Adolescents' Perceptions of Aloneness and Loneliness

Article excerpt

Alone

From childhood's hour I have not been As others were - I have not seen As others saw - I could not bring My passions from a common spring - From the same source I have not taken My sorrow I could not waken My heart to joy at the same tone - And all I loved - I loved alone. . . .

- Edgar Allan Poe, Scribner's Magazine, March 1829

Beginning with Hall (1905), psychologists describe adolescence as a time of change. Among the changes are those involving interpersonal relationships; more time is spent with peers, less with family members. Another is the desire for "alonetime" (used here as one word, emphasizing its correspondence to other needs and motivations). "Leave me alone" is probably among adolescents' most used phrases.

It is theorized that we are born with the need both to be alone and to be connected with others (Buchholz & Chinlund, 1994). For adolescents, who concentrate on identity formation (Blos, 1962; Erikson, 1968), aloneness needs and abilities may be especially important. How adolescents seek, explore, and experience alonetime raises many interesting questions. For example, what shapes the way adolescents are able to develop skills that are independent of the social group?

There is a paradox: while adolescents may feel lonely when separated from peers, there is evidence that they need and, at times, prefer to be alone (Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen, 1993). The present paper examines how feelings of loneliness are distinguished from the need to be alone. This is an important question, since those who are unable to create a social network or to relish solitude are faced with loneliness. Further, it has been noted that adolescents as a group are more vulnerable to loneliness (Goswick & Jones, 1982).

It is suggested here that loneliness is negative while aloneness is not, much the same as merged, smothered, and symbiotic are poles apart from closeness (Buchholz & Chinlund, 1994). Aloneness is a developmental necessity, parallel to attachment, and generally a positive experience. Since the literature on aloneness is sparse, this study paid particular attention to adolescents' perceptions of loneliness and aloneness and the distinctions they make between the two conditions.

Larson (1990), who has conducted extensive research on adolescents' time spent alone, noted the difficulty in studying this phenomenon. To gather observational information on what goes on when people are alone, privacy must be invaded; thus the person is no longer alone. Therefore, most data on aloneness are from self-reports, which are subject to bias. In addition, there is often hesitancy to self-reveal concerning aloneness.

Larson (1990) makes a distinction between loneliness and solitude: "Solitude is the objective condition of being alone - defined by communicative separation from others. Loneliness and privacy, by contrast, are subjective conditions, which may or may not co-occur with being alone" (p. 157). Maintaining that the state of being alone is almost always undesirable, ultimately resulting in feelings of loneliness, Larson does, however, see solitude as a time of reflection, rest, and self-renewal.

Along with Larson's work, there is a growing body of literature on aloneness that focuses on the positive effects of solitude (Storr, 1988; Moustakas, 1989). Buchholz has explored aloneness as a developmental need (parallel to the need for attachment), and a positive experience that is essential for all phases of personal growth (Buchholz & Tomasi, 1994; Buchholz & Chinlund, 1994; Memling & Buchholz, 1994). She has emphasized that "being alone is not tantamount to being lonely and that there is alonetime which is of deep psychological value from the start of life" (Buchholz & Tomasi, 1994, p. 3).

Winnicott (1957) viewed the capacity to be alone as originating in infancy, evolving from the relationship with the caretaker, rather than an inborn need. …