own personal continuum into words. We can do this by simply taking a sheet of paper, drawing a line across it, and labeling one end of it social connection and the other solitude. Then fill in the ways you would name each degree of connect and separation. For example, your word to describe your relationships with family or spouses would hopefully be placed closer to the Social Connection side of the line, while your words to describe time with your pets would likely be written closer to the solitude side.
Just as each of us has our own continuum, we also find our needs satisfied at different points on that continuum. Put another way, we all need different levels of connection and of solitude at any given time in order to feel happy, healthy, and productive. The purpose of having our own continuum is so that we can determine where we are on it, how comfortable we are at the moment and if we need to make adjustments. We determine this by listening to our nervous system, our thoughts and feelings. Am I in the just right zone with a balance of meaningful togetherness, social interactions and alone time? Or am I beginning to feel tense, dreading the interactions of the day? Perhaps you are feeling alone, lonely and needing the companionship of another person. We listen to what our body is telling us about what we need and keeping an eye on if we are on the verge of going over the edge.
Overwhelm, Connection, Solitude, Loneliness
Janie works all week by video. She begins her week looking forward to seeing colleagues, making deals, having meetings. At work she feels connected, supported and engaged. In her free time, she uses social media and video to meet with friends, go to book group, have intimate chats with close friends and conversations with her family. She feels loved, heard and understood. By Friday night, she is exhausted and wants quiet time at home. Saturday she looks forward to doing solo activities but by Saturday night she finds that she is beginning to feel lonely and isolated.
What does this mean on Janie’s personal continuum of connectedness? As her week progresses, she moves toward social connect. By the end of the week, she is on social overload, and needs to have time to recharge alone. On the weekends, she enjoys solitude, but begins to move toward loneliness and isolation.
To know where we are on our personal spectrums, we need to key into our nervous systems. The nervous system has three basic states. It can tell us when we have enough, too much or not enough of something. To be able to read those signals, we need landmarks to let us know where we are.
Moments when you feel that you can handle what is happening right now. We are having fewer of these moments currently, due to the time in which we are living. We are bombarded with bad news and danger, therefore we need to listen carefully for the times when we feel comfortable in our bodies and our lives. It is that feeling, “I am ok, I can manage.”
Using this information, you can begin to read your body. Knowing your body and its sensations can lead you to a clearer awareness of what you need.
Let’s go back to the example of Janie. She begins her week at one end of the spectrum: recharged, energetic, feeling like she can handle her life and what needs to be done. As her week goes along, she has more challenges and more moments of feeling neither calm nor sure of her ability to handle it all. By the end of her week, she is feeling overwhelmed and drained of energy. She is ready to withdraw and if drained enough, she will want to give up. The danger is that during the weekend it becomes easy to spend excessive time alone and become lonely.
During this time of shelter at home and safer at home, we all face the struggle of balancing connection and solitude. We are forced to keep our distance and have limited access to those we love and care about. It becomes an essential part of self care and well being, to be able to know where we are on this continuum and determine what we need, when we need it and how to get it.
The first step in this process is paying attention to your feelings, your body sensations and your thoughts so you can determine what you need.