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Psychoanalytic Business Coaching

It´s lonely at the top – Loneliness and solitude at top level

In management circles the phenomenon is well known – the more powerful and empowered one is, the more often decisions have to be made and responsibility for them has to be taken. No matter how many meetings, phone calls or e-mails a topic has been discussed, nobody can take the responsibility for the decision away from the managers. Especially in top positions, managers are under constant observation, have to prove themselves, assert themselves against competitors and offer their employees – with the appropriate distance – orientation. With the associated doubts, fears, insecurities and worries, which are all too often seen as weakness and therefore hidden, managers are often alone – the feeling of loneliness arises. This raises the question of what is actually behind the concept of being alone and loneliness, why these two conditions are often experienced so differently by managers and how one can find a better way of dealing with them. A look at psychoanalytical theory is worth a detour here.

The ability to be alone – the need for a good inner object

Especially in management positions that require a lot of mobility and where you are often on the road due to your job, the ability to be alone needs to be learned. Even if the state of being alone, in general, is often associated with loneliness, it need not necessarily be experienced as unpleasant. Often it is also a self-chosen state, which can be experienced as relaxing, beneficial and fruitful. There are also people on the executive floor who can be well alone without feeling lonely. A manager who is alone may need some time off from colleagues, employees and superiors in order to be able to gather together, reflect in peace or find creative solutions. They associate being alone with something positive, which they certainly enjoy and can appreciate as a valuable and, in the management arena, very rare commodity. But how does the ability to deal well with being alone develop?

In psychoanalytical theory, the ability to be alone is an important developmental achievement in early childhood. Paradoxically, according to Donald W. Winnicot (1958), this ability first develops in the presence of the mother. According to this, adults can only be alone without feeling lonely if they were able to be alone as children without actually being alone. Thus, knowing that someone is there, the child plays for himself and thus acquires the ability to be alone. An important prerequisite for being able to be alone even in a leading position is adequate maternal care as well as the repeated satisfaction of instincts by the caregivers in early childhood. These good objects can be internalized by the child and taken up into the own personality – represenations of good inner objects are created. This helps to banish fear of persecution and enables the availability of positive projections. Thus, the child develops a trust in a benevolent environment, through which it succeeds in feeling safe, confident and content (temporarily) even in the absence of external objects – it has learned the ability to be alone.

Loneliness – from “too little” to “too much” interaction

Far more unpleasant is the feeling of loneliness, which does not necessarily include the feeling of an objective lack of companionship. Even in the midst of colleagues, employees or superiors, managers can feel very lonely. With loneliness, a negative feeling spreads. Affected managers often feel abandoned, isolated and marginalized and have the feeling that they have been let down.

Psychoanalysis has also devoted itself to the feeling of loneliness. Here, a “too much” or a “too little” of care can impair the ability to be alone. The result is feelings of loneliness that are often difficult to bear: “Look here”, “Would you like to play with it?”, “Will you show me?” Some children are often exposed to such or similar sentences in their play without interruption. Parents harass their child, distract him or her or constantly encourage him or her to engage in new activities. In this way, parents interfere too often with their child’s game and constantly expect feedback from him – a game in which the child can interact with itself and its environment undisturbed in the presence of the parents is denied. But the other extreme, in which the child is exposed to strong parental disinterest, is also problematic. Often the children are then – at the mercy of their feelings of loneliness – placed in front of the television, laptop or smartphone and thus learn to cover up their loneliness. The external objects are therefore either too close, too much and too intrusive or emotionally unreachable, distant and disinterested. But also such relationship experiences are internalized by the child and have a decisive influence on how it perceives its environment and enters into a relationship with it. However, the ability to cope with themselves and to trust in themselves is not something the children learn in either case. These early relationship experiences also shape the relationship of managers to themselves and to their colleagues, superiors and employees. So if you often feel lonely as a manager, you have usually known this feeling all your life.

How Psychoanalytical Business Coaching can help against loneliness

As already written at the beginning, the loneliness of managers often consists in being the ones who have to make decisions and take responsibility for them. This makes it all the more important for managers to create opportunities for exchange outside the company in order to discuss fears, doubts, uncertainties and worries and work out possible solutions. Psychoanalytical business coaching is one way of supporting managers in coping with feelings of loneliness and preventing further negative consequences. In psychoanalytical business coaching, the first step is to build a relationship of trust in which personal matters can be discussed and experienced. This creates an initial relief and reduces the feeling of loneliness. In the further course of the coaching it can also be about perceiving and discussing feelings of loneliness. This is an important, often very difficult step, because at the top the air is not only thin but also icy. This makes it difficult for managers to actually open up and not – as is often the case in the hectic everyday life of a manager – overplay or fend off their feelings of loneliness. Furthermore, in a joint process, the individual relationship dynamics leading to the feeling of loneliness are explored, reflected and understood. If these relationship dynamics are also reflected in the coaching process, the relationship experiences that lead to loneliness can finally be processed and corrected by a corrective emotional relationship experience with the psychoanalytical business coach.


Julia Perlinger, Coach at DynaMind

If you are a manager looking for support in the current crisis situation, please do not hesitate to contact us. We also coach with video contact and on the phone.