Why being alone terrifies us.

Image: Ben White
All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.  - Blaise Pascal

In 2014, a group of researchers at the University of Wisconsin explored whether modern-day North Americans are capable of being in a room—alone and without distraction—for 15 to 20 minutes. Their findings were resounding, but not surprising. While the studies showed that most of us prefer doing “something” rather than “nothing,” it also showed that many of us would prefer just about anything over the prospect of spending time alone. In one of the studies 67% of men and 25% of women opted to self-administer an unpleasant shock over experiencing 15 uninterrupted and non-distracted minutes by themselves (one participant actually shocked himself 190 times in the 15-minute time period).

Yes, you read that correctly. Many of us would prefer a jolt of electricity coursing through our bodies over having to face an extended period of time by ourselves.

Shocking, isn’t it? (sorry about the pun...)

The truth is, being alone with just our thoughts terrifies most of us.

Which, when you really think about it, is crazy. After all, we are the one person that we will travel through our entire lives with. We are it; yet for many of us, we spend our lives moving as fast as we can so we don’t let our lives most important lessons catch up with us. We fill our schedules with social engagements. We watch movies. We play on our phones. We shop for things. We go to the gym. We keep “doing” until it is time to sleep, and then we get up the next day and start “doing” all over again.

Dr. Reggie Ray, in his article entitled Busyness is Laziness, argues that our busyness is actually an excuse, a way of avoiding actually living our own lives because we are completely terrified of who we actually are.  Ray goes on to argue that because of this fear of our own inner space,  most North Americans are “incapable of being alone —of any work that requires genuine solitude, without entertainment, that requires making a connection with the silence of the inner being.”

In the Tibetan tradition, according to Ray, busyness is considered the most extreme form of laziness. When we are busy, we are able to turn off our brain and use our to-do lists to help us navigate the day. There is no need to be intentional when we are simply following our jam-packed schedules. We release our control over our own lives to the frenetic pace of day-to-day, and in all of that filling up of space, Ray argues, we create a buffer that keeps us from relating to ourselves at a deeper level.

When we slow down and take that time to truly be with ourselves, however, we embark on a journey that is not for the faint of heart. When we quiet ourselves from the distractions around us, we are left standing in our own vulnerability and we can no longer hide from what is inauthentic in our lives. It is just us, up close and personal with our fears, our beliefs, our deepest life lessons, and in those small cracks of connection what really matters to us starts to bubble up. Perhaps this is what terrifies us most about being alone.  Sometimes what bubbles up in those quiet still moments shines a strong light on what is out of alignment in our lives.

And yes, recognizing this can be absolutely terrifying. 

But I was once told by a wise woman that the only way through is through. What I have seen in my work as a life coach (both in my own and my clients’ journeys) is that while it can be terrifying to be alone with ourselves, there is a multitude of riches just waiting there for us.

We just need to slow down enough to tap into them. 


Learn more about Integral Life Coaching and how it can help you slow down and become more intentional in your life.