In Defense of Solitude: The 30/70 Rule

I come from a long line of people afflicted with social anxiety disorders. I heard the phrase “I’m not a people person” so many times growing up that I thought I was genetically destined to feel alienated and antisocial for the rest of my life. I believed the family lore and suffered stomachache-inducing anxiety in social situations. I spent a lot of my 20s in an alcoholic haze in order to cope with interactions with human beings. Sorry human beings. It was me, not you.

Pandas spent most of their lives alone, because they need enough territory to support their large appetites.
Conveniently, my study is right next to the kitchen. Mine, all mine!

Once I sobered up, I compensated for my sense of alienation and insecurity by working hard to establish my imagined superiority in a group. I mentioned being in the military (I’m tougher than you), my college degree (I’m smarter than you) and used sarcasm as a weapon (I’m wittier than you). I was a jerk and not surprisingly, not a people magnet. I ended up just as I feared I would, standing next to the keg, the punchbowl, the creepy dude or the exit.  Each time, I vowed to never go to another party or event where there was more than one other person. The stress was too much. But my “survival” skills were completely untenable for a happy life.

The American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön advises: Lean into the sharp edges. If I’m not good at something, if I have a weakness, if I’m uncomfortable or insecure about something, I work to change it or rework it in my head until I have a better perspective. I practice, I read books, I turn a critical eye inward and really examine my thinking and motivation. It’s hard to separate who you have been told you were, from who you really are. Those early labels stick and sometimes it’s only experiencing complete misery that makes you challenge them.

I’ve come to realize that the need for solitude or being uncomfortable socializing for long periods of time, isn’t about a deficiency or disorder. It’s all a matter of degree. Some people are simply energized by being around other people and don’t particularly enjoy being alone. Others, like me, enjoy socializing for a limited amount of time as long as a requisite for solitude has been met. It isn’t about being a “people person”, it’s about understanding what your psyche needs. People often talk about “loners”, usually in interviews after horrible crimes. There’s being alone and there’s being lonely and isolated.

I need to be alone about 70% of the time and have set my life up in a way that I can meet that need. It can’t happen every day. I have a job, a family and responsibilities. Some days are 50/50. On some days when events conspire against my need for solitude, I find myself a bit desperate, shrieking “I just need 5 minutes to myself!” Apparently shrieking is antisocial behavior because everyone magically disappears.

True silence is the rest of the mind, and it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.

William Penn

True solitude without distraction is energizing for me. I can come from a calmer, more grounded place and then socializing doesn’t cause me as much anxiety. I feel more comfortable and am able to discover amazing things about other people. They are tense or nervous or anxious, too. I find that my “objective” in social interactions is to do my part to make someone else comfortable, to connect and listen. I’ve discovered that just about everyone feels “different” or alienated. It’s like an after-school special, except it has taken me long beyond my teens to figure this out. I’m a slow learner.

Fortunately, once I’ve conquered one anxiety, another one bellies up to the bar. That’s part of the joy of living – knowing that you have an untapped well of neuroses to keep things fresh.

23 thoughts on “In Defense of Solitude: The 30/70 Rule

  1. Very nice post.

    I sometimes wonder what William Penn or Henry David Thoreau would think of the world we live in. Peace and serenity are as rare as hens’ teeth unless you know where to look for them. My most peaceful, quiet moments are in the throes of exercise, where my mind is too busy making sure I get enough oxygen to think of anything else. I’d prefer a dry stump in a wooded glen, but I’ll settle for an ergonomic seat on a rowing machine.


    1. Sometimes I find those moments while doing housework or when I’m running. It’s a challenge now, when so many other things are calling for our attention. I remind myself to be more deliberate about spending time in solitude. I wish I could meditate – it’s currently on my list of things to learn. One of my friends suggested that running for me was “meditation in motion”. It’s a lovely way to think of exercise!


  2. I love reading things like this, something that lets you know you are not alone in your needs as a human, something that reminds you that there are other people who function like you do. Some people crave drama, some people crave solitude; both are equally acceptable ways of being.


    1. I think like so many things in our culture, the squeaky wheel gets the attention, while the rest of us walk around feeling alienated that we are not at all like that noisy wheel. Someone referred to the silent majority in a comment on a different post and I suspect there’s a lot of people that fit that bill.


  3. Neuroses, shmeuroses. Needing alone time is classic (and entirely normal) introvert behavior. We (yes, we!) gain energy from our alone times and spend energy dealing with others (no matter how much we might love it or them). Extroverts are the opposite; they gain energy from social interaction and spend energy being alone. Extroverts have traditionally been seen as the preferred “model” but that’s starting to change as the power of introverts is recognized (we tend to be thoughtful types). It’s just two ways of being human.


    1. What is classic and rational and intellectually known may not be how someone feels. Sometimes it takes a little longer for a person to figure that out for themselves. I’m a slow learner. As I I’ve mentioned in a previous post, in the world of fables, I’d be a tortoise.


  4. I’m more a 30/70 person – i need the energy coming the other way. maybe people who hang out with me need to be 70/30 people because of me 🙂


    1. Thank you for your kind nomination. Since I’m relatively new to the blogging world, I haven’t had time to read a lot of blogs, so I am not in a position to nominate favorite bloggers yet. Thanks so much for reading and I’ll keep plugging away at writing so I’m worthy of awards. Have a great day!


      1. Hi! (I’m sure your reading list is more like a novel in itself). My literature adviser recommended Quiet. It’s received raving reviews. i find it can be difficult to finish psychology books over fiction, though.


        1. I like reading a wide range of books, which is part of the problem. I am usually reading 4 or 5 books at a time, picking them up according to my mood. I will add “Quiet” to the list, though. Thanks for mentioning it!


  5. I can relate to your post. I think we all have varying degrees of the need for personal time. Like you, I require it daily and although I love being with family and friends, meeting new people, I get out of sorts if I don’t get quiet time alone. Thanks for sharing this!


  6. You are fortunate to recognize your needs early in life. When you’ve been one personality type for many years, people like to keep you in that box. I think it would be helpful if we could all move past labels such as introvert and extrovert. They corner us even further.


    1. I think that is why I like thinking of it as a matter of degree or percentage – it is less restrictive and those percentages can shift, depending on what is happening in your life at the time. You don’t always have to be either or. Thanks for your insight!


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