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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

On Being Alone

In psychotherapy literature, much has been written about the unique experience that individuals have about being alone.  Donald Winnicott, the British Object Relations psychoanalyst and pediatrician, talked about the experiences of the infant who was able to tolerate times of being alone because she had an internalized sense of being alone and yet feeling the loving presence of the mother in the background.  

When things go well for the infant, this "good enough" mother is sensed as an internalized experience of nurturing that remains with the infant even when the mother isn't in sight, so the infant doesn't feel abandoned.

"Wounded Aloneness"
Michael Eigen, Ph.D., American psychoanalyst, talks about "wounded aloneness" in his latest book, "Contact with the Depths."  When the infant is unable to internalize a nurturing mother, for whatever reason, the infant experiences moments of  being alone as being abandoned, fraught with fear.  Of course, the baby has no language to express this fear, which probably is terrifying.  We know now that, contrary to former beliefs, we're not born like blank slates.  We respond and interact with our environment.  We know now about the neuroplasticity of the brain and the importance of these early experiences to the infant's developing mind.

On Being Alone:  "Wounded Aloneness"
As adults, how we experience being alone is often based on these early experiences.  If the overall early experience was "good enough" in a Winnicottian sense, all things being equal, we can tolerate and even enjoy being alone for periods of time. We can maintain an internal sense of loving friends and family, even though they're not with us physically.  This doesn't mean that we never feel lonely.  Everyone, no matter what your early experiences have been, experiences loneliness at various times.  But, overall, being alone is, at worst, a neutral experience and, at best, a time to regroup, relax, and renew onself.

Feelings of "wounded aloneness" can lead to depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug addiction, sex addiction, and other forms of addictive and compulsive behavior in an effort to comfort oneself.  The drink or the drug becomes the "friend" that is so hard to give up.  It's the friend who's always there, "reliable."   

When psychotherapy is going well, when there's a good match between the therapist and client, there can be a repair to "wounded aloneness."  It doesn't happen over night.  A sense of trust must be established first.  After a time, the client learns to internalize the therapist.

Even when the therapist isn't around or even after therapy has ended, when therapy is successful, the client maintains a sense of the therapist.   There are many times when I still think of my first analyst, who has been dead for more than 20 years, and remember things he said, a look, a gesture, or helpful advice.  In many ways, my experience of him is stronger now than at any other time in my life.  This is a common experience for many people who've had good experiences in therapy.  

We used to think that trauma and experiences of neglect and abuse did irreparable damage to children and that the best one could do is accept one's fate as an adult to remain wounded and feeling emotionally damaged.  Fortunately, we now know that it's possible to change, heal, grow and overcome early deficits.  

Getting Help
There are many ways to heal emotionally.  Psychotherapy is one way.   If being alone for you is a hurtful and retraumatizing experience, help is available to you.  Working with a therapist you feel comfortable with can be a life changing experience.  Often, beginning the process can be the hardest part.  But it can also set you on a new journey, opening up a new world for you, if you allow it.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist.  Dynamic, interactive talk therapy, EMDR, clinical hypnosis, and Somatic Experiencing are among my specialties.  I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006.


photo credit: mk is Watoo via photopin cc