Alone Time … How Does That Make You Feel?

How do you feel about being left alone with yourself, and your thoughts? Before answering, consider the findings in a recent University of Virginia/Harvard University study [reported at 7/4/14]:

Many people would rather inflict pain on themselves than spend 15 minutes in a room with nothing to do but think, according to a U.S. study released last week.

Researchers at the University of Virginia and Harvard University conducted 11 different experiments to see how people reacted to being asked to spend some time alone.

Just over 200 people participated in the experiments. Some were college students, others were volunteers who ranged in age from 18-77 and were recruited from a church and farmers’ market.

They offered students in one of the studies a chance to rate various stimuli, from seeing attractive photographs to the feeling of being given an electric shock about as strong as one that might come from dragging one’s feet on a carpet.

After the participants felt the shock, which Westgate described as mild, some even said they would prefer to pay $5 rather than feel it again.

Then each subject went into a room for 15 minutes of thinking time alone. They were told they had the opportunity to shock themselves, if desired.

Two-thirds of the male subjects — 12 out of 18 — gave themselves at least one shock while they were alone.

Most of the men shocked themselves between one and four times. However, one “outlier” shocked himself 190 times.

A quarter of the women, six out of 24, decided to shock themselves, each between one and nine times.

What stands out to me about this study is the inability/unwillingness of so many people to be left alone with their thoughts. It’s this discomfort with their intellectual apparatus that strikes me as significant.

I don’t necessarily assume that the study’s participants prefer pain over thinking. It’s possible in a few cases, but I don’t think most people want or embrace physical pain for its own sake. What stands out here is a need for mental distraction and escape. It’s a need so intense that one would rather inflict (not-too-intense) physical pain on oneself, rather than have to think (or confront one’s automatic thoughts, i.e. one’s feelings).

I don’t see this as a conscious outlook, so much as a psychological (or automatic) one. When people are not trained to be comfortable with their minds, they consequently possess less confidence in the ability to do anything with those minds. Particularly when put into a context where their minds are, quite literally, all that they have.

I suspect the psychology of pain-seeking in this study amounts to something like the following sentiments: “I can’t stand this. I’ve got to do something. I’d rather click this switch, even if I know it will give me a shock, than just sit here.”

The horror of “just sitting here” reveals how vastly people underestimate their own introspective, mental and intellectual abilities. You have to wonder how much this already goes on in daily life. How many opportunities to think does one pass up on a routine basis? I don’t simply mean to think about intellectual issues such as philosophy, human life, higher science or world events. I mean to think about anything. Examples: Thinking about how your life is going; why your stress is so high (if it is); why you’re reacting the way you do to interpersonal or external events in your daily life; and what you think about your reactions. Or what you think about the plots, theme and characterizations of the movie or television series you just watched, or the book you just finished.

Opportunities to think are all over our daily lives, but most of us (by my theory) avoid or evade those efforts as much as possible. The findings of this study support my theory. (No one study will prove it.)

Of course, we have it drilled into our consciences never to think about ourselves. Self-indulgence is a sin, whether from the old puritanical perspective or the postmodern and supposedly sophisticated, “progressive,” largely group-think mindset of our times.

The problem with condemning self-indulgence is that you throw out all rational self-concern and self-responsibility — including for the well-being of one’s mind — in the process.

That’s why this study’s findings did not surprise me, not in the least. I found them disturbing, but not surprising. In my job, I assist people in the process of introspecting every single day. Although some individuals are willing and able to introspect, it raises a great deal of anxiety in most of them to do so, based on what I’m told. And in getting to know my clients, I learn that nearly all of them are surrounded by people who would not engage in such self-reflection for five minutes, however intelligent or self-responsible they might otherwise be. The ones most desperately and urgently in need of psychotherapy are usually the ones least likely to go.

To be “alone with your thoughts” means to be comfortable with your capacity for thinking. This includes (although is not limited to) your willingness to be aware of your emotions, inner “self-talk,” and various thoughts and ideas running around your mind all the time, whether you choose to make yourself aware of them, or not.

In therapy, a lot of people (from my experience) end up discovering that they’re afraid of their own emotions. They’re afraid of the output their intellect will provide in the form of feelings which they believe will reflect badly on them, or perhaps cause them to do things against their values or interests. You might call this, “Feeling-phobia.” Perhaps that’s why a surprising number of people in this study felt compelled to shock themselves, as a distraction, rather than endure their own feelings.

Many people assume that feelings arise from purely biological or quasi-supernatural sources (i.e, out of their control), rather than from their own subconscious thinking and premises — which their own conscious reasoning is perfectly capable of addressing. Given the widespread and false belief that our feelings have no causes under our potential control, it’s little wonder so many are afraid of their own minds, including their own feelings.

I can already hear people saying about this study, “You see? We have too much technology. Not enough empathy and brotherhood of man. Pass a law — quickly.”

No, that will only make things worse. Technology and productive enterprise are the only reasons we’re as sane as we are, given how wrong (and medieval) our dominant ideas about ethics, intellect and psychology are. Maybe if we taught our children — and ourselves — more enlightened and rational ideas about ethics, knowledge and emotions, so many of us would not be so afraid of our feelings and minds.

The challenge for many is to become comfortable with the mechanism which makes all of these life-saving conveniences possible — the human mind. Specifically and personally: our own minds.

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