I am immensely fortunate and grateful to have a number of very dear friends. Some live close by and some are far away on other continents. One of them, my spouse, I see every day, and others I have not seen in years. I was taking a walk not too long ago and started thinking of a friend I had not spoken to in a few weeks and made a mental note to call her later that day. During this thought process I realized how close I felt to her and how her friendship, warmth, and support have settled in me, become part of me, something I can feel and have access to independent of actual contact. Just thinking of this friend made me feel accepted and appreciated. In that moment I realized that there is a whole community of people I have internalized and who help me feel anchored in this world. Some of them are not even alive anymore but they are still with me. You may have guessed I am somewhat of an introvert. But I am also a really social creature. Something that is not always easy to consolidate. My desire to be solitary and spend time thinking and writing and my joy of being with people, as a partner, friend, therapist, are aspects of my life that I constantly have to assess and balance. But I have always been aware that I am only able to feel comfortable and at ease being alone because I have this sense of a loving community within myself.
This line of thought took me, as so often, into the territory of psychological theory and philosophy. In self psychology the concept of the selfobject describes part of the experience I just mentioned. It is the sense that functions that other people originally fulfilled for us are available within ourselves even when the others are not there. We can feel nurtured even if no parental figure is there to nurture us. The selfobject, however, is not connected to a specific person even if this person, such as a parent, was the one who originally provided the function for us.
The experience of an “inner community” that I was describing above is related to the idea of the selfobject but it can more easily be traced to specific people and stories. And, most of all, it can be consciously expanded and built on if it does not feel safely in place. In Narrative Therapy we proactively look at life stories and at the sense of inner community they provide or prohibit. The main story lines and their protagonists may not always be the most supportive and nurturing ones. But often there are buried story lines that hint at forgotten overlooked supporters, people in the past and/or present who are loving members of one’s own inner community. Sometimes they can be revisited only in memory, but often contact with them can be rekindled or strengthened in real life leading to wonderful connections that then also reinforce their presence within us allowing for this strong and permeating sense of not being alone in the world.