The Oxford dictionary defines being alone as: ‘Having no one else present; on one's own’
This definition is about being physically alone. But what about being emotionally alone, interpersonally alone? Now we have social media we need never be alone anymore. Yet the kind of connections that gives us can make us more feel more starkly alone than ever before. Going out with a friend or a partner can give us a sinking feeling of aloneness. There are all kinds of social constellations where we can just feel out of place or crippled by anxiety. There is something about being out in the world that can make us acutely aware of our deepest attachment wounds. This can induce all too familiar feelings of shame and regret for stepping out the door.
‘Good enough mothering’
D.W. Winnicott (1942) relates the ‘capacity to be alone’ to our early experiences of ‘good enough Mothering’. Through a developmental process we internalise the sense that although our primary caregivers (‘good enough Mothers’) were not perfect they were nonetheless reliable and if they made mistakes (which being humans, they inevitably did) they did their best to make amends. This enables the child to ‘build up the belief in a benign environment.’ (p.417) Of course there will be later disappointments along the way as there always are for us all, yet getting over them is easier as this ‘benign environment’ that has been internalised has become part of the child’s neurobiological framework. The world is a place that can be explored and where we can play without fear.
The capacity to daydream
Perhaps most importantly in this paper Winnicott elucidates the paradox of being alone:
Winnicott’s can be a hard concept to grasp at first as of course when we in the company of someone else we are not physically alone. Winnicott refers to the internalised care that enables us to separate from our caregivers, tolerate absence and develop a sense of self. Our caregiver may for example, be in the room playing with us, doing something else, or in another room. However, as we have internalised their care and presence we can be alone with or without them. We can get lost in our own worlds and start to daydream. We begin to imagine, play and create.Now we can really see how profound the capacity to be alone can be as it becomes something that we carry with us through a lifetime. We can also see how its deficit can erode many areas of our human potential.
For those of us who have not been fortunate enough to internalise this benign world of aloneness, life can be pretty scary and lonely. We have never been allowed to be alone or even worse our caregivers presented a threat to us. This can leave us emotionally rootless and it can be very hard to orientate ourselves interpersonally: anxiety is overwhelming and there is no space at all to daydream. There is only a void and sadly this gets filled by social media, Tinder, Netflix and meaningless and painful relationships. Aloneness makes us only feel lonely.
The capacity to be alone in therapy
Although it is not the only way of doing so, psychotherapy is a place where we can begin to mend our early attachment wounds. Knowing that there is a safe, confidential space each week at the same time where we know there is a reliable, (though not perfect) someone who will listen to us without judgement is a great start. As the therapeutic work progresses we begin to develop the capacity to be alone in our therapy sessions and also in the space between them as we go about our lives. Winnicott (p.416) talks about the power of silence in therapy and how it relates to this newly discovered capacity in the client/ patient to be alone.
I have also seen this in my own work with people as silence becomes a place for reverie as opposed to be anxious about. Once anxiety is worked through, by using symbols and metaphors that are unique to the person, painful experiences are named for the first time and begin to heal. These ‘benign’ therapeutic experiences are then internalised and as when we are children form new neurological pathways and offer the possibility of new interpersonal and creative experiences: we can start to explore the world again. This makes it easier for us to be alone, to draw boundaries and trust our instincts when a relationship doesn’t feel right. It gets easier to say ‘No’ and when we decide we’d like to spend some time with someone we have the opportunity to experience aloneness and connection with them. This is what Winnicott (p.417) called ‘Ego relatedness’:
Our capacity to be alone then really allows us to have the space to think about the quality of relationships we have and whether they allow us to be alone. We are then much more empowered to make very important choices about whether we want to be a part of them or not.
Winnicott, D. W. (1958). The capacity to be alone. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 416-420.