2017-03-16 / Guest Column

Being Alone in Building Self-Confidence

By Michael Feld, L.C.S.W.
Certified Psychoanalyst
Licensed Psychotherapist

One of the ways children learn to experience themselves and grow securely in their environment is by having the opportunity, early on in childhood, of being alone while under the watchful eye of mother. Children need to know that mother is present, that she is there, available if and when needed, but that she is not interfering at all in the child’s play. This non-interfering presence of the mother builds a sense of security in the child. Knowing mother is available when needed allows for greater freedom and creativity to emerge in the child.

This safe sense of being with oneself allows the child to tap into his imagination and feelings, and to experience them through play. It also allows for a strengthening of the self, which helps the child in his or her functioning when one is truly alone without the presence of mother. What I mean by this is that the child takes the secure feeling he has when mother is present with him, so that he feels this security from within even when mother is not present .

British pediatrician-turned-psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott saw the capacity of the individual to be alone as one of the most important signs of maturity in emotional development. Being able to sit with oneself in silence is being able to hear oneself; to experience one’s feelings, wishes, desires and passions. It is the capacity to get to know oneself. Winnicott truly understood the positive aspects of being alone as a way of hearing oneself. Winnicott saw it as a paradox that we learn to be alone only through the experience of being with someone, this someone being the watchful, un-interfering presence of mother.

The capacity to be alone depends very much on the existence of good and trusting interpersonal relationships between the child and his parental environment. Having what Winnicott called “good enough mothering” allows the child to develop a feeling of security about the world he lives in. It permits the child to see his world as non-threatening, and this frees him up to experience his full creative capacity. This belief in a benign, safe environment is developed through exchanges with the parents that are, for the most part, loving without being suffocating.

Children need to be responded to in a consistent, reliable and respectful way. All these considerate exchanges between parent and child permit the child to develop a secure sense of self. What we as adults call self-confidence.

These outside interpersonal exchanges with mother and family permit the child to take into his internal world a sense of reasonable safety, which he carries with him and which frees him to be open to himself and others. In the state of being alone, nothing is demanded or expected of the child—he is simply permitted to experience himself without interference, but with the secure knowledge that mother is present.

Probably the greatest significance of the capacity to be alone is that from it emerges the capacity to hear and be open to oneself. To be able to be open to one’s feelings and thoughts is to tap into what psychoanalyst Karen Horney called the “real self.” The real self is the alive, unique, personal center of ourselves emanating from our core. It is that part of ourselves which gives rise to spontaneous feelings of all kinds, including joy, yearnings, love, anger, fear, despair. It is the source of effort, attention, interest and energy. It is our passion for life, people and ideas. It is the part of ourselves that wants to expand and grow and fulfill itself.

In being alone early on in life, and in being able to tolerate our being with ourselves, we develop the most valuable capacity for hearing our inner voices, as well as a capacity for solving problems at our own pace and in our own unique way. We also develop the capacity to solve and tolerate conflict.

So, parents, don’t suffocate your children. Let them develop and grow under your watchful eye.

Prepared as a public service from the office of Psychotherapist Michael Feld, L.C. S.W. (347) 248-1092

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