Is social withdrawal always a problem?

Or are some people just ‘naturally’ solitary?

Photo by Noelle Otto on

Spending a lot of time alone is viewed pretty much universally in a negative light. 

We are told – by psychologists, mental health experts, et al. – that social withdrawal is maladaptive, as humans are, by nature, social beings. 

It’s therefore assumed there must be something ‘wrong’ with the socially distant person. They must have some social anxiety that needs alleviating, intimacy issues that need to be worked on, or a lack of confidence to be coached through. Or they must have some sort of personality ‘disorder’, or developmental deficit. ‘They’re probably autistic’. 

But I do believe that for some people – albeit a minority of people, but still – aloneness is just their ‘natural’ state of being, if you like. Furthermore, it’s precisely the people who get labelled/diagnosed as shy, schizoid, avoidant, possibly autistic, who are most likely to have this solitary disposition. 

However, rather than understanding, and making accommodations for their socially distant ways, society instead stigmatises and pathologises them. This in turn can cause the ‘naturally solitary’ person to retreat even further into their shell, and for their aloneness to be experienced as more problematic and more painful than it otherwise might have been. 

There are human beings who’ve never been very sociable. I’m one of them. 

We have no real urge to talk, to interact with other people, to participate in all the usual social things. 

As such, we always find it hard to connect to people. We’re always the ‘outsider-looking-in’. The square peg in the round holes of playground games, water cooler chat, and family get-togethers. 

We’re unable to express the same level of emotion, to summon the same enthusiasm, to share the same interests, as most other people. We might feel like we exist on another plane; one with vastly different predilections, pastimes, priorities.

We therefore much prefer to reside in our own internal world. To pursue solitary interests. Talking bores us, socialising leaves us empty. It’s our inner life that satisfies and enriches us; alone in our own company is where we feel most comfortable, where we feel most ‘real’.  

However, our extreme introversion is not endorsed by society. Quite the opposite, in fact. We are socialised to socialise. When we fail to do so – when we don’t join in with the other kids, don’t join in with the after work drinks – we are chastised, ostracised, quizzed, queried, made fun of. We are told we are ‘too quiet’. We don’t talk or emote ‘enough’. There-must-be-something-wrong-with-us. 

What impact does this have? 

It causes us to isolate even further. Before we were just minding our own, content in our own worlds. It’s not even that we really chose to withdraw from others; quiet and self-contained was just our natural state of being. But now we do choose to isolate. Why? Because we fear; fear what other people might do to us: judge, shame;  ridicule, reject; engulf, enforce, embarrass; overwhelm, intrude, abuse. 

And so our aloneness becomes tainted. We still derive pleasure from our solitude, but we struggle to take any pride in it. We become self-conscious about it, knowing that the outside world finds our solitary ways strange. We worry that we are weird, that there might indeed be something-wrong-with-us. We think of ourselves as losers, failures. 

As a result, it becomes harder to engage with people when we do cross the threshold back into society again. Social interactions become more anxiety-inducing. The chasm between us and those we attempt to connect with grows even wider. 

Ultimately, what happens is this: our mere indifference to other people, our comfortable detachment from others, turns into avoidance, driven by fear. Anxiety and shame seep into, and contaminate, our aloneness, and by extension, our sense of self. 

An ‘original’ positive solitary state/style becomes a more negative one.

All this complicates the general assumption that social withdrawal is always A Problem, something that people need to be coaxed out, or ‘cured’, of. 

Yes – social isolation driven by social anxiety is something that ought to be addressed. And this might also apply to those of us who prefer our own company. As explained above, the prospect of interacting with others can fill us – otherwise happy – loners with dread. We seek solitude not only because we like it, but to protect ourselves from the harm other people might inflict upon us as well.  We socially withdraw because we have a need to feel safe. 

However, at the same time, it’s important to note that our solitude also feels safe in the sense that alone-feels-like-home; it’s our default setting. Our isolation isn’t only characterised – or even dominated – by fear, shame, insecurity. It’s also a pleasurable, productive, and ultimately, positive, state of being. 

Before designating an individual’s reclusiveness as unhealthy, as a sign of something being ‘wrong’, it is important to consider why they isolate. For there are people who are happy to spend a lot of time alone, whose social withdrawal is not fundamentally driven by anxiety, but rather by some innately felt, or perhaps even unconscious, inclination that guides them towards the inner life and away from the external world. 

And when social anxiety is present, when an individual experiences low self-esteem, shame and self-consciousness in relation to their isolation, again, consideration ought to be given as to what lies at the heart of these feelings. Could it be the negative messages society sends about solitude? For the ‘naturally solitary’ person, who has always gravitated towards their own company, what impact might the misattunement of parents, the lack of understanding from teachers, and the nasty comments from peers, have had on how they experience, and identify with, their socially distant ways?  

Not all of us need to be prodded out of our shells. More damage is done when that happens. Instead, the world needs to gain a better understanding of solitary souls, and the reasons for our social withdrawal, in order to stop its anti-loner bias from seeping into, and upsetting, our solitude, and our sense of self. 

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