My work requires that I spend a lot of time influencing people face to face. Then there are the workshops, where I spend two or three days driving a group to design or decide something. At the end of workshop days, I don’t join my clients and colleagues in the bar unless I absolutely have to. As soon as I can, I go back to my hotel room, hang the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, strip off my work clothes and stand in the shower in silence, literally recovering myself.
It’s not the I dislike my work, in fact it often gives me an adrenalin rush, but it requires me to spend hours being someone I have to prod myself to be. It’s like singing tenor when my natural voice is baritone.
For me, solitude isn’t about avoiding people or even finding peace and quiet. My head is a noisy place. Solitude allows me to listen to myself, to get my thoughts in order, to read books or watch film and then think about them afterwards. Solitude is like a good meal, its something to savour and it fills me with the energy to do other things.
When I return from a period of solitude, nothing pleases me more than to share with my wife all the things that have popped into my mind and see whether they mean anything.
Solitude is something I choose. Something that I can end at any time. Something that nourishes me and helps me to be a nicer person to be around.
Yet the same characteristics that make me crave solitude: introversion, introspection, a narrow bandwidth for face to face interaction, especially with groups, can drive me towards isolation.
By isolation I mean an inability to make a connection with others that eventually becomes an anxiety, even a fear, of making contact with others. Isolation does not feel like a choice. Isolation feels like a crippling disability.
I find large groups of people I don’t know, difficult to engage with. I find large groups of people I DO know even more difficult to engage with.
Years ago I did an Open University degree in psychology. I already had a degree in economics so university wasn’t new to me. I was doing psychology for fun and, for the most part, I had a good time. The hardest part was attending the Summer School, a week-long taught course on a university campus with hundreds of other students.
I went to the welcome party the first evening that I arrived: trestle tables, strip lighting, finger food, lots of alcohol and lots and lots of people making first contact with each other, trying to make the most of their “student experience.” I wanted to join in. Or at least, I wanted to end the week knowing more people than when I started. I should have just walked up to someone and said “Hi, I’m Mike. This is my first Summer School. Have you been to one of these things before?”. Instead, I turned around and left.
I went back to my room but I wasn’t being solitary, I was slipping into isolation. I knew that I was irrationally avoiding making contact. I told myself it was the noise and the heat and the lateness of the hour but I knew that the reality was I felt vulnerable and exposed so I reduced the risk of things not going well by making sure that they didn’t go at all.
That kind of thing can be habit forming. Isolation breeds more isolation. What started as a perhaps imagined inability to interact becomes a real one.
I find the same thing happens at conferences and social events related to my job. Often I know most of the people there. I can get on with them in a one to one situation but when I’m confronted with all of them at the same time I feel an overwhelming desire to be invisible. I don’t want to be noticed because I don’t want to do all the small talk that helps people become at ease with one another. I feel as if I don’t belong in these groups and that taking part will make that clear to everyone. In my head, I know that is nonsense but my feet still turn away from the crowds of people and being in my room with the Do Not Disturb sign on the door starts to feel like my only option.
It’s clear to me that I will always have to walk the line between the positive power of solitude and the crippling grasp of isolation.
In practice this means challenging myself, when I hang the Do Not Disturb sign on the door as to whether I’m rejuvenating or hiding. It’s hard to tell them apart by what triggers them – too much time with people, or what they trigger – me alone in my room, so I look at what I’m going to do after I’ve been alone for awhile. If I find I want to talk about the new ideas in my head to someone I trust, then I’m reacting to solitude. If I want to pretend that I haven’t been spending time alone in my room then I’m in the grip of isolation and I need to MAKE myself to talk to someone I trust.
I’m sure I’m not alone in this.
If any of you have better strategies for walking the line, I’m interested in hearing them.