In my work as a clinical psychologist, I’ve seen countless patients over the years with a similar presenting concern — the fear of being alone. They tell me about the discomfort they feel when spending time by themselves and their strategies for avoiding being alone. They describe spending time with people they don’t actually enjoy, compulsively talking on the phone to fill the silence, and reflexively turning on the TV when they enter their apartment, just to not have to experience being alone with themselves. Years ago, one patient even admitted that the primary reason she decided to become a mother was to protect herself from being alone.
This fear of aloneness is a problem we don’t talk enough about. And in these hyper-connected times, this problem is only getting worse. Texting throughout the day and spending hours and hours online in the virtual “presence” of others disables our capacity to be alone. In his now classic 2009 article “The End of Solitude,” literary critic and essayist William Deresiewicz explains our contemporary dilemma clearly: “The more we keep aloneness at bay, the less we are able to deal with it and the more terrifying it gets.”
I see this fear of aloneness in my female patients far more than my male patients, and I believe this mirrors a reality in the larger culture. (There are several complex reasons for this gender difference, no doubt.) For so many of my female patients, the fear of being alone has two primary facets. First, there is discomfort associated with being alone on a day-to-day basis. When alone they feel antsy, uncomfortable, lonely, or bored and employ a variety of methods to avoid feeling that way. The second facet involves a fear of being alone into their older years — the fear of being the dreaded “spinster.” This fear should not be underestimated. It haunts the lives of so many women and oftentimes dictates a woman’s life choices. Many women will often choose anything to avoid the imagined fate of the spinster. In fact, it seems that this fear is a taken for granted component of being a woman in this culture.
The good news is that we can cultivate the capacity to be alone well. We can cultivate it as adults even if we failed to receive certain crucial elements during our early years that support the capacity to be alone well.
Being alone well isn’t really about developing hobbies and interests and things to do when alone. Developing the capacity to be alone well means developing a greater tolerance for, and intimacy with, your experience — the emotional, cognitive, visceral, imaginative, and sensory moment-to-moment arisings that constitute your basic aliveness. Many of us live in a state of chronic distraction from our experience. Being alone well means being capable of entering more fully into your experience. It’s about cultivating more unmediated presence to your experience and to the real, concrete world that surrounds you.
I think it’s safe to say that most people in this culture are chronically distracted and alienated from the subtleties of their experience. We need to do the difficult, but necessary, work of regaining access to our experiential thickness and generating our own images and desires apart from those we’ve been spoon-fed by mass culture. Practicing the art of solitude — i.e., cultivating the ability to be alone well — presents us with an opportunity to reclaim that plenitude.
Psychotherapy can also help. A big part of what happens in good therapy is that the patient enters more fully into her experience. She doesn’t just talk about herself and the events of her life. She doesn’t just tell a story. With the help of the therapist, she shifts her attention to the fullness of her moment-to-moment experience as it unfolds in the session. She tunes in. Oftentimes this requires a patient to become more comfortable with silence. It requires her to carefully describe what is happening in her body in the here-and-now of the session. In so doing, she gains more intimacy with herself and less fear of her own experience, including painful feelings and memories that have long haunted her. She also develops more curiosity about the depths of her psychological life. As a result, she becomes better able to be alone.
The other facet that I have observed about many women’s fears of being alone revolves around their fear of being without a romantic partner into their later years. Patients often tell me about their fears of being single into midlife and beyond. Though these fears stem in part from a genuine desire for a high-quality romantic partnership, they oftentimes also stem from a powerful discomfort with the image of the spinster — a discomfort which runs deep in the history of this culture. The image of the spinster serves to threaten the status quo and call into question our ideas about women’s proper role in society. The spinster is dangerous indeed.
By fearing and condemning the spinster, we fear and condemn a part of ourselves. Our inner spinster needs acknowledgment and reclamation… even cultivation. As with any archetype that’s been cast into the shadows of the individual psyche (as well as the shadows of our collective cultural psyche), our inner spinster needs to be brought into the light of consciousness and integrated within the self.
Whether we’re single or partnered, younger or older, our inner spinster needs befriending. The price we pay for relegating her to enemy or alien status is to be cut off from a potential source of strength, vitality, creativity, and blessed eccentricity. It’s a great price — one that far too many women end up paying.