Self-care and being alone

Woman on the edge of a pond, alone

Photo by Lee Heywood

Spiritual practice, to me, is a form of self-care.  Along with eating well, moving my body, and getting enough sleep, it’s one of the core ways that I take care of myself.  I’ve long thought about how to manage my schedule to make enough time for these activities, and I’ve done it increasingly successfully over the years.

I’ve found my need for rest much harder to fulfill, though.  Here’s a confession: I’m an introvert.  I am talkative and sometimes bossy, and at times I crave company.  I spend a lot of time working in ways where I am visible and “on” as part of my job, and some of my most favorite things — teaching and leading ritual among them — require this of me.  But I need downtime, and specifically solitude, to be able to do them.

I’ve resisted this for a long time.  I am delighted to have wonderful people in my life, and I could fill 48 hours a day and still not have every interesting conversation I’d like to have with them.  This hasn’t always been true in my life, and I value it all the more for that.  So I’ve always felt that my need for alone time made me high-maintenance, and that if only I were somehow managing things better, I wouldn’t need or want so much of it.

For this reason, reading Susan Cain’s book on introversion (Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) was a revelation to me.  Although I’ve always intellectually accepted that introverts and extroverts are both valuable people with good ways of being in the world, the cultural bias towards extroversion that she highlights in the first part of the book took me completely by surprise.  She says:

“Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a manʼs world, discounted becauseof a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”

Somehow, hearing this from outside of myself made it suddenly easy to believe, and this changed my relationship to rest, aloneness, and downtime.  They’re still things I struggle to find a balance of in my life, but they’re no longer things I resist needing.

Moral of the story: we all need the things we need, and thinking that we don’t or shouldn’t or would be better people if only we didn’t doesn’t turn out to help much.  I’d love to hear your stories: what need of yours did you resist?  Are you resisting still, or have you learned to accept it?  What helped?

About Sarah Twichell

Sarah Twichell is a witch, writer, foodie, musician, semi-competent knitter, aspiring runner, and all-around logistical wizard.

  • http://www.christinehoffkraemer.com Christine Kraemer

    I can’t work a regularly-scheduled office job and have energy to do anything else. The Protestant Work Ethic says I am very, very naughty. But I can actually be extremely productive if permitted to work on my own schedule — and this works well for me, but it puts me completely outside the dominant culture of work and makes most of its structural benefits (like paid vacation, maternity leave, a pension plan, etc.) inaccessible. On the up side, I live in Massachusetts and so am guaranteed health insurance. I hope that with the new health care plan, this minor miracle will come to pass across the US, and self-employed people like myself will have more options about where they can reasonably live.

  • http://www.12stepwitch.com 12stepWitch

    This makes me smile, Sarah, because I was an Extrovert that _thought_ I was an Introvert. I was super careful in making sure that I got plenty of time to myself, plenty of nights at home alone to be quiet. I might just read, or watch a movie, or do art, or just spend the whole night online, but I guarded those nights very jealously. I would tell people very seriously that I needed a lot of alone time, and I believed it, and I did really enjoy it.

    Then, my 12 step sponsor told me I needed to go to more meetings and do more 12 step work. So I fully threw myself into it. Weeks flew by where I would be out every single night with a meeting, a dinner, coffee with a newcomer, etc and so on. And it turned out….I had MORE energy. I was happier. I didn’t feel so much like life was passing me by anymore. Of course it got to the point where I was running myself SO ragged that lately I’ve had to consciously work back in some me-time…(moderation is difficult for me, can you tell!).

    Turned out I wasn’t an introvert…I was just a LAZY extrovert. HA!

    I love where you wrote ” if only I were somehow managing things better…”
    The first step in any 12 step program is that we admit our lives were UNMANAGEABLE. Basically, we let go of the fiction that there is a solution to an unsolvable problem, and that we will find it only if we manage properly. I was NEVER going to figure out how to drink like a normal person, because I am physically and mentally incapable of doing so. It cannot be managed. You were never going to figure out how to not need or want alone time, because you are an introvert. It cannot be managed.

    Letting go of fictions and accepting reality is so wonderfully freeing! I am glad you are able to do so and that the book helped you do that.

    Happy Friday!

    • Sarah Twichell

      That’s such an interesting story! Thanks for sharing it. I think you’re right that we all possess core needs that are unmanageable; I think most of us also have needs that spring from our histories and pain that we can work with, and finding the dividing line is the work of a lifetime.

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    I was very interested in Stoicism for several years, and I really tried to apply its principles in my life. It worked- and still works- for little things. Like, “Oh, we don’t get to go out tonight because of the storm, well, storms aren’t under my control so that’s okay.” But not only have I completely failed to apply it to larger issues like genuine personal needs, the mere attempt to do so seems to result in feeling disconnected, clinical, cold- and still dissatisfied about the situation. So your conclusion that “we need all the things we need” resonates with me.

    • Sarah Twichell

      Yes! There’s a way in which I think that it’s important to remember we’re not in control of everything, and that way covers small things — this blizzard nixed my plans — and big ones, like serious illness. In between, however, it’s easy to slip into the territory of self-negation, which in turn distances us from perceiving what we need as clearly as possible.

  • http://PhDeviate.org PhDeviate

    I’m not completely convinced by the thesis that the world is extrovert biased. I think it’s biased towards an unreachable ideal of a person who can do both with equal success: someone who never craves social interaction but never shies from it either. At least, this is my experience. I go through both modes, though I’m more often extroverted than introverted. And I find that it is about even odds that people will find my desire for social contact oppressive AND my desire for solitude alienating. In its own way, that is fairly freeing. Because since neither mode is going to please others, I can free myself to think about what will most please me–which often, in turn, ends up pleasing others!

    • Sarah Twichell

      I also find it true that there’s a cultural ideal about relying on our own resources, which is something that could easily be mapped to introversion. In many areas of my life, though, I have an easier time thinking of highly valued activities that are extroverted (for Pagans, teaching and leading ritual) than ones that are introverted (seers or oracles, perhaps). Of course, introverts often can and do engage in extroverted activities, but when they are the ones that are highly valued, the introvert’s desire for a break from them becomes a capacity restriction that naturally extroverted people don’t have.

      Cain also has some interesting historical hypotheses about the (relatively recent, she says) shift towards highly favoring extroversion and the ways that it’s now starting to show up. I don’t know if I entirely agree — like many things that perceive themselves as defending the underdog, it’s strongly pro-underdog! — but I found it a useful narrative to consider.

  • http://www.nightvisionastrology.com Miriam Klamkin

    I’m actually supposed to teach a workshop on Self-Care for Introverts next week, and so far no one’s signed up, and – please don’t tell! – part of me is secretly looking forward to having the night off after all… hey, am I getting an insight into WHY no one’s signed up??