Many people dread being alone. They’re uncomfortable spending time by themselves and develop elaborate strategies to avoid it. They pass time with people they don’t really enjoy, compulsively talk to fill the silence, and reflexively turn to their devices, to just avoid feeling alone. Beyond day-to-day habits, some people even make major life decisions, like getting married or having a child, based on the fear of being alone.
Being comfortable alone is an essential skill that will increase your life quality by giving you more choices in how you spend your time and live your life. It’s more than just developing hobbies and interests and things to do when alone. Developing the capacity to be alone means developing a greater tolerance for and intimacy with yourself and your experience.
But how do we develop this skill alone in a vacuum? We don’t.
In a classic essay, “The Capacity to be Alone,” psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott described the paradox of aloneness in which he believed that the capacity to be alone develops from the experience of being alone in the presence of someone else (usually one’s mother). We need to feel the presence of another—someone who is there, with whom we feel safe, and who makes no demands on us. We need to be seen by others in this way to form a sense of ourselves. We need to know that another sees us and that we are separate from them simultaneously. This process assures us that we go on existing without their presence—and that our existence has meaning and value. From this experience, we internalize a sense of self and safety that a cornerstone of the ability to tolerate being alone with ourselves.
Experiencing someone unconditionally being there for you, who sees you with no expectations, no needs or demands is essential. Having had such an experience early in life, you carry it with you throughout life. Without sufficient experience of being alone in the presence of another, we may come to associate aloneness with emptiness, fear, vulnerability, and lack of worthiness of others’ attention or companionship. If you miss out on having that experience in the early years, you can still get it from a therapist, mentor, or teacher—anyone who is willing to be unconditionally there for you—and has your best interest at heart.
From this original experience of being alone in the presence of another, we may create mental states that replicate the experience in our minds when we are alone.
When I was a tween, I had a poster of Paul McCarthy in my bedroom. His eyes followed me everywhere, and that made me feel less lonely. It was a time when I couldn’t quite relate to my parents and finding a way to fit in with my peers was elusive—and painful. But I had Paul’s constant attention. He gazed at me pleasantly with his large soulful brown eyes. I didn’t believe he was really there—nor did I spin fantasies about Paul being my boyfriend. I just needed him to see me. I imagined he understood me, was content to just be there and keep me company. It gave me solace.
Now, like many people who spent hours a day working alone, I have photos of my loved ones on my desk—they keep me company—gazing at me pleasantly, and mercifully demanding nothing as I work. What function does this serve? The silent presence of loved ones provides a sense of constant comfort and connection—without requiring the energy of an actual visit or a conversation—that energy needs to be directed toward the solitary work at hand. These photos looking back at me are a constant reminder that people care about me and are interested in me. Ultimately, they remind me of my humanity.
This quiet presence of another takes many forms.
For instance, an artist may have a muse whose purpose is to inspire great work. In the artist’s imagination, the muse doesn’t demand anything, but is often merely present, silent and patiently watching as the artist works. Throughout history, these muses protected and watched over the artists and their creations. The quiet presence of another is also found in many spiritual traditions. People derive comfort from believing that God, spirits, angels, and deceased loved ones are watching over them. When we are alone, we often think of those we love and imagine that they are with us. It is a private experience that many never talk about, but it’s surprisingly common.
So paradoxically, the capacity to be alone involves knowing that you never really are.
Dr. Tara Well is a psychology professor at Barnard College in New York City where she developed a mirror-based meditation called “a revelation” in the New York Times. She has taught hundreds of people how to use the mirror to awaken self-compassion, manage emotions, and improve face-to-face communication. Find out more at www.MirrorMeditation.com
Image courtesy of Hamman La.