We like to be alone, us introverts.
Somewhere we can close the door on the people around us – the crowds, the chatter, the spectacle of it all – and immerse ourselves in our deepest thoughts.
We need this time to recharge. A little alone-time; a little contemplation is how we connect with our innermost wisdom. Solitude is oxygen for the soul.
But to feel lonely?
That's not part of the story.
The fine line between aloneness and loneliness
For a long time, introversion received a bad rap. Outsiders (read: Extraverts) often confused our desire for solitude with loneliness – the act of being shut off from the outside world. And we all know that loneliness is a VERY BAD THING. In terms of physical harm, loneliness has been linked to sleep problems, dementia, heart disease and even premature death. It's as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Recently, there's been an attitude change. People are waking up to the fact that Introverts value their alone time more than almost anything else. Like anyone else, we need human contact to feel purposeful. But the strength to enjoy human contact requires phases of being alone. So, for Introverts, solitude is a pleasing experience. Aloneness is positively charged.
Loneliness, by contrast, is negatively charged. In lonely times, we feel sad, isolated and powerless. We yearn for an attachment that just isn't there. It's like a beast scratching at our hearts.
There seems to be a tipping point when aloneness feels more like loneliness than rejuvenation. It's a slippery concept since loneliness means different things to different people. Some Extraverts may feel lonely after spending one evening alone; some Introverts can go months with only minimal interaction and feel perfectly fine. Others may be surrounded by friends who care for them but still feel lonely. What we're looking for is the Goldilocks sweet spot – enough aloneness so we're properly rested, but not so much that we become trapped in a chronic state of alienation.
Loneliness is not a cry for people
For Introverts, loneliness is a hard emotion to spot. We tend to know when we're feeling angry, or anxious, or guilty, or overwhelmed, because those emotions are attached to something that has happened. These emotions are precipitated by some past or future event.
Loneliness, on the other hand, is an absence of something important in the present. It's much harder to spot something that's missing than it is to see what's there. And it's even harder to spot when the thing that you're lacking – people and human relationships – is the same thing that had you running for solitude in the first place.
I can't claim to understand Extraverts. However, I imagine they find it much easier to scratch that in-built itch for human connection. Extraverts get energy from people. They seem happy to cast the net wide socially, so any place that's filled with sound and fury will probably give them the opportunity to interact and gain some level of social support. For them, it's a numbers game.
Introverts are different.
When we admit that we're lonely, that isn't an invitation to drag us off to the nearest loud bar to make small talk with strangers. That might scratch the itch for a short while, but it's a poor substitute for what we're looking for.
What we're actually looking for, is a specific person or a specific type of person who understands us and connects with us. For an Introvert, loneliness is not a cry for people, it's a cry for intimacy. It's that aching feeling you get when you lack a true understanding with someone who just gets it; someone who is fine to sit in contemplative silence with you and to listen without intruding. When we find someone who fulfills this need, it's like coming home.
Sadly, these people are few and far between. You might meet only half a dozen of them your whole life. And if your relationship with someone doesn't have that element of closeness, you may end up feeling even more disconnected than just being alone.
Throw Intuition into the mix and....we're going to have a problem here.
Intuition adds another dimension
Intuitives are a special breed. Unlike Sensors who are practical people, Intuitives read between the lines. They see the big picture, they see possibilities, they think about what could be. They are dreamers and ideators. When they think, it tends to be based on patterns or associations they've built up over a lifetime.
When it comes to loneliness, this makes a difference.
Let's pause for a moment and think about the professional interventions for defeating loneliness. Broadly speaking, these focus on two areas: giving opportunities to meet people through organized group activities, and improving social skills so you can engage in conversation and communicate in positive ways. It strikes me that both approaches are challenging for introverts, but Sensing is an ameliorating factor.
Introverted Sensors are at their best when there's an established way for them to bond with others. Sweeping generalizations aside, they are (mostly) happy to join established work groups, sports teams, organized social gatherings, religious groups and community service organizations, all of which give opportunities for comfort and camaraderie. More importantly, Sensors live in the moment and react to things as they come. So, when they do meet someone with whom they feel that easy spark of connection, they are much better placed to fan the flames.
Intuitives are more, for want of a better word, existential.
What we need most is the freedom and space to question, explore and tinker with ideas. We're hell bent on the quest for real meaning – seeing things others cannot see. We want to self-define and live life on our own terms. We want to have influence on the world.
To achieve this, we often spend long periods of time alone absorbed in our own thoughts. Aloneness is the space we inhabit when we need to encourage our introspection, creativity and personal growth. This is why intuitive introverts don't run away from extreme periods of alone time but embrace the heck out of it.
Here's the kicker: sometimes, the only way to access this level of creativity, perception and new ways of thinking is to actively embrace loneliness. I've crossed the barrier between aloneness and loneliness many times in my life, and it's clear that I have been the most successful when I have felt the most sorely alone. Other people are an anesthetic that numb my crazy focus. Without loneliness, I find it impossible to have those deep and necessary conversations with myself.
This is where the intricacies of the "I" and the "N" combination start to become apparent. Because here we have the combination of Introvert (a person who thrives on a certain amount of solitude) meeting the Intuitive (a person who lives "beyond" the concrete world). The upshot is that all the usual loneliness interventions of getting out there and meeting people are doomed to failure, because an Intuitive Introvert will always feel disconnected and slightly "other."
Loneliness isn't just a side effect of the IN personality. It's the elephant in the room.
Is it even loneliness?
Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse who wrote Steppenwolf and Siddhartha, and likely INXP, said, "We must become so alone, so utterly alone, that we withdraw into our innermost self. It is a way of bitter suffering. But then our solitude is overcome, we are no longer alone, for we find that our innermost self is the spirit, that it is God, the indivisible. And suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of the world, yet undisturbed by its multiplicity, for our innermost soul we know ourselves to be one with all being."
Unlike Hesse, I'm not especially spiritual. But his message is important, I think, because loneliness is not just about finding someone to connect with. It's also about deeply connecting with your own sense of self so you don't evaporate in the presence of others. This is especially true for INFs who have a tendency to take on others' troubles as if they were their own.
What Hesse is saying, is that the more connection we have to our innermost selves, the more we can navigate the world on our own terms, and the less likely we are to suffer from painful loneliness.
For me, this begs a final question: what do INs feel when they say they feel lonely? While I think we can be as lonely as everyone else, I do question whether we experience it as a crippling emotion. When I feel lonely, it isn't necessarily a bad feeling. I have my mind to occupy me. Plus, there's the experience that, in loneliness, there's something to be gained – a clarification or a course correction. Short periods of loneliness have never been harmful for me, but extremely formative.
Is it the same for everyone? I'm not a psychologist and loneliness is such a personal experience. But it seems reasonable to suggest that, when it comes to loneliness, motivation matters. Solitude is an integral and essential part of an IN's intuition, as well as our growth and self-understanding. Could it be that a capacity to tolerate at least some loneliness can make us even more perceptive, more individuated, and more in charge of our own reality? Could it make us a better "N".