My mum has always found it hard to be alone and now as she is in her fading weeks I sit holding her hand and reflect on how this has impacted on her life. She has appeared to only value herself through the eyes of others rather than be secure and comfortable with who she is. However much we tell her what a great parent or good friend she has been, this has not translated to an authentic pride in these achievements. I once asked her if she ever sought out and enjoyed her own company and she said she didn’t know what I meant.
As so much of my work is about the promotion of connectedness and belonging it comes as a surprise to be writing about different ways of being alone but this has profound implications for our relationships with other people.
Finding pleasure in solitude means being comfortable in your own skin, relishing stillness, being able to be in the moment, mindful not only of the miracle of your own existence but of all the natural wonders that surround us. Solitude gives you the stimulation of your mind and imagination and the comfort or your own spirit. It can be peaceful, joyful, creative and deeply satisfying.
By contrast those who easily feel lonely may look to others to fill an emptiness or help define who they are. It puts them at the mercy of opinion, of pressure to please and trying to fit into someone else’s agenda. It means desperately seeking out multiple communications, phone, facebook or email. If you have a hundred facebook friends surely that makes you OK – never mind that you are never truly in the company of the one person that matters most – you! One reason people stay in harmful relationships is to avoid the dreaded alternative of being ‘alone.’ It follows that the more you are unable to tolerate, let alone enjoy being by yourself, the less likely your relationships will be healthy, equal and satisfying.
I value the seminal research on attachment which highlights how the first days and weeks of a baby’s life are critical in helping them feel safe and connected and how secure and responsive parenting for all children promotes a positive sense of self that can explore the world, be resilient and open up freely to others. Those challenging young people with whom I have worked over the years have rarely had healthy attachment within their family and are often desperate to avoid being alone – or continue to feel lonely and unloved regardless of how much effort is spent boosting their self-esteem. You can also see this in those who are forever in competition with others – striving for a positive sense of self by being better in some way than those around them.
We know that feeling connected with others is key to wellbeing and resilience – but perhaps mutually positive relationships can only occur when people are encouraged and supported to be whole within themselves rather than constantly looking to others, in one way or another, to plug the gaps.
What a lovely surprise to discover how unlonely being alone can be
Ellen Burstyn from
Helen Exley (2000) And Wisdom Comes Quietly