Capacity to be alone

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This notion made its first appearance in the mid-1950s in a paper less than ten pages long (Winnicott, Donald, 1958/1965), yet it would be fair to say that today it informs the thinking, and even more the practice, of every psychoanalyst. To be alone in the presence of someone elsewhat better way could there be of describing the analytic situation and relationship?

Winnicott's aim in his paper is stated without preamble. Rather than the fear of being alone or the wish to be alone, both of which are so often described, what interests him is something that makes it possible to for us to love. He describes a solitude understood not as a defensive withdrawal that cuts us off from a hostile world, nor as neglect, abandonment, or even destruction of the self, but rather as a positive experience and, even more than that, as "a most precious possession" (p. 30).

This is indeed the discovery here, for the capacity to be alonewith the stress on the word "capacity," for Winnicott speaks elsewhere of a capacity to dream, and there is surely a link between the twois not a resigned tolerance of the effective absence or disappearance of the other person. This capacity, paradoxically, is quite compatible with the other's presence.

But what is meant by "presence" here? To transform a loss or separation into a departure implying a returnin other words, a "Fort! Da!" is itself no easy thing, and to experience the other's absence as their continued presence within oneself amounts to a further step still. To be able to tell oneself "I am alone" without feeling forsakensuch is the prerequisite for what Winnicott considers an essential achievement: to be assured of a sense of continuity as between oneself and the other person, or, better still, to perceive discontinuity in a permanent bond, or even its rupture, as the very precondition of that's bond's survival.

As so often in Donald Winnicott's work, the seeming simplicity of his assertions conceals an analysis of considerable complexity. This is confirmed if one reads "The Capacity To Be Alone" in conjunction with another, almost contemporary text, "Primary Maternal Preoccupation" (1956/1958), for such a reading makes it clear that the figure of the absent/present "other" should not be too hastily identifiedas it frequently iswith the mother as object. Thus a number of authors, among them François Gantheret, prefer to speak of "the maternal" as an extension of what Winnicottnonetheless reproached by some for idealizing the mothermeant when he wrote of maternal "illness" or "madness." In venturing to use such terms, Winnicott is referring to an initial state in which the mother experiences the needs of her infant as her own and treats what is external as if it were internala state, in short, that is not far removed from psychosis. It is only a break in this continuum, once it is mastered, that can make it possible for "bodily needs" to be transformed into "ego needs," and using Winnicott's own words, for a psychology to be born from the imaginary working out of physical experience. This imaginary working out Winnicott calls "ego-relatedness," as opposed to "id-relationships." First comes "I am," which is then as it were amplified by "I am alone" (1958/1965, pp. 33-34).

I am alone and at the same time I am not alone: not that I maintain the presence of the mother within myself; rather, I have managed to disentangle myself from her "madness," and no longer feel annihilated if she goes away and if I am no longer of concern to her. It may be that each of us must stand in, to some degree, for a maternal environment susceptible to becoming a realm without borders: an "imaginary working out," a mental life with its own inflows and outflowstruly, a "most precious possession."

Jean-Bertrand Pontalis

See also: Children's play; Fort-Da; Good-enough mother.


Gantheret, François. (1984). L'impensable maternel et les fondements maternels du penser. In Incertitude d 'Éros, Paris: Gallimard.

Klein, Melanie. (1975). On the sense of loneliness. In Envy and gratitude and other works 1946-1963 (The writings of Melanie Klein, vol. 3). London: Hogarth/Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Original work published 1963)

Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. (1988). De la mère, le maternel. In Perdre de vue, Paris: Gallimard.

Winnicott, Donald W. (1965). The capacity to be alone. In The maturational processes and the facilitating environment, London: Hogarth/Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Reprinted from International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 39 (1958), 416-20.)

. (1958). Primary maternal preoccupation. In Collected papers: Through paediatrics to psycho-analysis. London: Tavistock. (Original work published 1956)