I grew up undervaluing solitude. As an only child with immigrant parents who were struggling to make ends meet, I was my own constant companion.
I spent those hours by myself constructing elaborate dream worlds in my head. I made up songs. I danced. I played teacher to my stuffed animals. I explored my body. I read. I laughed out loud at my own jokes.
I never thought, “I love being alone!” But neither did I think, “I’m lonely.” It just was what it was.
As I grew into a teenager, I spent less and less time with myself. My moments with other people were exciting, passionate, bubbly. My moments with myself weren’t like that at all.
Solitude was the beloved stuffed animal that I adored, took everywhere, slept with each night, but eventually grew tired of, shoved into a box, and abandoned in the attic.
When I forsook my alone time, it wasn’t just my imagination that I left behind.
It’s incredibly difficult for me to think for myself around other people. I began to notice this tendency a few years ago, and the more I notice it now, the more I realize how much it’s controlled me in the past.
When other people are around, I can’t always clearly identify what I want, what I think, or what I feel. As soon as I get myself alone, it gets better.
The more I’ve observed this pattern, the more I’ve traced it to a tendency to see my needs and the needs of others as a binary system. Either I get what I want, or someone else gets what they want. Either I get my way, or you get yours.
So, as a kid, I often swallowed what I thought, felt, and wanted because it was inconsistent with what my parents thought, felt, and wanted. I put others’ needs above my own.
As a teenager, I began to rebel. I put my needs above those of my parents. I wanted to have my own way for once!
Rebellion liberated me in one way and limited me in another. In order to always put myself first, I throttled my empathy. I told myself that, in order to be happy, I had to do what was right for me and forget everyone else.
As you can imagine, neither submissiveness nor rebellion led me to happiness.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the past few years is that I don’t always have to sacrifice my needs for other people, and they don’t always have to sacrifice theirs for me. I’ve learned this through solitude.
I remember, some time ago, I had a horrible tension headache from a strained neck muscle. I went to take a long bath. Jamie was downstairs cooking us dinner, and he turned on a podcast. I could hear it through the walls. The sound made me feel irritated and overwhelmed.
All these thoughts rushed through my head. Doesn’t he know my head hurts? Why would he be so loud? It’s so inconsiderate!
I thought about going downstairs and asking him to turn it down. But with how angry I was, anything I said would have rubbed my mood off onto him. I didn’t want us both to be in a bad mood. I just wanted some rest and some peace.
I tried breathing deeply, meditating, and even submerging my head. Each tactic worked for a little while, but soon enough, the noise would trigger even more pain.
I felt helpless. Tears welled up in my eyes.
As I looked around the room desperately, I noticed the switch for the bathroom fan. Sure, silence would have been nice, but white noise was a good option too! Relieved, I turned on the fan. Its low hum drowned out all the sounds around me.
When I came downstairs, Jamie had finished dinner. He asked me how I was feeling. We talked. I told him what had happened. Of course, he had no idea I could hear his podcast. He hugged me. We had a delicious dinner and a great conversation.
How differently that night would have gone if I’d marched downstairs angry, covered in soap, and reminded him through gritted teeth that I had a headache! Or if I’d stayed in that tub, angry, then helpless, then crying, and emerged even more exhausted than I’d gone in.
It might sound like a silly little story, but to me, this moment was pivotal. When I chose to turn that fan on, I neither sacrificed my comfort for his nor trampled on his to make room for mine. That’s the important part. I found a way to make my own comfort, regardless of his actions.
To this day, when I feel I have to choose between my own happiness and someone else’s, I try to look for the bathroom fan option. I ask myself if other people can have their way and I can have my own.
At this point in my life, I find this question difficult to ask in the presence of other people. Maybe that will change over time. I’m learning slowly. But for now, I try to create a safe, solitary space for myself on a regular basis where I can return to who I am and what I want. Where I can return to a place of love for myself and others.
It’s a funny thing—love. We so often think it’s something we feel only around other people. But, for me, I need to constantly detach myself from other people in order to feel love for them. I need to connect to the loving presence within my own body and mind so that I can bring that presence to my interactions with others.
When I’m alone, I can take the time to process through my emotions. To remember what’s important to me. To figure out what I want to do. To decipher between the resistance I should counter and the resistance I should honour.
Solitude makes me strong. Then, I bring that strength to my relationships. I don’t need to resist my desires or other people’s wishes. I can accept the validity of everyone’s journeys—including my own. And I can choose to walk away from relationships where there’s no room for both of us to be human.
Am I good at this? I don’t think so. But the most important thing—in my eyes, anyway—is that I’m trying. I’m trying to formulate a bond with myself that’s strong enough to weather the influence of the outside world. It’s hard, but I’m doing the work. And that’s enough for me.