Aloneness and loneliness are often confused and used interchangeably. However, it is useful to differentiate the two, so that we not only know what we are dealing with as we meet our personal experience, but can also successfully do something about it.

Aloneness, or being alone, can simply be defined as a situation, in which nobody is physically around. So sometimes you are alone in your house while your family is out, and sometimes family members are around. You can be alone at the top of a mountain you climbed, or some fellow hikers are admiring the view with you. When you are alone, though, two opposite mental states may dominate. You may feel at peace, content, deeply connected to this earth and the universe, or you may feel lonely. Loneliness is a painful state of mind that can predominate, whether you are alone or not. You can be in the middle of a crowd or among acquaintances at a party, yet feel painfully lonely.

Existentialists like to muse that we die alone, in contrast to how we live with other people. The inference here is that we are individuals who are only connected to each other for the duration of our life time, and that upon death we have to give up companionship. In other words, our organisms are separate, even though we are psychologically connected, and when we die we have to give up this sense of connection. Not so fast.

We are undoubtedly sometimes alone, sometimes not. However, being successfully alone, meaning that we are alone without feeling lonely, is a developed skill. The capacity to be alone and not suffer, hinges on having experienced and internalized attuned relationships, either as children through our parents or later through psychotherapists, mentors or teachers. In such relationships we can see ourselves through the other person’s eyes, we learn how it feels to feel seen, heard and felt. Since the neurocircuitry responsible for our relationship to others is the same as the one responsible for our relationship to ourselves, when we feel heard by the other, we can hear ourselves. We have access to the many layers of neuroprocessing in the body, from being somatically attuned to our body, to recognizing and regulating our emotions, all the way to being able to make sense of our life stories. The attuned relationships that shaped us become internalized, so that when we are alone, we are with all these people who have shaped us in a healthy way – they are always with us in our minds. Applied to the child’s relationship to her parents, when a young child enjoys attuned relationships and therefore develops a secure attachment to the parents, after a heartfelt good-bye the parents can leave the room for a while, and the child will not only be happy and concentrated playing by herself, but greet the parents with warmth and joy when they come back. At most, the child may be a little upset when the parent leaves, but calms down quickly. With a well-developed capacity to be alone, we are present with ourselves the way we were able to be present in our relationships to those loving others, and the whole world is with us – we don’t feel lonely, but deeply connected.

Of course, we also internalize unhealthy relationships, and when we are alone having been shaped by relationships that cause pain, we are in pain. The painful quality of a dysfunctional relationship to parents becomes the painful experience of relating to ourselves. The pain can be very different, depending on what went wrong in our formative relationships. In brief, we may have experienced absence and unavailability, leaving us with an incessant yearning for connection we can never fulfill, combined with a deep disconnection from ourselves that mirrors the disconnection with the absent parent we yearned for. Such a child does not even acknowledge or feel the need to say the parent good-bye, when they leave the room, gets bored and restless when alone, and does not respond upon the parent’s return. We may also have experienced ambivalence and inconsistency, leaving us conflicted with regards to closeness; we yearn closeness, but closeness is disorienting, suffocating or conflicted. This applies to both the external relationship and the relationship to ourselves. Such a child is clingy and gets very anxious when the parent leaves the room, having a hard time letting go, then is anxious and distraught while the parent is away, and when the parent comes back, the child can’t calm down easily, remaining anxious and angry. In all these cases, being alone is a painful situation, because we are unable to successfully feel at peace and content in our own skin. Our relationship to ourselves is fraught with disruption of one kind or another, we cannot see ourselves clearly, and therefore end up struggling to properly regulate our emotions and mental states. We experience loneliness and remain unsatisfied.

Being alone is therefore an inevitable fact of life. What counts is whether we have learned the skills to be successfully alone or not. When we haven’t, we will feel painfully lonely no matter what, whether we are alone or not.

Copyright © 2019 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.