The School Of Life, the initiative run by philosopher Alain de Botton to develop 'emotional intelligence', has just released a series of books on how to cope with various situations that crop in life.
For many of us - although we're not quick to talk about it - loneliness is a major issue. In the book How To Be Alone, Sara Maitland - who went from being very gregarious to living in the boondocks in Scotland - explores how to cope with loneliness.
Here we present extracts:
Being alone in the 21st century
There is a problem, a serious cultural problem, about solitude. Being alone in our present society raises an important question about identity and well-being.
How have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world, at least, at a cultural moment which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfillment and human rights, and above all individualism, more highly than they have ever been valued before in human history, but at the same time these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves?
Think about it for a moment, it is truly odd.
We declare that personal freedom and autonomy is both a right and good but we think anyone who exercises that freedom autonomously is 'sad, mad or bad'.
In the Middle Ages, the word 'spinster' was a compliment. A spinster was someone, usually a woman, who could spin well and was financially self-sufficient - it was one of the very few ways that medieval women could achieve economic independence. The word was generously applied to all women at the point of marriage as a way of saying they came into the relationship freely, from personal choice than financial desperation. Now it is an insult, because we fear 'for' such women - and now men as well.
Being single, being alone - together with smoking - is one of the few things that complete strangers feel free to comment on rudely: it is so dreadful a state (and probably like smoking, your own fault) that the normal social requirements of manners and tolerance are superceded.
Re-balancing attitudes towards solitude
Solitude can happen to anyone; we are all at risk. There is no number of friends on Facebook, contacts, connections or financial provision that can guarantee to protect us. The largest and fastest-growing groups of people living alone are women over 75 (bereavement creates solitude) and men between 25 and 45 (the breakdown of intimate relationships creates solitude).
The two most common tactics for evading the terror of solitude are both singularly ineffective. The first is denigrating those who do not fear it, especially if they claim to enjoy it, and stereotyping them as 'miserable', 'selfish', 'crazy' or 'perverse'. The second is infinitely extending our social contacts as a sort of insurance policy, which makes social media increasingly possible.
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Face the fear
A survey in 2008 suggested that more than 13 million people in the UK have a terror of being out of mobile-phone contact. These individuals experience anxiety and panic symptoms when they run out of battery and credit, lose their phone or have no network coverage. They are suffering from 'no-mobile phobia', which has been given the name nomophobia and could affect up to 53% of mobile phone users.
Of course, I am not seriously contending that everyone who cannot enjoy being alone has a pathological psychological disorder, but there are some interesting parallels. The standard and highly effective treatment for phobias is a combination of CBT (Cognitive Behaviour-Therapy, a popular talking therapy that seeks to change how you think and what you do to help you feel better) and desensitization.
- Accept the fact that fear is at least one element in your dislike and avoidance of solitude.
- Study the benefits and joys of being alone.
- Build up various strategies for being alone, starting with the least threatening and most pleasurable ones you can imagine.
- If you can tolerate solitude in the shower - have a bath instead: it takes longer and because it is quieter, it is easier to be aware of being alone. Become more aware of moments of solitude and how they make you feel.
- Spend some time alone where there are other people, but only those not known to you; railway travel is good for this, and so is shopping alone.
You may surprise yourself. Once you feel secure in accessing solitude, you may find that you like it and feel its benefits and its joys; you cannot know until you try.
This is what happened to me. I had never lived alone in my life. I perceived myself as a deeply sociable, extroverted human being with a particular grace for friendship and a highly sophisticated, noisy discussion.
When my marriage ended and I went to live alone in a little thatched cottage, I was constructing myself as the heroine of a tragic, failed love story. I was eagerly anticipating being thoroughly miserable and having one more thing to 'blame' my ex-husband for.
My subconscious was a great deal smarter than my conscious mind.
My first home alone was a semi-detached cottage in a small village, barely an hour outside London. My son came up at weekends; my friends visited me; for some of the time I had jobs of a distinctly non-solitary kind (I was writer-in-residence in a prison for two years). So I was only getting small doses of solitude initially but for me it did not take long.
I could feel myself relax and expand,; I had more energy, both for work and for physical exercise. I got fitter. I slowed down, woke up earlier and started to see the world more sweetly and in more detail. Since I started living alone, I have less and less trouble with the depression that I had assumed, throughout my entire adult life, was a part of my personality.