Know how to belong to yourself

I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude. – Henry David Thoreau

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What is the difference between loneliness and solitude? These two terms are often used interchangealby and yet they are very different.

Loneliness is a painful, negative state or an unpleasant emotion marked by feelings of isolation and a lack of companionship. On the other hand, solitude is a positive state of being alone because it’s a choice that people make.

Solitude allows us to get in touch with our inner self. According to writer Gretchen Rubin, loneliness feels draining, distracting, and upsetting; desired solitude feels peaceful, creative, restorative. Solitude implies looking inwards and listening to our inner voice. It’s important for self-development, self-fulfillment and personal happiness. Without it, we cannot acquire a real sense of who we are and without a strong sense of self, it is difficult to relate to others.

Sherry Turkle, MIT social-psychologist, professor and researcher reports that too much time with screens and too much texting is taking children and adolescents away from themselves. The power of the screen is great – we can connect with as many topics, activities and people as we want, but, according to Turkle, the screen can also destroy our capacity for solitude.

Yes, we can be alone with our devices when, for example, we read a book or article. However, too much time on Facebook or Twitter or texting friends can turn into a mere dependency on virtual relationships to avoid solitude.

According to Turkle, solitude is the most important developmental achievement in childhood. If we don’t teach children and adolescents how to be alone, they will fear solitude and they will only know loneliness. Children and adolescents who can’t be alone, constantly depend on others to define who they are and seek external approval. In other words, they may never own their inner sense of self.

We shouldn’t bury solitude under our devices. Instead, we should embrace solitude as an opportunity for growth, self-discovery and maturation. Parents and educators need to remind children and adolescents of the benefits of solitude and self-reflection and they should model solitude in a positive way.

Being alone and gadget-free should be a pleasant experience. There is a time and a place for phones, tablets and laptops. But, now and then, indulge in solitude and be your own companion. Enjoy that book or nature walk or that time to yourself without any devices at your side. As Montaigne once wrote: “The greatest thing in the world, is to know how to belong to ourselves.”

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Julie Zimmer

Julie has extensive experience in nursing practice and education in a wide range of fields from intensive/coronary care, to medical-surgical to community and public health. Julie has Bachelor Degrees in Psychology and Nursing, and a Master’s Degree in Community Health Nursing Education. She has taught in faculties of nursing and in various communities in Toronto, Canada and in Geneva, Switzerland, and is a consultant to the International Council of Nurses (ICN). Julie also has years of experience teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in addition to coordinating an English department in a Swiss private school.

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