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If you are unfamiliar with rivalnyms, they are a particularly juicy class of words that exist between synonyms and antonyms. They often define the exact same thing but with completely opposite emotional valences. 


Here’s an example from episode 558: Conspire & Cooperate


Both words describe people who are working together to bring about a commonly desired goal.

But cooperation is generally positive and conspiracy is generally negative.  As is often noted, history is always written by the winners and those winners then, in hindsight identify the losers as conspirators, whereas the winners who have the final say in the matter, that is, they get to write the history books, these winners define their past actions as cooperation.

The importance of rivalnyms derive from their ability to be a mirror for our own thinking.  If we are aware of rivalnym pairs, then we begin to notice them in our own speech, and the particular word in a rivalnym pair that we use reveals fundamental aspects of how we are thinking and feeling.

There is, for example, a rivalnym pair that surrounds the phenomenon of being alone.  As with all rivalnyms one word in this pair describes the experience of being alone in positive terms and the other describes it in negative terms.  Or in this case, we might rephrase positive and negative as desirable and undesirable. 


These words are:

Solitude & Loneliness


No one wants to be lonely, but at the same time it’s not unusual to crave solitude.  Is this not somewhat of a contradiction?  If no one wants to be lonely, then why on earth would we ever seek to be alone?


This is too simplistic of course, and it’s only to further highlight the question: what exactly is the difference between solitude and loneliness?


While alone, the perspective of loneliness is focused on an absence – on the fact that someone could be with us.  This is not something that we have immediate control over.  Without changing our perspective from which loneliness arises, we cannot necessarily snap our fingers and poof someone appears.  We can of course go find someone to alleviate this loneliness, but the condition and the solution here generally demonstrate far less agency for the person experiencing these things.


Solitude, on the other hand, is more purposeful.  A person seeks solitude or enjoys solitude with more of a mission.  Even if that mission is to practice meditation in order to relax the notion of having a mission in the first place.  Solitude provides an undistracted space to work, contemplate, and to feel.  In contrast, loneliness consists of a completely distracted space that impedes work, derails any meaningful contemplation and absorbs our feelings in what could be.


Notice it only impedes work though.  We can crack the spell of loneliness by diving into some work more fully, and by doing so flip the coin of being alone so that we see it as solitude instead of loneliness.  We might further delve into the idea of purpose and solitude.  Mere busy work is less likely to transform our loneliness into a gratifying experience of solitude.  But if our work is meaningful and sufficiently difficult, then any progress in that work is going to provide a sense of achievement, which in turn is likely to make our experience of being alone more satisfying, and hence, we might be more likely to think of it as solitude as opposed to loneliness.


The difference between solitude and loneliness is the gift of perspective that we bring to the experience of being alone.



This point about perspective and our opportunity to analyze our own perspective is what can make rivalnyms so useful.  If we can catch ourselves feeling lonely and identify it as loneliness, we can ask: how might I transform this experience of being alone into a gratifying instance of solitude?


Often the feeling associated with any experience is simply a hint about what we should do next.  How we react to that feeling is everything.  And sometimes, a feeling pops up as a useful counterpoint, one which we would to best to rebel against, or see as a danger sign, one that tells us to turn around or explore a new direction.  Unfortunately, we’re often likely to entertain that feeling and proceed down a path of which that feeling is meant to stand as a warning.  The study of rivalnyms, however, as mere a concept we can keep in the back of our mind can serve to remind us that there might be an equally valid and diametrically positive way of interpreting or navigating the exact same experience.


For more on Rivalnyms, check out Episode 293: Rivalnym.





Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

Dive in to the Archives

Podcast Ep. 645: Rivalnym Case Study: Alone

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