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My mother had never been the type to dole out a lot of unsolicited advice. So when she pulled me aside shortly before my wedding, I knew she had something really important to tell me.
"Be sure to make some time for you," she cautioned. "You're the kind of person who needs a little solitude now and then."
Like mother, like daughter. When I was growing up, my mother rarely got to be alone. By day, she worked side by side with my father in their family-owned business. At night, she came home to a three-bedroom house brimming with kids. When my four sisters and I weren't hogging her time and energy, we were invading her closet or making off with her mascara. It's little wonder she got up at 5 a.m. every day in order to claim a few minutes to herself.
That predawn ritual was just about her only escape. The moment she'd settle down on a Sunday afternoon with a paintbrush to work on one of her serene landscapes, my sisters and I would flock to her easel to watch. If my Dad were away overnight, we'd all jockey to sleep in his spot. My mother's privacy was so limited, we joked that her nightly baths were Standing Room Only.
Now that I'm the mother of two small boys, I'm thinking maybe she didn't find that wisecrack so funny. And I understand why she counseled me to safeguard my alone time -- she was preparing me, the most solitude-loving of her children, for the shock of becoming a wife, a mother, a "we."
She was also letting me in on a little secret shared by solitude seekers from Buddha to the office assistant who retreats to an empty park bench to eat her tuna sandwich undisturbed: Being by yourself pays off. Stepping away from the hustle and bustle of your crazy life -- even momentarily -- can lift your mood, tame stress, boost creativity, and show you who you really are. As T. Byram Karasu, MD, author of The Art of Serenity, puts it, "Solitude can be like therapy without the therapist."
Having experienced the extreme togetherness that marriage and motherhood can entail, I'm willing to bet no shrink could match all the benefits of a little alone time.
No Immediate Demands
Relief from "social stressors" such as clamoring children or a hectic workplace is one of the rewards of solitude, according to a University of Massachusetts Amherst study by James R. Averill, PhD, and Christopher R. Long. This kind of time-out can be especially important for women, since we've often been programmed to put everyone else's wants and needs first. Spending time alone liberates you to focus on whatever you want or need to do -- whether it's writing in a journal, window-shopping, or just watching squirrels play.
An Emotional Coffee Break
Even a short period of time alone can restore your emotional balance, says Jerry M. Burger, PhD, a psychologist at Santa Clara University. In fact, one study found that people who took a short time-out during the day were more cheerful afterward.
For Susan Kies, an associate dean at an Illinois medical school and the mother of two, this quick renewal literally comes in the form of a coffee break. "I've got the type of job where people seek me out to solve their problems, and I'm easily accessible because I have an 'open door' policy," she explains. "So each day, I take a 'two-cup break' -- two cups of lovely coffee with my door shut and a sign that says, 'Unless this is an emergency or you are my mother, DO NOT DISTURB."
Solitude has some of the same effects as sensory deprivation -- with less external stimulation, your mind may become more attuned to daydreams, shifting emotions, and novel thoughts. "It's hard to be creative when you're using all your mental energy just to juggle everyday demands," Dr. Averill explains. "But when you're alone, your thinking becomes less structured and broader."
That's why Lorraine Mack, a schoolteacher in Duluth, Georgia, sometimes goes to her classroom on a Saturday when she wants to solve problems in a creative way. "I'll look at the empty desks and reflect on each child who sits there," Mack says. "I can put aside all the day-to-day issues and come up with the right approach for each student."
A Stronger Sense of Yourself
Solitude can provide an illuminating look in the mirror, says Karasu. "Many people fill their lives with so many social activities that they don't ever really know who they are." They end up defining themselves only by how many friends they have or how they're perceived at work, instead of having a more solid sense of themselves as individuals.
Afraid that alone time is just a recipe for loneliness? Don't be. "Solitude is the state of being alone," says Rae Andre, author of Positive Solitude. "Loneliness is the state of being unhappy when you're alone." Once we learn to manage our anxieties about spending time by ourselves, we all have the potential to indulge in positive solitude.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2009.