An HSP friend recently asked me, “How can I tell if I’m alone because I really need downtime, or because I’m isolating myself from other people?”

This is a such an important question. It captures a central challenge of being highly sensitive. How “in” or “out” do I want to be? Where’s the balance? Is there a balance to be had?! If I’m “in,” do I know why I’m “in”? Is my “why” a healthy one?

I’ve been asking these questions my whole life, and I expect I’ll be wrestling with them to my dying day. I can see it in my mind’s eye: my 98-year-old-self wheeling her chair into a broom closet at the long-term care facility, trying to get some solitude, while simultaneously wondering if she is being too much of a hermit!

I can’t give universal answers because they don’t exist: the solutions for each of us are so dependent on our temperament and our circumstances. But as you go through the process of trying to find your own answers day by day, keep these two things in mind:

  1. Self-compassion is key here.
  2. We need to support each other by sharing our experiences as we each try to figure this out.

In that spirit, I’ve pondered how I discern between “healthy” alone time and self-isolation. Here are three ways I can describe the difference.

1. Externally referenced vs. internally referenced

When I’m alone in a self-isolating way, my emphasis is on pulling “away from other people.” That’s what I mean by externally referenced: my aloneness has a “not-with-them” feeling, and there’s a negative feeling about “them.”  In this regard, self-isolation has a distinctly different felt sense for me than healthy alone time.

With healthy solitude, I feel like I’m happily turning inwards to myself, not negatively pulling away from others. The world feels like a friendly place out there: I just don’t happen to be focused on it because my point of reference is internal. I choose to to be alone because I need to rest, to think something over, or just to “be.”

2. Black-and-white vs richly ambiguous

If I’m isolating myself, I get an image of everyone being on Earth, and me spinning on a one-way trip out to Pluto. There’s a feeling of, “I’m way out here, and thank God I’m away from all that back there.” My thoughts have a black and white quality.

When I take alone time from a thoughtful, centered place in myself, my feelings about the choice are more ambiguous, complex, and rich: “Ah, I’m sorry to be missing that concert, AND it feels really good to be home and be quiet this evening.” I can hold both and I’m aware of the needs on both sides of the decision.

3. Compulsive “hijack” versus mindful choice

In my late twenties I discovered a revered teacher had lied to me about something of great importance to me. This betrayal hurt and stunned me so deeply that I pulled away from everything and everyone for several weeks. I say “I pulled away,” but at the time it did not feel like a choice: it felt as if deep inside me there was someone with a big hook that pulled on my stomach from the inside, yanking me back and away from the risk of relating to other people.

This is an example of inner “hijack”, when something in me takes over in an attempt to protect me. When the part is vigilant to this extreme—like a growling watch dog, hackles up—it’s relatively easy to catch. The subtler version of hijack is a more serious danger for us as HSP’s: we just stop doing certain things or going certain places without even realizing we’ve made the choice. To discern this subtler hijack, I keep an eye out for envy or jealousy or judgment of others as a possible marker for things I’ve unconsciously told myself I can’t do.

Healthy solitude, by contrast, is my conscious choice from Loving Adult Presence: I notice I could use some alone time, then I arrange to get it. I’m not saying that is always easy to do…I have another whole article’s worth of thoughts about how you can get downtime in a relationship! But whether it is hard or easy, the point is, I choose it.

Putting this all together

For me, self-isolation is a compulsive pulling inwards by a part of me that takes over in an attempt to get away from something (or someone) in the “outside world” that feels too risky, while healthy solitude or downtime is a choice I make from Loving Adult Presence: I willingly turn inwards in service of the needs at hand while also making room for regret or ambivalence about the experiences I’m choosing to miss.

A final thought: there are “seasonal” reasons for wanting to be alone. A big spiritual shift, a loss with its attendant grief, a big transition, an unusually busy, stimulating period of life—any of these may cause you to want to be alone more than usual.

In the end, what matters is not the amount of solitude and downtime, but the intent with which you take it and whether you are comfortable with that intent. 

I send you my best wishes for the holiday season!

Merry Christmas to all those of you who celebrate it…and Happy New Year to all! I have two holiday-ish items for you: a link to the article I wrote at this time last year, Three thoughts on enjoying the holidays as a highly sensitive person, and more musical suggestions you submitted in response to my last article, Now is the time to share what deeply moves us.  I found a YouTube recording for each one:

From Kim: 

King’s College, Cambridge: Ave Verum Corpus, by Mozart: a beautiful choral work sung in a cathedral setting (2.5 minutes)

Judy Garland, Have Yourself a Merry Little ChristmasThis speaks (or sings) for itself. (3 minutes)

Gian Carlo Menotti, Amahl and the Night Visitors: This is an upload of the original TV broadcast, introduced by Menotti himself and re-broadcast annually. This 50-minute opera has great oboe parts, and I’m particularly fond of the beautiful oboe duet you’ll find 32 minutes in (it’s really fun to play!) (54 minutes)

From Jen, who wrote, “I have relied on this piece so  many times to remind me how to let go and how the universe has its own pace/beauty/space and doesn’t need me to do anything. It is so simple, yet it completely absorbs my attention when I listen.”

Jurgen Kruse (piano) and Benjamin Hudson (cello), Spiegel im Spiegel, by Arvo Part: a slow, gorgeous unfolding of musical serenity. (10 minutes)

From Julia:

Concentus musicus Wien, Nikolas Harnoncourt: Christmas Oratorio, J.S. Bach

Thank you for your suggestions!