On the day my father died very suddenly, many years ago, my mother called two of my close friends before she called me. She wanted me to have someone with me after I heard the news.
Eventually, I would very much appreciate the company and comfort of my friends. But I did not want to see them right after hearing such devastating news. I just wanted to be alone.
I don’t know how unusual I am in wanting to be alone a lot of the time, including times when many other people would crave the presence of others. I do know there are others who share this preference – for example, from conversations in Community of Single People. I just don’t know how common we are.
Part of the problem is that the kinds of people who want to be with other people much of the time are the people who get the most attention. Their stories are told and retold, and in that way, normalized. Maybe I didn’t say as much as I do now about my own preferences for time alone, and as a result, back then, even my own mother did not realize how I would want to process such devastating news.
For me, it is not just during bad times, but also some good ones, that I savor my solitude. That, too, can be hard for people to fathom. When I lived on the East Coast, I used to rent a beach house for a week or two every year in the little town of Duck on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I invited friends or family to join me for some of the time, but I always wanted a few days alone. I just loved having the house and all those hours all to myself. It is a whole different experience from vacationing with others – which I also loved.
It was difficult to maintain my claim on those couple of days that I wanted to be alone. One year, when I invited my parents to come on the second day of my rental, they surprised me and arrived on the first day. They thought I’d be thrilled. They meant well, so I never told them I wasn’t. Another year, I invited my friends for the all of the days except the last two. When it came time for my friends to leave, one of them didn’t understand (even though I was clear when I invited her). She asked me if she could stay for the last two days. I found a way to say no, but I felt terrible about it.
I’ve heard from other people that they have had similar experiences. They, too, feel very badly about telling people whose company they like a lot that there are times when they don’t want their company, not even to do fun things.
Too bad we end up feeling badly about wanting time to ourselves. Maybe if we talk more often and more openly about our preferences, things will begin to change. (A guest post by ‘Think Again’ was a great example.) The people who get rebuffed will know that they shouldn’t take it personally, and the people who do the rebuffing won’t feel guilty.
[Notes: (1) Thanks to the wonderful people in the Community of Single People who have been discussing this topic there and inspired me to write about it. (2) For more about the differences between solitude and loneliness, take a look at these articles.]