For many of us, the thought of being alone can trigger an anxious response - even from when we do not normally feel anxiety.
Having lots of friends and being involved and generally sociable is tirelessly promoted to us from numerous sources. Being alone can therefore be seen as a bleak and depressing and scary option, a sign that we are not successful, popular or involved. A bit like when you were at school and not being picked to be in the team until last - or not being able to hang out with the popular group at lunch.
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The world reflects back to us who we are in a never ending loop of interactions and interreactions which define our sense of who we are. Messages via social media, films, and advertising suggest we are only complete if we are not alone. This can make us feel that only the presence of the "other" can alleviate the void we feel inside. And added to this, we know the psychological research on connectedness is correct - we do in fact need to be attached and sociable in order to stay healthy and contented.
But the key is how to keep this all in balance. All too easily, we can find ourselves trapped in a loop of being too busy - and at worst - stuck in unhappy and inauthentic relationships. Anything but risk being on our own. Camaraderie and relating can feel hollow and exhausting if it is based on the shifting sands of a fear of being alone. And even if we are not out there seeking company, the noise that has accompanied us all day we often allow to enter into our evenings - the smart phone, the television, the iPad.
But 'alone' does not mean 'lonely' and the confusion between the two is a common misunderstanding which helps explain why so many of us find ourselves resisting the opportunity for solitude.
Loneliness is a very real and unhappy emotional state in which there is an experience of a powerful feeling of emptiness and isolation. It has been described as feeling hollow inside - an unwilling solitude. A number of factors can be the cause, such as depression, disability, shyness, or a by-product of the complex transitions in life, such as bereavement after a divorce, a death, the last child leaving home, redundancy, moving cities. It is a feeling of ongoing disconnection and isolation, which persists and can be at play even when you are with other people and even when you are busy. Loneliness is very bad for health and wellbeing, and seeking professional help for this common problem is recommended.
For others, the sheer thought of being alone can induce a sense of panic which can be based on real fear of emergency situations - perhaps as a result of past experiences, illness or because their situations are actually unsafe. This fear is rational and it's important to seek help to minimise and manage risk. Some people can experience extreme discomfort at being alone because of feeling overwhelmed at having to try and manage their own thoughts and feelings. Staying very busy can therefore be a way of dealing with anxiety and depression. Whilst management of anxiety and depression is important - understanding the acute fear of being alone owing to feelings, which are likely to have their origin in past experiences, is best understood with some professional help.
But for most of us who experience discomfort at the thought of being alone, feelings of resistance are mild and short lived. Many of us complain about the very real tugs on our time - yet filling up of our days and nights with people and activities can also be serving to mask an underlying mistrust and confusion about solitude. Once a distinction is made between being alone and loneliness, it may well be possible to embrace solitude and to recognize it for what it is - a crucial part of a healthy life. A chance to reflect and restore, to touch base with our longings and aspirations, to discover that there is a stillness and centre behind all the noise and rush. If you can seek contentment with your own company and enjoy the silent places of your soul - and know you can do this without feeling lonely - it will help you to restore a new sense of faith and trust in life. As far back as 470 BC, Socrates, the Greek Athenian philosopher, said, "the unexamined life is not worth living". Contemporary scientific research is still saying exactly the same thing - being alone can be a special time of renewal and nourishment.
Our wellbeing is forever a question of balance and moderation. Yes, we do need our essential connections with friends and loved ones and involvement with them in our daily lives. We also need to regularly drop the to do lists and allow some regular reflective time where we embrace, rather than run from, our own company and reflections.