by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on August 15, 2011

This might seem a strange question coming from a dweller of NYC, where millions of people are constantly out there – on the street, in the trains, stores, cafes, restaurants. Yet, it is a question that many of my patients ask, in relation to their loneliness. And so, this blog is about the experience of loneliness and how we deal with it, and with being alone.

From a developmental perspective, the ability to be alone comes about slowly, and within the safety of our relationship to our caretakers. As children, we begin to experience our separateness from our mothers over time: initially we need her presence much of the time for our survival, then as we grow into toddlers, and we are able to move and discover our surroundings, we begin to play with our environment in small increments, to explore the world in little bits and pieces under her watchful eye.

Have you ever seen a child playing on its own but turning to search for mom from time to time? Children seek the maternal presence for reassurance: if she is still there, watching and available, all is well, even though she is not interacting in the play. The capacity to be alone develops gradually, over time, and through repetitive interactions with caretakers that establish first, the ability to be alone in the presence of another, and later, through many inter-actively mediated experiences with the world, the ability to be alone with oneself. As such, the capacity to be alone is a developmental milestone that requires the gradual ability to mediate and regulate our experience and feeling of aloneness. To feel safe while alone. First mom does this for us, then we begin to do this together with her, and finally, we are able to do this on our own. It is our ability to learn to regulate our emotional experience (while alone) that helps us to manage our time alone, and experience it as safe and reconstitutive. Much in the same way that we did when we played on our own as children.

People often confuse the experience of aloneness with loneliness. While they are related, they are not the same thing. Both involve our experience of our-self. Aloneness involves our ability to auto-regulate, to play on our own without the need for another. Not so with loneliness.  Loneliness is a relational phenomena – it can only be felt and experienced in relation to others, even when they are absent. Loneliness is about the self in need of another.

Loneliness involves the experience of the self in isolation, and the fear of not being known, recognized and elaborated in relationship to another. Loneliness involves a feeling state that is about the self as dis-connected from others, and/or the self as searching for connection. In fact, loneliness is about a specific kind of connection or relationship, one that is based on the authentic recognition of our self. This is why many people are capable of being alone yet despair at their feelings of loneliness and their search for connection.

We are relational beings. We grow , develop and elaborate our selves in relationship to and with others. It is relational connections from our early beginnings that support and shape our psyche’s and soma’s, our total experience of our  selves in our lives. So it is no wonder that many people are on a quest to find a soul mate, the one person with whom to connect, the “solution” to loneliness. As most of you know, this is not really a solution. I often hear about the experience of loneliness and despair from patients’ that are in relationships, who have mates, friends, loved ones. They experience their loneliness within relationships because they feel not known and unrecognized in them. Someone is there and yet there is no connection.

Loneliness is indeed a relational phenomena. It involves the experience of the self as unable to connect and communicate with others, not just love mates, but others in general. At heart, what loneliness is about is fear- the fear of lost possibilities and dreams, the fear of not being able to move intimately with another, and of not having a witness for the elaboration of our most intimate self.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Erika Schwartz, MD August 16, 2011 at 8:46 AM

Why not focus on creating and sharing the tools necessary to find comfort in loneliness?
As you said, as children we learn to separate and individuate. Success in that endeavor leads us to being fine alone. Why are we culturally so unable or possibly unwilling to take the necessary next steps to remove loneliness from the map?
Possibly because we’ve taught ourselves that unless we are a couple we are incomplete?
Help us Dr.C.
Give us the tools for further emotional progress!!


Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. August 25, 2011 at 5:54 PM

Right you are. You are addressing the impact of culture and socialization on our interpretation of what being alone means, as well as what it means to be a couple. So it is not so much that we teach ourselves that unless we are a couple we are incomplete, although of course it is a common interpretation of the cultural message. What culture fails to tell us, is that successful coupledom requires the ability to negotiate the inevitable and necessary interpersonal ruptures successfully, that is, the ability to repair inter-subjective collisions in order to retain a connection. Much of what I am describing in this blog has to do with our ability to negotiate being alone within the context of a relationship, which involves the same thing: successful negotiation of ongoing ruptures in connection that lead one to the ability to be alone and also be connected. I think that how we interpret culture and its message of two is better than one has everything to do with this.


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