Solitude or Loneliness?

Read time: 4 minutes

Welcome to The Ascend Archives Tuesday Tale, a weekly newsletter where I share a story about a transformation, revelation, or change in thinking that has helped improve an aspect of my life.

For the past 2 weekends, I had no plans.

48 hours each to do whatever I wanted.

Weekend one in Idaho consisted of taking long hikes in the Sawtooth Mountains, writing in my journals, reading my book, and eating meals alone at local restaurants. I was thousands of miles from any friends or family and barely had cell service.

Weekend two at home in Austin consisted of walking around Lady Bird Lake, getting ahead on client work, watching the US Open, reading my book, and eating dinner at the bar of my favorite Thai spot in town. I was in my element.

Both weekends were pretty similar.

But one emotion came up in Austin that I never felt in Idaho: loneliness.

What is solitude?

Jay Shetty, host of the On Purpose podcast, taught me that solitude is the positive side of being alone.

Solitude means you become good company to yourself…It can be strong. It can be resilient. It can actually lead to our greatness…Being alone is a strength. Being alone is power. And in solitude, you can actually uncover your potential.

Jay Shetty

I’ve enjoyed alone time for as long as I can remember. Camping out in my childhood basement playing Madden NFL 10 for hours. Practicing shooting and dribbling drills on my driveway in high school. Going to a private cubicle in The Stacks to study for exams in college. Lounging on the sofa from 12 - 6 PM watching football on frigid Sunday afternoons in Chicago.

That didn’t mean I was antisocial by any means. You could catch me at high school football games on Friday night, tailgates & frat parties in Ann Arbor, and dancing at the bars on Well St. But I did enjoy recharging my batteries and didn’t have any issues taking an afternoon or full day without interacting with anyone.

I just viewed myself as independent.

But I was actually practicing solitude. I was intentional about taking time to be alone. To be present. During those times alone, I wasn’t thinking about what else I could be doing or what other people were doing. I was content playing my video games.

So how is loneliness different?

Check out the Webster definitions:

Solitude: the quality or state of being alone or remote from society

Loneliness: the state of being without company

Pretty much the same, right?

The distinction to me comes down to the state of mind while alone.

This starts with intention. I decided to book a cabin in the mountains thousands of miles from friends and family with limited cell service. I knew that I was going there to be alone. To reflect. To enjoy nature. To explore. To relax. These are all things I enjoy which allowed me to stay present. I wasn’t thinking about what else I could be doing because there was nothing else to do. I wasn’t thinking about what other people were doing because I didn’t have access to social media to see. I was focusing on me and my surroundings.

Now compare that to my weekend in Austin. I didn’t set out to be alone all weekend. I was walking around town seeing other people out together. I was getting text messages from friends at bachelor parties or spending time with their partners. My mind started to wonder. It started to compare my situation to theirs. I was no longer present, focusing on where I was and what I was doing. That’s where the loneliness crept in.

Using loneliness as a signal

I’ve learned the phrase “control your emotions” is nonsense. Emotions are going to come. I can’t control them.

I’ve found it’s important to allow myself to feel these emotions no matter what they are. Then after a period of time, I can act on it. It could be something awful that leads me to immediately cry. It could be something frustrating that leads me to go for a run to decompress before I address it.

Loneliness is another one of these emotions.

I felt bursts of loneliness leading up to and during my weekend in Austin. So I let myself feel the sad and self-conscious thoughts. But then I asked myself what I was going to do about it. This emotion was a signal that I craved some connection.

So instead of letting myself be alone all weekend, I found ways to pursue that connection. My friend Paul invited me to a meetup Friday night where a guy was leading a group breathwork session. I’ve never done breathwork before and I normally wouldn’t peg that as my go-to Friday night activity, but I went for it. It was great seeing Paul and I met some cool people I hope to stay in touch with. Then Saturday morning instead of doing a solo workout, I went to a run club. I caught up with some familiar faces and chatted with some new folks over 8 miles and coffee. Then Sunday afternoon, I spent an hour catching up with a few close friends on the phone, telling stories from the past few weeks and getting quick life updates.

Those bursts of connection with friends and people with shared interests were all I needed to address my loneliness.

Final Thoughts

I learned that I can’t avoid loneliness.

Just like I can’t avoid feeling sad or scared or embarrassed. But I do have control over what I do after experiencing those emotions. I’m grateful to have the tools and network of people to help me work through these emotions.

I’m still working on the right mix of solitude and connection.

The Idaho trip worked great because I had 3 days of networking and 2 days alone. Last weekend was mostly alone. But this weekend I’m pumped to rent an Airbnb with 20 friends on a lake outside of Austin (0% chance of solitude out there).

Just like my business pursuits, I’ll continue to experiment and find what combination of activities works best.

Thank you for reading! As always please reply and let me know what resonated, what didn’t, or what you question. I love chatting about this stuff!