In my post on grief and gratitude, I discussed some of the emotions that come to the fore in the termination phase of psychotherapy. With the client I described in that post, another issue has recently become prominent: the loneliness of personal responsibility balanced by the pleasures of solitude.
Diane began a recent Monday session by telling me she had the strong urge to fill me in on all the details of her weekend, to spill out her experience in a mindless way very familiar to us. Throughout her treatment, she would communicate in that fashion because she wanted to feel that I was a part of her experience, as if I were there at her side going through life with her, always available to process that experience and to do her thinking for her. She knew she felt a little angry and rebellious, as if to spill all those details would be an act of defiance. In recent months, we’ve focused on the need to communicate in a different mode: instead of unloading her experience in a mindless way, she needed to digest that experience first and decide which details should be communicated, what she intended to say and what she felt to be the crucial issues. In other words, as the end of her treatment approaches, the responsibility to think for herself has shifted increasingly onto her own shoulders.
During that Monday session, she went on to discuss an article she’d read, about the rise of binge drinking among middle-aged professionals. It made her recognize that her alcohol use had been creeping up lately as she faced various stressful situations in her life; she felt the need to get it more under control. This topic reminded her of early struggles with substance abuse when we first started working together. In those days, she used to carry a moralistic and disapproving “Joe” around in her mind; he held her to very harsh standards with no areas of gray, banning drug and alcohol use entirely, and came down hard when she slipped. She often felt resentful toward this “Joe”, as if she were a teenager and “Joe” the unreasonably strict parent; over time, however, she came to obey his rules. Now, she said, even though “Joe” still appeared in her thoughts, she didn’t believe in him in the same way. She’d come to feel that the issues weren’t so black-and-white.
Her next thoughts were about her husband, and his recent health scare. Diane worried that she might have to face a major crisis after the end of psychotherapy. She also talked about her oldest daughter and some self-destructive behaviors that reminded Diane very much of her own younger self. She wondered how best to help her.
“So many issues to deal with alone,” I pointed out. How to cope with her husband’s illness, how to manage her relationship to alcohol, how to help her daughter. Diane is struggling with fact that she’s increasingly alone with personal responsibility for her life; part of her wants to regress, to go back to being the rebellious teenager and dump her experience into me, forcing me to think about it for her. She’d like to feel that I’m the disapproving parent and she the disobedient child but can no longer believe it. As the end of treatment approaches, she knows she’s alone with responsibility for herself and it frightens her. I touched on this theme in my post about existential aloneness. To some extent, this is an issue we must all confront; in my experience, it’s central to the successful termination phase of psychotherapy. Diane’s “rebelliousness” used to dominate her, placing me in the role of parent; now, she feels she has to be the parent and deal with that rebellious part herself. She’s worried that she might not be up to the job. Her feelings of anger about aloneness and responsibility are strong.
Later in the session, however, she talked about practicing clarinet, which she’d begun to study six months ago, fulfilling a lifelong wish to play an instrument. Over these months, we’ve talked on occasion about the frustrations of being a beginner (a familiar theme), but for the most part, practicing has felt like a pleasure rather than a burden. As a younger woman when she’d tried to learn the piano, she’d hated the experience and rebelled against the need to practice, dropping lessons after a short time. With the clarinet, in contrast, as frustrating as it felt at times, she loved to play. She has repeatedly described how she’d begin to practice, become entirely absorbed in the experience, and look up later to find that almost two hours had passed. Sometimes, in the face of family and career demands, she longs for more time alone to practice. For the first time, she feels as if she has a relationship to music as a player and imagines continuing throughout her life.
To be able to experience pleasure in solitude is one of the compensations for the existential fact of aloneness. In the latter part of this session, Diane and I talked about her deepening relationship to herself; I know that may sound a little hokey, but the capacity to enjoy the experience of being alone with oneself makes the existential facts more bearable. It’s an important experience for me, too. As a pianist, I strongly relate to Diane’s experience of practice, how absorbing and gratifying it can feel. Also, as I’ve developed the content for this site, it has felt deeply meaningful and satisfying to be alone with my thoughts, finding ways to express myself clearly, trying to distill my experience into something useful. I guess you could say I enjoy my own company. Diane has come to enjoy her own company, as well. It’s a crucial part of a meaningful life.
Finding Your Own Way:
Do you have a difficult time being alone? Some people avoid this experience by having the television or radio constantly playing. Other people fill up every free moment with social engagements so they never have to be alone. On the other hand, many people spend a lot of time alone but have no real relationship with themselves. Some workaholics love their work and find it deeply meaningful; some use it as a way to avoid themselves as well as other people. What about you?
In what ways do you enjoy the pleasure of your own company? Reading, watching television or movies and spending time on the Internet can either provide escape or bring you closer into contact with yourself, depending on how you use them. Do you think about what you read or hear? Does it feel meaningful to you? Do these experiences have a numbing effect or do they make you feel more alive? What about hobbies? Do you engage in any solitary activities that matter to you?
Try sitting alone in a room, without any sensory stimulation — no music or TV. Quiet your thoughts and see how you feel, simply being alone. Many people find the anxiety this experience arouses hard to endure for very long. What about you? Sometimes when I’m caught up in distractions, I try to stop thinking and focus on my feet upon the ground, the air going in and out of my lungs. Sometimes this brings me into contact with a lot of anxiety, and I realize why I want to keep myself distracted; at others, it makes me feel calmer, more present in my life and self-aware.
In the best moments, it feels uplifting, and I’m glad to be who I am, inside my own skin. For me as I get older, there’s an increasing pleasure in solitude. It’s not about avoidance. It has nothing to do with the important people in my life; those relationships matter deeply to me, but I need time to be alone with myself as well. What about you? Do you need time alone and how do you make use of it?