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A Journey through Loneliness towards Courageous Aloneness

Loneliness, like all human emotions, is an incredibly complex experience that is difficult to adequately define. Dr. Edward Podvoll, founder of the Windhorse approach and author of Recovering Sanity resisted the urge to define it and instead made the distinction between loneliness and “aloneness.” While loneliness often has a negative connotation, Podvoll believed “there is a subtle dimension of loneliness that is a source of strength and power…which holds a quiet dignity.” This dimension—aloneness—is the ability to be alone without fear. According to Podvoll, this ability is “one of the tasks of becoming a full human being.”

Yet Western society offers little support or guidance for how to succeed in the task of being alone. For many people, loneliness can disintegrate into its catastrophic form which can imbalance the mind—beyond despair, beyond hope. It is a place from which it can feel impossible to return.

Dr. Podvoll is not the only mental health professional interested in loneliness and mental health. Toward the end of her life, the gifted Chestnut Lodge psychotherapist Frieda Fromm-Reichmannauthored a paper entitled “On Loneliness”. While Frieda had a professional interest in loneliness due to her long-time work with those struggling with psychosis, she had a personal interest as well. For many years, she herself struggled with loneliness, a problem that became even more pronounced after she lost her hearing late in life. Her short essay contains many seminal psychological concepts related to the issue of loneliness.

Fromm-Reichmann differentiates between what she termed “voluntary loneliness” and the disintegrative, physically and psychologically damaging “essential loneliness”. As the term implies, “voluntary loneliness” is freely chosen – one can move in and out of it at will. Many choose this form of loneliness for constructive purposes. Think of the writer who enters into a voluntary retreat in order to access levels of creativity that may be elusive in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Essential loneliness, on the other hand, is not freely chosen, and carries the risk of deleterious effects on both our physical and mental health. According to Fromm-Reichmann, “Loneliness in its own right plays a much more significant role in the dynamics of mental disturbance than we have been ready to acknowledge so far.”

Core components of the Windhorse approach, Basic Attendance and Psychotherapy help guide clients through the confrontation with loneliness- through the journey from catastrophic loneliness to “courageous” aloneness. Windhorse helps build a bridge with clients- to share in their aloneness and offer a steady container to hold their vulnerability and fear so that their aloneness can become an opportunity to look into oneself, “fragile but persevering, listening, waiting.”

“The profundity of the experience of loneliness needs to be recognized and appreciated for its great potential in any healing relationship… loneliness leads to the source of insanity and, at the same time, can become a wellspring of insightand courage.”-Dr. Ed Podvoll, founder of the Windhorse approach

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