There is a difference between the unhealthful experience of isolation from the healthful and necessary experience of occasional solitude. Having time alone is an important part of emotional maturity; we need alone time to sort through our thoughts, de-stress from a busy day, and, in a demanding world of seven billion people, restore a connection with our own needs, goals, beliefs, values, and feelings.
Solitude is simply the state of being by yourself. Solitude may be experienced as a negative or positive experience, though for most people the word solitude has positive connotations. Isolation is when someone feels alone or removed from others, and is typically considered a negative experience. Unless you are consciously entering into a solitary experience such as joining a monastery or similar spiritual group, solitude may become isolation when:
Emotional isolation, which may include or result in social isolation, usually involves emotional withdrawal from other people. When a person is emotionally isolated, they keep their feelings completely to themselves, are unable to receive emotional support from others, “shut down” or feel numb, and cannot or do not communicate with others, except perhaps for the most superficial matters (for example: “close the door and leave me alone”).
Social isolation is an actual physical isolation from other people, or the lack of close friends generally. Socially isolating oneself can mean staying home for days, not talking with friends or acquaintances, and generally avoiding contact with other people. It can also mean that, even if contact with others occurs, it is superficial and brief, while more meaningful, extended relationships, and especially close intimacy, is missing. Social isolation is potentially both a cause and a symptom of emotional or psychological challenges. For example, feeling depressed, inadequate, or anxious can lead us to isolate; isolation can then increase feelings of loneliness and depression, fear of other people, or a negative self-image. Relationships are necessary for our well-being, but they also may trigger our negative feelings and thoughts. Breaking a cycle of isolation is a difficult but necessary part of recovery from emotional distress.
Feelings of isolation in marriages and other intimate relationships can lead to problems that create distance between partners. Close bonds can become stretched thin in relationships as a result of infidelity, addiction, dishonesty, abuse, or other negative behaviors. All of these situations can cause one or both partners to feel alone within the relationship, rather than encouraged and fulfilled. Learning the origin of the emotional isolation is the first step in addressing the problem. From there, couples can begin to develop tools to overcome their fears and work together as a team to transform dysfunctional behaviors into more positive, healthy actions that support and fortify the relationship. A trained couples therapist may be able to help partners' improve the level of connection in their relationship.
Therapy can help deal with the emotional and psychological issues that can lead to isolating behaviors. It is important to note that sometimes, both kinds of isolation may not be a choice; that is, people may be socially or emotionally isolated even though they report wanting to have friends, wanting to engage emotionally, and wanting to have a support network, but for some reason are unable to make those connections – perhaps because they do not know how, have a pattern of dysfunctional relationships that cause people to separate from them, or are simply too afraid or anxious to form new relationships. In such cases, a therapist can help learn social skills, uncover the causes of dysfunction in relationships, and support a person emotionally as he or she builds a support network.
Isolation is not a diagnosis, but it is a frequent indicator of depression. People with social anxiety or agoraphobia, by definition, isolate themselves. Also, people with certain personality conditions, such as schizoid personality, and people with autism, may have no desire to form social relationships. Other personality triats--narcissism, borderline personality, and antisocial personality--may lead to isolation, not necessarily by choice, but because these conditions impair social skills, potentially leading other people to withdraw. People who have narcissistic tendencies may also think themselves better than other people and refuse to form relationships with anyone not up to their distorted standards.
Tiana, 24, describes herself as "alone in the world." She reports that people like her, but says she has nothing in common with anyone. She describes symptoms of depression. She is lonely and comforts herself with television and her pet cats. A therapist helps her uncover deep fears of abandonment, which Tiana can trace to her childhood. Through therapy and a support group recommended by her therapist, Tiana is able to manage her anxiety about meeting new people, and beings to form a few close friendships with other women, which form a foundation for a social support network that in turn provides the comfort and security she needs to continue building new relationships.
Tim, 37, finds it very hard to keep a friendship going for more than a few months. He reports that at first, he gets along very well with other people, and that at work he is “the star of the office,” but that eventually his friends stop calling him and don’t return his calls, and he doesn’t know why. The therapist encourages Tim to talk about the most important relationships he has lost, and together they discover that, in fact, his former friends have communicated to him their reasons for ending their relationship. The therapist helps Tim begin to uncover some distorted beliefs about himself; specifically, Tim considers himself smarter, and generally more important than other people, and has little concern for them. Under this, therapy reveals a deep sense of shame which Tim masks through his narcissistic beliefs and behaviors. Tim is able to recognize how badly he really feels about himself, and begins to develop empathy--for himself, and then for others--which helps him start on the road to more healthful self-image and relationships.
Last updated: 12-15-2013