Interview on the Stigmatisation of Solitude (Elle Magazine, UK)

Interview for Elle (UK)

Conducted by Otegha Uwagba, Founder of Women Who and Sunday Times Bestselling Author 

Otegha Uwagba:

Why do we as a society fear and stigmatise solitude – and especially so when it comes to women?

Matthew H. Bowker:

This is a great question, and there are several (overlapping) answers to it.

1. Solitude can be perceived as a rejection of others, a rejection of their value. If we decline a social invitation, or pull back from a group, they may perceive this to mean: ‘I don’t value you.’ Or ‘I don’t care about you.’ This is part of the reason why there is such a long tradition (for instance, in literature) of fearing and hating the ‘solitary’ madman devising evil plots alone in his lair. The idea (or fantasy) underlying this trope is that withdrawal from others means that a person no longer values others or cares about others, so he (or she) has no compunction about harming them.

For women, in particular, the connection between solitude and a perceived lack of caring creates a powerful stigma, since girls and women are still taught to think that one of their main tasks in life is to care for others, to be and become care-givers: dutiful daughters, doting wives or partners, loving mothers, and so on. So, when a woman violates this expectation, she can be shamed or stigmatised (even by other women) for gender-role-betrayal, for violating the norms attached to her gender. Tragically, many women internalize this stigma and, as a result, feel guilty and conflicted about needing and wanting solitude.

2. Solitude is stigmatized, specifically for women, in part because of millennia of sexism, misogyny, and violence against women. The solitary woman is still seen to be uniquely vulnerable, a potential target of aggression. In fact, throughout history, and even in many parts of the world today, a woman walking alone at night or sitting in a pub by herself reminds people of that vulnerability, calling up thoughts, impulses, and fantasies of being victimized or victimizing others. This is a bit complex, psychologically, but, put simply: Even people who have no intent to do harm may blame a woman for being alone, simply because her aloneness provokes in them thoughts and feelings associated with the possibility of aggression and violence. This holds true even if the woman is, in fact, in no real danger or is just as capable of defending herself as a solitary man.

3. The experience of solitude, itself, can leave someone (a man or a woman) alone with distressing thoughts, unwanted emotions, bad memories, or other feelings that he or she would rather avoid. Some people spend a good deal of their lives in constant contact with others, in part to avoid being alone, just for this reason. And it is easier than ever to do so today, since we now have the ability to chat, text, message, call, or interact with someone at virtually any moment of the day or night.

Otegha Uwagba: 

What are some of the emotional/psychological benefits of solitude?

Matthew H. Bowker:

There are enormous emotional and psychological benefits of solitude. The most important benefit, which is really the foundation of all the others, is that solitude means ‘being with oneself.’ It is about developing a relationship with oneself, speaking to and listening to oneself. In this sense, solitude is not a luxury but a necessary precondition if we want to know ourselves, be ourselves, and become creative, responsible agents in our own lives. Without solitude, we can’t really know ourselves, and so, we can’t act in ways that express who we really are.

Without solitude, it is easy to feel pushed around by life, like we’re always just reacting to the latest thing, or like we’re not in control, because, in some sense, we are not. Or, we can end up feeling fake, like we are just ‘going through the motions,’ which is a kind of emptiness. I think this emptiness is part of why so many people are depressed, or experience something like depression, today: We don’t have enough time, throughout our lives, to be with ourselves, and so we feel that something important inside us is getting lost, or has already been lost, which is our connection with our self, our vital center, our spirit, or whatever you wish to call it.

Otegha Uwagba:

What kind of character does it take to genuinely enjoy solitude – surely it’s not for everyone? Or is it?

Matthew H. Bowker:

Well, here I just wish to clarify that solitude has to be distinguished from the mere physical separation of ourselves from others, although sometimes we do have to physically separate from others in order to find or enjoy solitude. Of course, sometimes we do not, and it has always interested me that those people we call ‘space cadets,’ who seem to be off in outer space in a university classroom or a business meeting, are really in ‘inner space,’ in their own minds, enjoying solitary time even while in the presence of others.

At the same time, solitude means something quite different from isolating ourselves and locking ourselves away from the world, which, if it is sustained, is usually unhealthy because the person who hides away is typically not spending that time communicating with him- or herself, nor is he or she communicating with others. Thus, his or her life can end up becoming rather emotionally impoverished.

I would argue that solitude, if we understand it right, is or can be for everyone. I don’t think it takes a certain kind of character to enjoy solitude, but, of course, some people naturally enjoy it (or need it) more than others. Still, for everyone, solitude takes some practice and this practice requires a certain willingness to tolerate what may be, especially at first, unpleasant experiences encountered in solitude.

For some, solitude is like being put into a sensory-deprivation tank: All goes black, images or memories flash before their mind uncontrollably, and they feel immense anxiety. Such experiences of solitude might suggest that such people have done a good job of avoiding something (or some things) inside themselves, such that, once given the opportunity, what psychologists call ‘repressed material’ comes rushing to the surface. For a good many people, therapy (which is really a relationship) is actually very helpful in building the capacity to be alone, to experience and enjoy solitude, usually because some help is needed in working through traumatic or frightening experiences before they can be faced alone.

Otegha Uwagba:

If the notion of solitude is intimidating – but the reality can be psychologically beneficial, as I feel – how can people begin to feel more comfortable with it? What are some active steps they can take?

Matthew H. Bowker:

If we feel intimated by solitude, it usually has more to do with the feeling of not being safe in an emotional sense, and less with the feeling of not being safe in a physical sense. In some cases, people can even feel that they cease to exist when they are not in the presence of others, when they are not being seen or heard or touched. This makes life very hard, since these people are in some sense at the mercy of others to give them life, or the feeling of being alive.

For those who wish to find or create more solitary time but feel intimidated, I think, like almost anything, one way to begin would be to take small steps and then reflect honestly about the experience. That is, a person could easily declare, ‘I am taking some solitary time!’ and head off to the spa, chat with the masseuse the whole time, then stop off at the café to sip tea while texting a friend. This might seem to be a whole afternoon of ‘solitary time’ or ‘me time,’ but it is really very low-quality solitary time, as the person hasn’t really given him- or herself the chance to be alone.

If solitude is what we’re after, it would be far better to spend even ten minutes sitting quietly in a dark room, with no noise or music or interruptions, and to see what that feels like. It may be that, in trying to do that, we feel distressed, we accuse ourselves of ‘doing nothing’ or ‘wasting time,’ we worry that we haven’t yet replied to that email or done the laundry, or we keep mulling over that embarrassing incident that happened the day before. If we can be aware of these thoughts and feelings (which include a lot of guilt and shame and stress) instead of running away from them, if we can try to be a bit more kind to ourselves, and if we can stick to it and try the same thing the next day, then I would say: That is a pretty good start.



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