Being Alone. By Keith White

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and what has been termed “lock-down” in the UK, concepts such as “social distancing” and “self-isolation” have become common parlance.  Over time this has led professionals, academics and clerics to reflect on related words such as alone, loneliness, solitude, solitary, and confinement.  We know that different languages have varying ranges of vocabulary when it comes to particular subjects or concepts (Intuit and words for snow; French and philosophy; Latin and law; Hausa and community, Aborigine and land, and so on).  English tends to be practical and functional in a lot of settings, hence its usage around the world, but does it provide the concepts we need in this unusual time in human history?

Being forced to “self-isolate” means that over 8 million people in the UK are literally “alone” in their homes, cut off from normal social intercourse and physical connections. Does this mean that they are necessarily “lonely”?  To be precise a key question is how “solitude” and “loneliness” relate to each other.  If it is possible to feel lonely in a crowd, is it equally possible not to feel lonely when cut off from others?  There are lots of configurations and permutations, of course, not least ideas of introversion and extraversion, choice and necessity, and the difference between a person of a gregarious nature, and one who enjoys her own company. Sadly there is growing evidence that those suffering with certain forms of psychosis, such as paranoia, in particular are deteriorating because of the absence of personal human presence and contact.  They need constant human encouragement and reassurance to deal with the destructive inner voices that they hear.

Focusing on children, how does this current situation affect them, and how does the capacity to be alone and to feel “good enough” about it, develop?  This reminds me that from time to time I set off a conversation when with children at mealtimes, by asking them to imagine and share with each other what a perfect day would be like.  If this takes off it can be great fun, as well as very revealing.  For example it becomes apparent how far they are assuming that they are alone, or in company, on their imaginary perfect days.  Occasionally they ask me what I think.  And then I am always stuck with two types of perfect day: the first is with others, say on the mountains, or sailing, or playing games; and the second is alone, say in the Reading Room of the British Museum, or sailing, on the mountains, or playing the piano.  Try as I might I am unable to choose between them.  Those who know me well no doubt see that this reflects a truth about my character: I enjoy, and am energised both by being with others, and also being alone.  If so, it is just possible that I can understand just a fragment, but not the whole, of what it means for people to be forced to be alone when they would much rather be with others.

In exploring this line of thought, I found, not for the first time, that Donald Winnicott had got there before me.  Until recently, for some reason, I had not been aware of his seminal essay, “The Capacity to be Alone” (International Journal of Psycho-analysis 1957, Volume 39, pages 416-420).  He realised that much writing about children was concerned with the fear of being alone, and the pathology of a withdrawn state, but little explored the positive aspects of the capacity to be alone.  He argues that this capacity depends on the experience of an infant or young child being alone in the presence of a good-enough mother.  There is a paradox: to experience being alone, while someone else is present.

He develops his argument by using both Freudian and Kleinian concepts.  One way of understanding it is that a capacity to be alone requires the existence of a good object that the child internalises.  He demonstrates what he means by analysing a sentence of the three words, “I am alone”.  “I” implies an individual as a unit; “I am” represents the undefended, vulnerable, potentially paranoid individual; whereas “I am alone” moves on to the stage where there is an awareness and appreciation, not necessarily conscious, of the reliable presence of the child’s mother.

In the normal course of events a range of raw and chaotic external stimuli and internal id experiences affect and challenge the child’s ego (sense of integrated self).  To make progress in personal development and the formation of a coherent sense of identity this must be dealt with appropriately.  Regressive mechanisms include fight and flight.  Winnicott argues that these stimuli and experiences can only be dealt with healthily (non-pathologically) with someone present, but not obtruding and making demands.  When there is this presence a child can find herself bewildered, and even floundering, but without despair.  For the reliable presence of the mother (significant other) prevents the bombardment from becoming overwhelming.  There is more to it than this, and I have interpolated one or two glosses of my own, but this is the gist of his argument in the paper.

One really helpful insight he offers is that what he is describing in terms of a child and mother, is replicated in some ways in the relationship between a client and a psycho-therapist.  Where a person has not developed the capacity to be alone, with all the problems that this implies for their sense of identity and self, the therapist is present but careful not to make demands on the client or to do things for them.  There is, in short, always the paradox that the capacity to be alone without panic and fear of being overwhelmed by inner or outer forces, requires at some stage the reliable and attuned presence of another person.

This brought to mind the example Carl Jung gives of a minister of religion who came to him for help.  Jung listened and decided to offer the man his study for a day.  It had an idyllic aspect, overlooking a lake surrounded by mountains.  And refreshments were provided throughout the day.  At the end, when Jung returned to ask him how he was, the minister was close to despair.  But I have offered you as agreeable environment as I could, said Jung.  You do not understand was the reply, I simply cannot stand being alone.  Jung then pondered how far this “shadow” of the man helped to explain why he chose to be in a pulpit seeking to help others when he couldn’t cope with being by himself.  It seemed as if the minister was seeking some form of substitute for a reliable mother-figure, possibly in the form of an archetypal professor.

As I pondered the insights of Winnicott, seasoned by the case-study of Carl Jung, I realised how well it chimes with the very best of child development theory as a whole, and that of John Bowlby and attachment theory in particular.  For some reason I don’t recall it being put in this way before, but as those involved with and alongside children, whether as parents, teachers, carers, social workers, one of our primary tasks is surely to be present in a way that makes possible the development of their capacity to be alone.  If not, we inevitably create dependency at best, and despair at worst.

This is about a very subtle therapeutic art that lies near the very heart of the process and dynamic: how to be present for a child and helping to create the safe space in which the child knows she is accepted and secure, where there are firm and appropriate boundaries.  Yet to do this in a way that encourages the child to develop the ability to say (probably by attitudes, actions and behaviour rather than words), “I am alone and it feels OK”.

Where this capacity is nurtured, then the child’s growing sense of identity and self will stand her in good stead, whether she is alone, or in a crowd.  But unless and until it is, then parents and professionals who are seeking to help need to find creative ways of being present, lest despair overwhelms the precarious ego.  I think it is time to stop at this point, but as I do so, it is becoming clearer to me.  I have spent fifty years seeking to understand and help children, in my own family, and at Mill Grove.  And it is at times like this that I can now see that genuine progress has so often been made.  It’s not necessarily apparent at the time, but those occasions when alongside, and being with a child, but not seeking to be in any sense instrumental or helpful, seem to be when the real dance was taking place.


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