Lonely or alone?

What does loneliness mean? We assume it means an estrangement from others but it can equally mean an estrangement from ourselves.


We’ve all heard the phrase ‘feeling lonely in a crowd’; experiencing a feeling of separation, despite being around others. Perhaps you’ve experienced feeling lonely in a relationship, even.

As humans we are hardwired to be relational creatures, but this doesn’t just mean seeking relationships with others, it means cultivating a relationship with ourselves too. Loneliness is just as much a part of our internal world as our external world.

Our go-to remedy for loneliness can often be to seek the company of others, literally or digitally, but this may not always assuage the lonely feelings; it may even make them worse.

We tend to disregard the company of the one person we have entered into a life-long relationship with: ourselves. But this is the only real antidote to loneliness and it involves learning how to be alone.

Loneliness is just as much a part of our internal world as our external world.

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Back in the 50s, a psychoanalyst called Donald Winnicott defined the ‘capacity to be alone’ as different from loneliness. He theorised it as a sort of inner security that a child acquires if they are lucky enough to feel safe and unimpeded upon in their development.

In reality though, we have variable experiences of stability in our formative years and as a result have a variable ‘capacity to be alone’ as adults. But we can still learn how to be alone and OK, how to be in our own company, how to build an inner stability, strengthen our alone-being capacity.

If we only look to others to provide that stability, to assuage our loneliness, then we might be familiar with that feeling of ‘being lonely in a crowd’. It comes from being disconnected from our central core of stability and relying wholly on external circumstances and people to provide it. But if we can restore the intimate connection with our inner self that loneliness estranges us from, we can restore intimacy and authentic connection with others in the world too.