Like most mammals, we are a social species. There is a biological imperative active in us at birth to connect in order to survive. A baby’s voice cries in order to be heard by a caring other. A baby’s eyes scan the environment searching to be seen by a caring other. A baby’s mouth and hands pucker and reach forth, respectively, to explore and establish nurturing rapport with a caring other. So begins our lifelong investment in forming successful human bonds. Our bodies and minds continue to be shaped by whatever it takes to be in harmonious regulation with our parents, our tribe, our friends, our chosen communities.
The lion’s share of my work as a relational therapist involves assisting individuals to better regulate their relationships with others. If overwhelmed by the needs of others, we focus on practicing setting more effective boundaries. Or, if disturbed by isolation, we practice allowing more vulnerability to show through to increase opportunities for bonding. By paying attention to the patterns apparent in our therapeutic relationship, we can discover clues to broader patterns and explore ways to “adjust the temperature” in order to create better-regulated habits as we return to our families and communities. I say “we” because I, too, benefit greatly from the relational growth practiced in session by people with whom I work.
What, then, of solitude?
The “observer effect” in science refers to the changes that the act of observation has upon the object being observed. It certainly applies to the difficulty of trying to understand the private experiences of our fellow human beings. The very act of sharing your private experiences with me makes them no longer private. In our conversation, you might deplore your critical self-talk or extol your feats of contentment, but either way, my presence in the conversation significantly alters what is being experienced.
In the intrapersonal domain (your inner world), my work as therapist to truly empathize is limited by my own reflective nature. My sympathy, judgments, and/or agreements create interference with the primal experience of you being you. In actuality, much of what I might say about who I think you are tells you more about our relationship than it does about you.
“To thine own self be true” is a powerful objective in life. Whether we like it or not, it is a solo quest. Those of us marking our own trails may have only bread crumbs to offer one another for guidance. Your therapist, your friends, your partners, and your family can, at most, show you the practices and measures that seem to be working for them. Individuality requires each of us to then work out our own math when solving for existential integrity to self.
Be they bread crumbs or blueprints for the work ahead, I offer the following reference points for one’s individual journey. I borrow some from psychological theories of human development but largely from my own experience when I ask myself these most difficult questions: What are the practices involved with self-integrity and how does one measure success?
When I ask my 18-year-old daughter how she feels about her alone time now that she’s moved out of the house, she answers with absolute conviction that it feels awesome. Freedom from the sense that she is being monitored (and quite possibly nagged) by her parents means that she can more fully form her own opinions and choices. More than ever before, she is alone in accepting responsibility for mistakes and insights as she explores new forms of self-indulgence, self-discipline, and self-encouragement.
I am delighted with this stage of her independence, as it reminds me of my own first tastes of real solitude—wasting time in novel ways, eating new foods, defining myself through causes my parents would never understand. Young adulthood was a time of reality testing where I got to be the only arbiter of the moral lessons to be learned. The novelty of this period of individuation put a priority on freedom. Loneliness, heartache, inner deficiencies, insecurity, and anxiety—these were difficult aspects of the journey, but the destination of personal freedom justified the pain. Freedom, for many of us, can be its own reward.
On the other hand, freedom is not always achieved by choice. For some, it is thrust upon them before they are ready for it. Whether due to neglect, traumatic events, or simply a permissive parenting style that placed little emphasis on structure, solitude may taste more like abandonment than liberty. Lacking sufficient barriers to push against, free choice can seem less about discriminating ourselves and more like a meaningless task taking place in a vacuum. Without the vanity that one’s choices will matter to others, one becomes more attuned to the inner turmoil of decision making. Adrift like Sandra Bullock in the movie Gravity, the risks involved in self-determination can seem a punishing experience.
At different points along the path, life can drive us to see both a reward and curse aspect to our personal freedom. Between the high and low extremes along this spectrum lies the simple fact we are self-determining creatures. It may not matter significantly what we choose, but choose we must. (As many a codependent personality type comes to find out, even when we structure our life around making as few decisions as possible, that, in itself, is a decision that carries its own impact upon the world.)
Regardless of the pleasure, pain, importance, or insignificance of the act, we are alone in accepting final responsibility for the impact of our choices. It makes sense then that we hunger for guidance.
Belonging to Something Larger than Self
Joining a church, attending a school, frequenting a local book club—these may seem haphazard events as we follow our interests in life. Though not always stated outright, they confirm core principles for us that may feel like home. Religious faith, scientific agnosticism, intuitive inquiry; there are languages built into these systems that can just seem to fit with our nature. Choosing one’s belief system can thus be one of those choices that just seems to happen. Even as we experience aloneness in pinning down these beliefs, we avail ourselves of a grander sense of belonging by casting into them. The personal becomes collective as the core principles speak to shared experiences common to all its members: the bliss of fervent prayer, the eureka of a well-tested scientific discovery, the joy of repeating a simple lyrical phrase that carries the ring of truth. Our beliefs and core principles yield the fruit of a special event, unique to members who belong.
We can feel suddenly no longer alone while celebrating experiences of shared value. The hunt for an answer to the problem of solitude seems near at hand. That is, until we realize how uncomfortable it is to belong to one another. For every five points of agreement we may have with those who share our beliefs, there is a sixth point of disagreement that makes it near impossible to tolerate their presence. “Church was great today,” we sigh with relief as we head back to our separate homes.
Individuation is the process by which we define our self as separate from our family of origin. Differentiation is the process by which we learn to tolerate the differences between our self and those with whom we choose to belong. Both of these together describe some of the push and pull in the work of solitude.
Self-regulation has much to do with how we find the balance between these two conflicts. We are often so driven by our day-to-day reactions to others that it’s hard to see the underlying impulses and instincts at play. Is there an inner essence within each of us that helps to regulate self-growth? Some say our essence evolves into being only as we nurture our awareness of it. Some say we are simply born with it by grace, no work required. Others say the fruit of our work is the realization that there is no inner self at all, only the peace of no self. Have you an answer of your own?
Self and the End of Self
The ultimate question of what to do with this, our one opportunity of selfhood, is a monumental one. The practices of individuation, differentiation, and self-regulation are life-long processes that may yield us eventually with a voice that we can call our own. It can be a quiet voice. Groups of others can offer context for finding this voice, but we can hear it only when alone. Solitude is key. As hard as it is to come by in a world of instant updates from real and contrived “caring others,” it is when we are alone that we hear whatever calling our true self might have for us.
Whether or not there is a true self awaiting us at the end of a lifetime of self-reflection, we are all beset by the very solitary quandary of our own death. Something very definite has started at birth for us that seems to be headed toward a very particular ending. The question of what meaning to give to our time before the end is of immediate concern. Though we all share this predicament, the prospects of bidding goodbye to ourselves are entirely unique. Existential angst may bring us to our knees or send us in a carefully orchestrated panic toward amazing achievements. The gentle, rolling drumbeat of our hearts reminds us every moment the precious opportunity at hand.
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