The capacity to be alone Vs. Facebook checking

When commuting in Vienna on the underground, the tram or the bus one can notice that a lot of people are doing something on their mobile phones. Some of them are answering their emails, texting their friends, loved ones, others still are reading interesting articles. But there are also people that are just checking their social media apps. Not to answer any messages, not with a specific goal in mind, but simply checking their phones without any (conscious) reason. The question is why are they doing that?

Feeling alone and lost

The capacity to be alone

In 2014 I conducted research into (online) relatedness on Facebook, which included interviews with eleven female and male participants. Based on those interviews I established three concepts that try to explain their behaviour on the Facebook app. One of them was ‘the capacity to be alone’, which was supported by the following high-order categories:

  1. Aim to be seen with my (non)-actions because I want to be on someone’s mind.

  2. Feeling as part of people’s life through knowing up-to-date information.

  3. Need for coherent interactions that make sense to me and others.

The phenomenon called ‘the capacity to be alone’ was introduced by Winnicott in 1965. It is connected with the facilitating environment (when a child feels secure in the presence of its mother), transitional space (an experience between internal reality and external reality) and a relationship between a good-enough mother and the infant which “enables a positive recognition of self by the other, and vice versa, allowing for the subject to be both in intersubjective space with others, and to be alone without being lonely” (Balick, 2013, p. 112).

What was interesting was the observation that the participants were often checking Facebook during the day in order to be seen, updated with information and understood, which could be interpreted as an action to see if there was someone with/for them or not.

Facebook checking

The dynamic of checking Facebook had many similarities with the dynamic between a child and his primary care-taker from the viewpoint of the capacity to be alone. By developing a capacity to be alone, “the child develops a sense of trust that things are all right when he is alone because he has internalised the supportive love of his primary care-taker in a way that is sustaining even when that care-taker is no longer there” (Balick, 2013, p. 112). What is more, the capacity to be alone actually develops in a situation with a good-enough mother who provides the infant with the support to develop a capacity to be alone.

Discovering about myself

In my research into the use of Facebook the results showed that the participants had problems with being alone, since it would otherwise be difficult to explain why they were checking their Facebook profiles so many times per day; most of them even many times per hour. What is more, when asked why they did so, they could not give a concrete answer. Being alone apparently provoked some kind of anxiety and unrest in them since they probably had not completely “internalised the supportive love of his theirprimary care-taker” (Balick, 2013, p. 112).


Winnicott (1965) suggests that the relationship that exists between the infant and the good-enough mother should be called ego-relatedness. He defines it “as the relationship between two people, one of whom at any rate is alone; perhaps both are alone, yet the presence of each is important to the other” (Winnicott, 1965, p. 31). The ego-relatedness starts with direct communication (sensory-tactile level, verbal level or visual level) between the mother and the infant “that occurs as a result of the mother-infant fusion” (Kahr, 2002; Winnicott, 1963/1965 as cited in Roberts, 2011, p 4).

The baby is able to experience her “I”-ness, her sense of continual being, because the mother is attuned to the infant’s needs in a heightened, sensual manner. The “I” phase, which is the result of the attunement, is the seed of the infant’s ego structure (Winnicott, 1960/1974a); therefore, this is the beginning of ego-relatedness between mother and infant (Roberts, 2011, p. 4).

Through the ‘holding’ environment and ego-relatedness with its mother the infant gets a sense of “feeling real and being a self in society” (Wilberg, n.d., p. 9). Consequently, individuals (also adults) could feel real and free to express themselves in the environment around them because they developed a secure feeling in their infant phase (Wilberg, n.d.). If we consider the fact that early relational templates repeat themselves in contemporary relationships, we can claim that if the infant developed the capacity to be alone it could establish the same kind of ego-relatedness in their adult relationships in real life and in online relating (online Facebook environment), since ego-relatedness can “provoke feelings of integration and disintegration, dependent on feelings of being recognised or misrecognised or, as we shall see, in relation to presentations of the false or true self across the network” (Balick, 2013, p. 15).

However, such development of ego-relatedness did not occur in the case of the interviewees. The way in which they described their behaviour on Facebook seemed to be rather reserved. They used Facebook in a passive manner, checking their newsfeed, waiting for notifications from other friends and not taking actions (in the sense of posting on Facebook) that would be too risky to be understood and accepted by their Facebook friends.

Depression and anxiety

Facebook users and the capacity to be ego-related

The question is, however, whether the participants of the research had developed the ability to be ego-related? Interestingly enough, the three higher order categories mentioned above are indicative of the fact that the participants were searching for something that had the qualities of ego-relatedness, which means that they might have only “partially’’ developed the ability to be ego-related and not not-at-all.

Partially’ because according to Balick “to be an active subject in the social world and consequently also on Facebook one has to manage not only the capacity to be alone, but also the capacity to be with others’ (Balick, 2013, p. 112). What is more, if a person is not confident that they will receive satisfaction for their needs (such as support, recognition, and understanding) they might withdraw from others and their surroundings, which does not seem to be the case with the participants of the research (Roberts, 2011). The participants of the research are confident and hoped that their needs would be satisfied through the use of Facebook. They use and ‘play’ on Facebook (even though mostly passively), they check their newsfeeds, they are active from time to time and most importantly, they are and remain a part of the Facebook social network world.

However, what is notable is the fact that they are all careful about what kind of actions they take on Facebook. Their activity is concentrated on pursuing the specific goals of being understood by their Facebook friends (and vice-versa), being seen by them and consequently being part of their life. The latter could mean that (using once more the theory of the early facilitating environment and good-enough mothering from Winnicott) the participants apparently only partially developed the capacity to be alone, the feeling of security and being real when relating to other people. Namely, successful

Object-relating facilitates the infant’s continuity of being because the infant knows that she can meaningfully have an impact on her environment as well as bring about internal changes. Due to her experience with omnipotence, the infant can safely begin to see the other. The baby’s internalization of a primarily benign and controllable environment has provided her with the capacity to tolerate anxiety related to chaos and uncertainty; therefore, says Adler (1989), the baby can now relate to objects (Roberts, 2011, p. 26).


If the participants had completely developed the object-relating ability, the feeling of the constant other (good-enough mother) and a strong ego, then their behaviour on Facebook would be more active and relaxed and not so careful and reserved, “in constant pursuit of time-fillers’’ and “relentlessly alert to the environment’’ (Hamalainen, 1999, Painceira, 2001 as cited in Roberts, 2011; Roberts, 2011, p. 26). Their specific behaviour and object-relating could to some extent be described as:

There is no space for self-discovery – no room for being – and play becomes impingement. That is, creative play, which requires a meaningful engagement with one’s environment, is experienced as overwhelming, tiresome, and, possibly, frightening. (Roberts, 2011, p. 7).

Road to recovery

It should also be noted that, based on the results of the interviews, the way in which the participants use Facebook was (too) compliant and focused on specific points. The participants are careful to always present themselves (regarding their activity on Facebook – posting pictures, commenting, liking things, etc.) in a way that ensures that their Facebook friends get or keep a good opinion about them. Their behaviour on Facebook isn’t free, it isn’t led by their spontaneity but by their reconsideration of most of their actions. They act as if there are implicit unwritten rules, which have a diminishing influence on their spontaneous behaviour. As if there are rules about how people should behave in the Facebook world, which the participants follow in order to achieve the goals of being understood by their friends on Facebook (and vice-versa), being seen by them and being part of their lives.

The fact that the interviewees are reserved, unauthentic and unspontaneous in their functioning on Facebook brings us to the theory of the ‘’false self’’, which you can read about in my previous article from January 2019.


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