One way of thinking about the difference between loneliness and solitude is to think of loneliness as an experience of being without a positive definite self and the experience of solitude as an experience of being with a positive definite self.
The notion of “capacity to be alone” is a phrase coined by Winnicott, a pediatrician and British psychoanalyst and one of the founders of object relations psychological theory. He considered the capacity to be alone as a key psychological milestone.
Winnicott was one of the first psychologists to see the mother – child relationship as key to psychological development. To Winnicott, the mother’s management and gratification of the infant’s needs is less important than the level of attuned responsiveness the mother brings to this management of needs. For Winnicott, the quality of attuned responsiveness does not need to be perfect but it has to be “good enough” for the child to develop a healthy psyche.
As infants begin to experience their needs, the “good enough” mother intuits the child’s needs relatively quickly and shapes the world around the child so as to address those needs. An important facet of the mother’s attunement is that she be present when needed, and equally important, that she fade into the background when she is not needed. In so doing, she creates what Winnicott calls a holding environment: A physical and psychological space within which the infant is protected without knowing he is protected. In this environment, the infant has the space to begin experiencing himself as separate and real and definite, and he begins to internalize this capacity to be with himself.
The good enough mother will however not maintain this high level of attuned attention for more than a few months and this is also helpful for the development of the infant’s capacity to be alone. The slow incremental failure of the mother to bring the world to the child has a powerful and painful, but overall constructive impact on the child’s capacity to be alone: He will experience himself surviving over and over again the widening gap between his expressions of need and the fulfillment of those needs. Another way of thinking of this capacity to be alone is to think of the holding environment as having been internalized by the child: He gradually learns to “hold himself.”
Winnicott saw the capacity to be alone as essential to deeper bonds with others, including the bond of love, because it is from this place of tolerance with being alone with oneself that one can then begin to give to the other. In the absence of a capacity to be alone, one may view others as possessing the source of relief for the distress of being alone. In this case, one’s relationships with others may serve as temporary distractions from the distress of being alone but one will ultimately always be returning to that distress. Moreover, the distraction that others represent can only be temporary and only so deep and one can be left feeling lonely even when one is in the presence of others.