Existential Aloneness

During a recent session, my client Ellen was talking about how poorly she had done over our two-week Christmas break, in terms of looking after herself and using what she’d learned in treatment.  It worried her and she didn’t  understand why it should be so since she’d recently been taking much better care of herself.  Coming back to her first session after the holidays seemed immediately to make her feel better, less distracted by the fantasies and obsessive thoughts that had troubled her during the break. I had some ideas about why this should be so but didn’t at first mention them; I waited to see where this train of thought would take her.

Later in the session, Ellen mentioned that she’d had a “scare” earlier in the week.  She works as personal assistant to the boss of a medium-sized company; her boss had been away during the holidays and in his absence, some of his oversight duties had fallen onto her shoulders.  She took off a few days herself during that period but because her boss was away, she felt it would be irresponsible to take as many days as she would have liked; this made her feel resentful, to have to deprive herself in order to fulfill her duties.

On the first day after her boss returned from his vacation, it occurred to Ellen that she should probably consult the firm’s calendar (which she had failed to do for a week or so), to see whether there might be an upcoming due-date for one of the firm’s projects.  Sure enough, there was a project due that very day; she alerted the appropriate personnel and in the nick of time, they managed to complete the assignment for delivery.  It troubled her that she had “forgotten” all about the calendar and wondered why she should have remembered on that very day.

In the way that I work — that is, psychoanalytically — I listen to what my clients tell me about their “outside” lives and see whether I can make connections from that material to what goes on between the two of us in my consulting room.  When I can make such a connection, one that sheds light on both processes (external life events and therapist-client dynamics), I make an “interpretation”.  Here is the gist of what I said to Ellen:  During my absence over the break, she felt that I had left her with all the responsibility for taking care of herself, just as her boss had left her with increased responsibilities during his vacation.  In both cases, she felt resentful; she didn’t want to be alone with this great responsibility and so had “forgotten” what she’d learned from our work together, just as she’d nearly “forgotten” about the calendar and the firm’s impending due-date.  As soon as her boss returned, and as soon as I came back from the break, she suddenly found herself able to

With virtually every client who has made substantial progress and feels increasingly capable of self-care, I have found a similar dynamic.  A good emotional fit between therapist and client that leads to true understanding and personal growth is extremely gratifying, almost like having a nurturing parent you can rely on; many clients feel
reluctant to give it up when the time comes.  Some revert to earlier ways of functioning because they don’t want to be alone inside of themselves, making the difficult choices, assuming the role of parent to their unruly child selves.  This dynamic can be a reason, in addition to those I discussed in this earlier post, why some people don’t appear to change.  It also connects to my last post, concerning individuals who linger in childlike states where
they “force” the people in their lives to look after them.

In a larger sense, this type of growth revives anxieties about coming of age and separating from our parents.  It  makes us aware of the existential loneliness of our human existence, each of us separate from others and isolated within our own bodies and minds.  I have also found that it inevitably stirs up anxieties about death as well:  if we’re no longer children, if we’ve grown into independent adults able to look after ourselves, it must mean that  we’re heading inexorably toward the end that awaits us all.

Finding Your Own Way:

Are you stuck in old familiar ways despite “knowing better”?  Do you lean on friends or family members in repetitive ways, talking about the same old situations?  It may be because you resent taking full responsibility to implement change, all alone inside yourself with no one to help you; change may also frighten you, because of where it might lead.

So much of the self-help literature is geared to help you effect change, as if change is this wonderful thing.  Many people — I might even say most people — are afraid of change: better the unpleasant unknown than the possibly worse unknown.  Change always highlights the passage of time, as well, the difference between then and now; if time keeps unfolding … well, we know where that leads.  Maybe you see yourself as eternally “young”, the same person as you were in your early 20s who hasn’t changed a bit.

In addition, change and personal responsibility are HARD; it takes a lot of work and perseverence to make any

difference in the way you think and feel; wouldn’t it be easier if there were someone who could simply make it happen for you?  Clients often love learning about themselves in therapy, feeling understood by their empathic therapist; they’re usually not as enthusiastic when they realize it’s their responsibility to do something about it.  Weekends, longer vacation breaks and the prospect of termination usually stir up anxieties about what it means to be separate, responsible and alone.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. Good post! The burdens of existence are as present as our shadows. Always there but only in certain light. Loneliness, freedom/responsibly, and death are a recurrent themes in so many of our conflicts. As a student of mental health, I am curious if all of the ails that bring clients to your door can be boiled down to this truth? Particularly, those with depressive Dx… Is this not the key to creating the meaning we all need to “take care of ourselves”? Thanks for the insight!

