Lockdown has presented some of its sternest tests to those living alone.  Some people have coped well while still finding the enforced solitude a challenge.  Others have found it unbearably hard.  This set me thinking about why the lockdowns have been tolerable for certain individuals and not for others.  The ideas of British psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, may offer at least one clue.

Winnicott said that more has been written about the fear of being alone and the desire to be alone than about the ability to be alone.  Yet, as he argued in his 1958 paper The Capacity to be alone, it’s one of the most important signs of emotional development and maturity.  It also turns out to be strangely sophisticated.   See if you can get your head round it!

A paradox

Many types of experience, Winnicott writes, go to make up the ability to be alone but there is one basic experience without which we’ll never develop it – the experience of being alone, as an infant and small child, in the presence of one’s mother.  That’s a real paradox.  Winnicott’s talking about a child being happily in its own world while someone else is present.  He gives an example from later in life.  Imagine two people in the immediate aftermath of fulfilling sexual intercourse.  Although they’re together they’re also, in a sense, alone and happy to be so.  This experience of being alone with another person who’s also alone is in itself healthy.

 A foundation

The adult capacity to be alone depends, then, on something having been taken inside many years before in early childhood:  the experience of a good, safe relationship which gave and gives us a sense of confidence in a benign environment, a confidence in the present and the future.  It’s a sense of having enough just being in one’s own head for a while without the need for external people and interactions.

Finding the authentic you

So you could say that the small child’s experience of being alone in the presence of mother allows the child to go inside and discover his or her own personal life.  The mother will have allowed the child to be alone like this – not interacting with them but just letting the child be themselves and become aware of themselves.  Not doing or being done to but simply being.  While the child is in this state, internal personal experiences will come along and, Winnicott says, they’ll feel real and authentic to the self.

This process will be repeated over and over until gradually the need for an actual mother to be there drops away and the internal experience remains.  The ability to be actually alone has been established.  But it’s always an experience that implies paradoxically that someone else is there!

Lockdown and fault lines

To come back to where we started, the experience of lockdown has, to state the obvious, been a real challenge to most of us and not least to people who live on their own.  Human beings are made for human contact including physical contact.  For many people that has been taken away.

But as well as this there will have been other things going on in lockdown.  And while Winnicott’s ideas about a secure capacity to be alone won’t tell us everything about why lockdown has been tolerable for some but not for others they may tell us something.  If a person doesn’t have within themselves that original firm foundation of being able to tolerate aloneness then it may well cause acute distress if they live alone in lockdown.  The experience may expose a fault line from long ago.

Winnicott writes this:  ‘A person may be in solitary confinement and yet not be able to be alone.  How greatly he must suffer is beyond imagination’.

For solitary confinement read lockdown.