The Psychology of Solitude

William Holt (USA, AC 09-11)

It seems to me that introversion at Atlantic College (and thus introverts as well) are criminally undervalued.  Now, I make no contention with socializing or with keeping active in the company of others; in fact, I believe that these are essential components to  personal health and happiness.  Emotional growth through such interaction is one of the most profound things that one can take away from these two years and I strongly feel that I have already benefitted.  But what must be dispelled is the misconception that introversion in this environment–and in any environment for that matter–is something to be rejected.  Western cultures constantly misjudge the merits of solitude; to set oneself apart from the collective is to be seen as socially inept, as someone whose personality is maladjusted and unhealthy. Introversion is instead something to foster, something to celebrate.  To know oneself is to gain the most vital knowledge one can have.

Contrary to popular opinion, to be an introvert is not necessarily to be anti-social.  Rather, it is to require privacy, to yearn for solitude from time to time in order to be revitalized and to see the world anew.  Taken to his extreme, the introvert is someone who finds being with other people exhausting; indeed, even the average introvert may find superfluous conversation to be tiring and, well, superfluous.  But even when portrayed in such limiting terms, he must not be mistaken as shy.  Any introvert can be amiable and enjoy the company of others.  He can charm with intimate conversation, can stand before a full audience and give a bold and captivating speech.  Yet above all else, he cherishes his time alone, and in his solitude, becomes more in tune with himself.

 The typology of introverts and extroverts was first set down to paper by the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung during the early years of the 20th century in his treatise on what he referred to as the types.  This dichotomy has since been commonly accepted as the basic division between personalities, and constitutes the foundation of nearly every personality test and questionnaire since it was first propounded. 

Through his research on the relationship between hysterics and schizophrenics, Jung arrived at the basis of his argument, transposing his conclusions from the mental ward to the day-to-day.  Hysterics, he found, maintained contact with the outside world, while schizophrenics withdrew from their surroundings.  Looking into the dreams of the former, he found they were influenced most prominently by antecedents from the last few days as well as personal history; the dreams of the latter were marked by something stranger, more mythological, more archaic.  These characteristics observed in a lesser–but still notable–degree in the extrovert and the introvert.  In Jung’s writing, the second of the two is regarded in his temperament as the artist, the thinker.  Surely there is something to be said for this, some praise to be given for the man who seeks solitude, whence all great truths are born, for the tendencies of such a man are those of the philosopher and the sage.

Consider all that would be accomplished if our politicians were introverts.  Of the latter, there is a tragic dearth, and we would do best to fill the vacuum.  Garrulity in politics is not just a commonality but practically part of the job description.  We have been conditioned to vote for the figure who we’d like to sit down and have a beer with instead of the man who’s actually qualified for the job. 

We need more thinkers and less talkers in the corridors of power.  Extroverts are wont to dominate, to suppress.  If we were to seek another type of leader, if the time spent with ineffectual gabbing on the campaign trail could be invested in policy planning, in work of consequence and with genuine aims, what brave new world could then we live in?

I come from an extroverted society.  The United States constitute a nation that abhors quiescence, refuses introversion.  I admit freely, however, that I am an introvert, and am proud to say so.  Introversion is an orientation, a preference that must be recognized and respected.  It is not a lifestyle, for the introvert can get along quite well in the company of others.  He can even thrive in social situations, but in order to do so, he needs to recharge his batteries.  Too often do the extroverts infringe upon the solitude of others.  The extrovert simply cannot understand the need for it–when he is alone, his personality languishes, fades.  He does not know how to cope with himself.  After five minutes of quiet and isolation, he is text messaging or logging onto Facebook in a vain attempt to mimic the kind of insipid social interaction that he so craves.  Conversely, the introvert knows how to use this time to himself.  Alone, he is industrious and productive.  Creativity is not a social skill but one that be nurtured in private, and so it is the introvert who cultivates a sense of beauty and an appreciation of life’s finer nuances.

            Granted, one cannot live on introversion alone.  In the quest for solitude, there exists the risk of under-involvement with the outer world, a pit of emotional isolation.  Hans Eysenck, a successor to Jung, noted that the introverts in his studies were always “slightly on the defensive,” and by retreating from their surroundings, hazarded losing an essential part of their humanity.  At the same time, it can be said that extroverts face a similar risk of losing part of themselves.  They seek internal stimuli at the expense of their inner world.  This well-being that one cultivates through privacy and introspection begins to wither, even die.  Neither introspection or extroversion, however, is more prone to mental illness than its counterpart.

Here, at Atlantic College -and, speaking generally, throughout life- one must strive for balance.  The inner world and the external world are commensurate in their importance.  Ambiversion, as we will call it, is the ego in limbo -albeit, healthy limbo- between the subjective and the objective, introversion and extroversion.  Ambiversion is the ideal.  This is not to say we can dismiss those who tend toward a particular side of the typology, especially not the introverts–they are suppressed enough as it is.  We must learn to respect the privacy of others and recognize the need for solitude.  One gets rather tired of always being asked, “Are you okay?” or “What’s the matter?”  Nothing is the matter -we simply need a moment’s peace.

-United World College Student Magazine-

4 thoughts on “The Psychology of Solitude

  1. Tisk-tisk, William – you’re a trifle harsh on the social butterflies! To me, the dichotomy is false. We are all to some extent and depending on various factors, sociable introverts or private extroverts. For the sake of spiritual nourishment, everyone needs and most likely finds some time to retreat to a soothing activity, or inactivity( ‘quiescence’ as you call it). Granted, socialising in a UWC is hightened and at times overwhelming. But, it forms a crucial part of our learning experience and the potential to engage with peers should not be prematurely dismissed as ‘superfluous’ or regarded as nuisance or nonsense. Also creative inspiration does not necessarily exclusively emerge from solitude or reclusion – some of the most eccentric and extroverted personalities are considered paragons of creativity originality.

  2. Tisk-tisk, William – you’re a trifle harsh on the social butterflies! To me, the dichotomy is false. We are all to some extent and depending on various factors, sociable introverts or private extroverts. For the sake of spiritual nourishment, everyone needs and most likely finds some time to retreat to a soothing activity, or inactivity( ‘quiescence’ as you call it). Granted, socialising in a UWC is hightened and at times overwhelming. But, it forms a crucial part of our learning experience and the potential to engage with peers should not be prematurely dismissed as ‘superfluous’ or regarded as nuisance or nonsense. Also creative inspiration does not necessarily exclusively emerge from solitude or reclusion – some of the most eccentric and extroverted personalities are considered paragons of creativity and originality.

  3. This is a great article. This really puts into words the feelings that I have a lot. That moment’s peace is something I seem to long for so often but have so much trouble finding. People seem to expect friendly people to always want to socialize, which for me is not true.

  4. Excellent article, Will. You’re right that the general view of solitude is often misinterpreted as a lack of company, and associated with unhappiness. This is of course not necessarily the truth, I do agree that reflection is essential – especially here at AC – and is something that must be done in seclusion. However, like Wonga said, socializing is a crucial part of the learning experience. Without the people in your life there is less to reflect on. Don’t unsubscribe entirely from it.

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