When 9/11 struck, I remember lying on the floor that night and listening to the CBC the station broadcasting from a thousand miles south knowing I never wanted to be that alone ever again. Photograph: Alex Fuchs/AFP
Loneliness recreates this alone-in-a-field dynamic inside your head. If you see others as risky instead of safe, you might be reluctant to answer the phone, join a dating site or even socialise with people you already know. And if its loneliness thats driving your need to be alone, you should tackle it, since it is a state that is said to be causally related to everything from dementia to high blood pressure or early death. (A good way to overcome the loneliness-needs-aloneness paradox is to start doing low-key activities such as volunteering with a community garden that allow you to rebuild your sense of trust without feeling too exposed.)
But what if youve taken the UCLA Loneliness Scale and youre not lonely? If we intuitively and innately need others, why are you spending so much time by yourself? It might be because youre trying to become someone new. When I made the decision to quit practising law in order to write, I had to ditch a big part of my social circle since being surrounded by lawyers was making me second-guess myself every day. Clearing out those career-based social ties gave me the emotional room I needed to become the person I wanted to be.
If you find yourself needing time away from your social ties, it might mean that youre entering a new phase of your life maybe coming out, or switching careers, or choosing to remain child-free as those around you start families. You might be at a point in your life where you just want more space. You might be young and craving adventure in the Arctic or some other far-flung place. Thats fine, but be aware that your need for others will kick back in at some point time, and when it does, its best to have people to turn to.
Real solitude is a high-risk activity. It can turn into social isolation in a blink. I actually did live in the Arctic when I was 30, and I loved it. The hiking! The tundra! The views! But then 9/11 struck, and I found myself alone. I had work acquaintances but no real friends, and I was living in a borrowed flat with no phone. I remember lying on the floor that night and listening to the CBC the station broadcasting from a thousand miles south knowing I never wanted to be that alone ever again.
Finally, the amount of time youre spending alone might have nothing to do with you. Were all spending more time alone. Loneliness rates are on the rise, and research shows that we know fewer people than our age-matched counterparts did 30 years ago. The reasons behind the rise in aloneness arent clear, but they likely involve the rise of precarious work, the loss of third places (such as neighbourhood pubs), and the closure or de-funding of public spaces like parks or libraries. In other words, you might be thinking that youre a loner, when in fact everyone around you is pretty alone too.
Maybe the biggest problem with the word loner is that its an oversimplification. It says nothing about why we might want to be alone for a while, or why we might find ourselves alone despite wanting company. And loner sounds so permanent its like someone describing their eye colour. But our social needs and circumstances are more like the weather they change all the time.
The fact that you want to be alone today says nothing about how youll feel 10 years from now or even how you felt last month. Youre doing yourself a disservice in trying to label your needs as one thing and not another. Its more interesting to think of all the different ways your social needs will make themselves known through loneliness, happiness, isolation and longing than to try to reduce them to a single state. Your social needs, after all, are social. You might call yourself a loner, only to have someone else down the road call you a lover, a partner, a friend.