    1. Chris, while I strongly agrees that issues of existential loneliness, freedom/responsibility and death are a recurrent theme in everyone’s journey, I don’t think it all boils down to these issues. What I find is that most people who have serious troubles *first* have to learn how to understand and bear their own experience in the context of a safe therapeutic relationship, then gradually individuate and “grow up”; it is at that point, when a person becomes aware of his or her separateness and stands alone that the other issues invariably begin to emerge. Many people aren’t individuated enough to deal with the existential issues you mentioned. In other words, I don’t think you can go there first; you have to work your way through other issues in order to arrive at them.

  2. Thank you for another great post Joseph. I could ‘see’ myself throughout this piece, both within my relationship with my therapist and now that I am ‘going it alone’. I remember clearly that I suddenly became ‘unwell’ again when my therapist and I started to discuss termination, and then ‘seeing’ this for what it was and moving on regardless. For me, it was the final facing of the fact that I was never going to have a mother (not even from my therapist) and that I needed to complete my grief around having lost my mother when I was 12.

    Taking care of myself was indeed what I needed to learn to do – and this is something I will always need to ensure I do. I had to become my own parent.

    Towards the end of my therapy, (which must be 5 years ago now) I remember realising more than ever before, that we are all alone – and that, somehow, made loneliness a whole lot easier to bare.

    1. I know exactly what you mean. I felt the same way when I terminated my own therapy. We are all alone and some of us have lasting grief that can’t be eliminated. That doesn’t mean there can’t be many meaningful and satisfying relationships and experiences in our lives.

  3. Yes, exactly – I have gone on to enjoy a satisfying career, marry a wonderful man with whom I share an adult relationship and peaceful existence, and carry with me a sense of calm and self I never thought possible. Prior to therapy I was dissatisfied with everything in my life and was always looking for something better; and I was extremely unhappy, angry, sad and troubled, and in an unhealthy and codependent relationship.

  4. During a particularly excruciating “dark night of the soul” some years back, I asked inside my head “What is this place?” The answer I got is: “This is your depths.” Somehow it gave a whole new meaning to my experience. Soon after, I stumbled upon the book “Loneliness” by Clark Moustakas, from which I understood that there is a kind of nobility about the process of exploring one’s loneliness, and developing the art of turning “loneliness into solitude.” I also feel that by unraveling some of our defenses around not feeling our existential loneliness, that we are more freed up to have a “real” relationship with the world outside of us. We can feel ourselves to be a separate part of the whole and, at the same time, to be a part of humanity ~ separate but connected.
    Here are a couple of quotes I really like about loneliness:
    “Language has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.” ~ Paul Tillich
    “The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable w/ yourself.” ~ Mark Twain
    “The dread of loneliness is greater than the fear of bondage, so we get married.” ~ Cyril Connolly
    “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you are in bad company.” ~ Sartre
    “If you make a relationship to the unconscious, you will never be alone again.” ~ Jung
    “When I get lonely these days, I think: So BE lonely, Liz. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience. But never again use another person’s body or emotions as a scratching post for your own unfulfilled yearnings.”
    — Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love)

  5. Well done once again Joseph, its always so enjoyable to read your post. I was impressed with the client/child connection, it reminds me of parents who cannot let their children live their own lives, by depriving them of adventure and likewise, where the Therapist holds on to the client for longer than nessary, possibly leaving them dependant on them, afraid of their own independance.

    1. Thanks, Kathleen. With their clients, therapists often face challenges similar to those that parents face: how long should you allow them to remain dependent, in order to get what they need, and when is it time to push them out of the nest? One of the issues I’ve struggled with in regard to the client I discussed in my “Grief and Gratitude” post is that I will *miss* her terribly. I’ve known her for so many years and feel close to her; I will miss having contact with her, and I’m sure many therapists have the same issue with some of their clients. On a more cynical note, if a therapist has a practice with many empty hours, you may not want to let go of a client because it’s a loss of income.

  6. Good article and wonderful comments. It is somewhat relieving to read that others feel just the same as I do. To bare myself as I am, with the flaws, has been the most difficult thing to overcome. But when I finally acknowledged that I can only accuse myself from the things that comes in my way and that there is no one else to blame of my life, I slowly got the strength to take the responsibility and accepted myself as the person that I am. This also gave me possibility to accept changes in my life and I was able to start to become the person I wanted to be.

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