Solitude: The Capacity to be Alone – 2017

Fran Miller, Ph.D. ©

Once when I was in graduate school, I came across an essay by D.W. Winnicott called “The Capacity To Be Alone”. I immediately duplicated the essay (that was the procedure in those days!), and took it home. At that time there was little writing on the value of being alone, the ability to be alone, on loneliness, or on solitude.

What I have discovered providing psychotherapy is that most clients coming to therapy have not developed the ability to be truly comfortable alone. You are going to be amazed by this story: one male client came to see me in California who had been a very high ranking officer in one of the services. He was retired at the time, and was having difficulty in his marriage. One of the problems was that his wife wanted to attend a particular school that would require her to be away overnight once or twice a week. The retired officer didn’t want her to leave home overnight. His reason was that he was not comfortable staying home alone. “What about your military experience?”, I asked. “You fought in three wars; surely you must have been alone on occasion.” “No,” he said. “Even in three wars, I never spent a night alone!”

One summer in Oregon, I had two older women come into therapy separately. One was 65; the other 72. Coincidentally, both of their husbands had terminal illnesses. Both of them wanted to prepare themselves to be on their own. Neither of them had developed the capacity to be alone and they were 65 and 72! With intentional effort, we can learn how to be alone. At some point in our lives we can decide, it is time, and begin the work of developing the strengths that enable us to be alone.

There are various reasons that we might need to be alone. We might suddenly find ourselves alone because of divorce or the death of a spouse, we may be alone while other family members are away for a period of time, we may need to live alone rather than with roommates or friends, we may need to travel alone, we may choose to be alone to facilitate creativity, or we may be alone for religious or spiritual reasons.

There are several different skills that are required in order to be comfortably alone. One that we might not think of is that we need to be prepared in case of an emergency. Although we’re often reminded by news programs or news outlets, many of us don’t actually take the time for emergency preparedness. But being prepared brings a level of confidence, and that is one of the components that is needed in order to be alone. We also need to be able to take care of practical considerations on our own, simple things like shopping for necessities and caring for our living space. Getting our living space in order is actually a necessary prerequisite to being able to be relaxed in our own home environment. We also need to be sufficiently psychologically developed and mature, and able to accept and tolerate our own variable emotions. Let’s look at that a bit further.

Psychologically developed and mature: Here are some qualities that will be necessary in order to be comfortable alone for a period of time or in order to live alone: self esteem, self worth, confidence, security, strength, determination, perseverance, and management of fears and emotions. We need to become experienced and successful at goal setting with small and even more major hopes and plans. By setting the intention, you can work on and develop any of these characteristics. However, sometimes psychotherapy can facilitate the progress especially related to self esteem and self worth.

Ability to accept and tolerate our own variable emotions: When I lived in the West Hills, in Portland in the 90’s, I decided I needed to specifically work on my ability to manage emotions completely by myself and to develop my ability to live on my own. I decided that I would go for several months with the following intent: whatever emotion I was feeling, impatience, irritation, frustration, disappointment, discouragement, loneliness, or sadness, that I would practice working with and tolerating the emotion by myself without sharing it or discussing it with anyone. My rule was that I needed to go 2 weeks without discussing any situation I was in, but that after that I could share it as something that had happened and that I had worked through in the past. That way, no one would feel responsible to provide suggestions or support. I learned that just as it occurs in meditation, an emotion would rise up into awareness, be the focus of attention for a period of time, and then would gradually diminish and fall away. This conscious awareness that emotions rise up and then fall away is invaluable. Once we realize this, we are less likely to get caught up in, and even exaggerate, the emotion of the moment.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to do anything about the situation that is causing the emotion. Naturally, part of the effort needs to be to decide if an action needs to be taken such as a further communication with someone, writing a letter or email, or some other action. This is, of course, often the case. To a large extent the emotional component will be at the forefront of our attention only for awhile and then it will fade into the past. Take a minute, and see if you can remember the emotion your were experiencing a week ago and if it is still bothering you now. Probably you can’t even remember most emotions from a week ago unless some action still needs to be taken. We feel the urge and need to communicate our feelings, and most of the time we will enjoy sharing and communicating. But when it comes to negative and strong emotions, it is extremely beneficial to develop the ability to process emotions on our own, so that at least some of the time, when it is necessary or beneficial, we can handle our emotions on our own. This will be an indication that we have come a long way in our progress towards the capacity to be alone.

“Vision quests” were popular in the 70’s, but were derived from Native American Indian tradition, and they still have immense value today. Usually a Native American or a vision quest organization offers trips into the mountains or desert for a small group of participants. The participants receive training in preparation. Once out in the secluded and wild natural area, a basecamp is established. Then each participant leaves the camp alone and heads out to find their own sacred location. Each participant will take only a sleeping bag, water, matches, and writing material and each will stay in their own solitary location for three days. With no food and alone in the wild, spiritual experiences or visions can take place. After the three days the vision questers return to the basecamp and share their experiences. This is a unique, intentional, and sacred effort to facilitate a profound experience, and one that challenges and maximizes the ability to be alone.

Many sports require solitary training: swimming, running, sailing, climbing. And many campers hike solo. These sports require solitary activity but in the process greatly increase the ability to work, discipline oneself, and develop strength alone. They also greatly contribute to confidence, security, self esteem, and self worth.

During the last ten or even twenty years, there has been an increased interest in meditation which has many and varied benefits. One of the perhaps unintended but inherently necessary outcomes of a meditation practice is the ability to be present with oneself, to be silent and physically still, and to process one’s thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations alone. Even though meditation may take place in a community or sangha within a Meditation Hall or Zendo, meditation is done in silence and completely alone. Meditation retreats are even referred to as the Inner Olympics. There are very many qualities that are the byproducts of a regular and long term meditation practice: clarity of identity, discipline, endurance, perseverance, strength, compassion, empathy, joy, wisdom, and spiritual insight. 
Spending time alone is obviously not something to do the majority of time. School, work, family, all entail healthy and rewarding social interaction. Sharing time, work, life, and our personal process is healthy, enjoyable, and even necessary most of the time. But setting aside time to be alone is invaluable.

In the essay by D.W. Winnicott that I read a long time ago, Winnicott states:

The capacity to be alone is a highly sophisticated phenomena, and has many contributing factors. It is closely related to emotional maturity…. Gradually the ego- supportive environment is introjected and built into the individual’s personality so that there comes about a capacity actually to be alone.

Robinson Jeffers was an extraordinary poet who built a house out of stone in Carmel, on the shore of the California coast, called Tor House, and lived there alone where in solitude and in the beauty of nature he could manifest his creativity.


Solitude that unmakes me one of men
in snow-white hands brings singular recompense
evening me with kindlier natures when
on the needled pinewood the cold dews condense
about the hour of Rigel fallen from heaven
in wintertime, or when the long night tides
sign blindly from the sand-dune backward driven
or when on storm wings of the northward rides
the foamscud with the cormorants, or when passes
a horse or dog with brown affectionate eyes,
or Autumn frosts are pricked by earliest grasses,
or whirring from her covert a quail flies, 
why, even in humanity, beauty and good
show, from the mountainside of solitude.

Robinson Jeffers