Isolation—the experience of being separated from others—may result from being physically removed from others, as when a person lives in a remote area, or it can result from the perception of being removed from a community, such as when a person feels socially or emotionally isolated from others. Social isolation is distinct from the experience of solitude, which is simply the state of being alone, usually by choice. Taking time to be alone can be a healthy, rejuvenating experience that allows us to reconnect with our own needs, goals, beliefs, values, and feelings. But when a person experiences too much solitude or feels socially isolated from others, he or she may develop feelings of loneliness, social anxiety, helplessness, or depression, among others.
Spending time alone is a good thing, and some people require more solitude than others. Introverts, for example, enjoy spending lots of time alone and can feel drained through social interaction, whereas extroverts prefer the company of others and are recharged through social interaction.
Social isolation—the absence of social relationships—is typically considered unhealthy when people spend excessive time alone, particularly when they no longer benefit from time spent alone. Socially isolating oneself can mean staying home for days, not talking with friends or acquaintances, and generally avoiding contact with other people. Any form of contact, however limited, is likely to remain superficial and brief, while more meaningful, extended relationships are missing.
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- Persists for an extended period of time
- Is a result of depression, shame, or low self-worth
- Is associated with abandonment fears or social anxiety
- Proves detrimental to important social or professional relationships
Social isolation, in turn, can exacerbate a person’s feelings of low self-worth, shame, loneliness, depression, and other mental health concerns. Thus, social isolation can be both a cause and symptom of other mental health issues. Isolation itself is not a diagnosis, but it can be a symptom of depression, social anxiety, or agoraphobia. Other conditions that impair social skills can lead to isolation, though not necessarily by choice.
Emotional isolation can occur as a result of social isolation, or when a person lacks any close confidant or intimate partner. Even though relationships are necessary for our well-being, they can trigger negative feelings and thoughts, and emotional isolation can act as a defense mechanism to protect a person from emotional distress. When people are emotionally isolated, they keep their feelings completely to themselves, are unable to receive emotional support from others, feel “shut down” or numb, and are reluctant or unwilling to communicate with others, except perhaps for the most superficial matters.
Emotional isolation can occur within an intimate relationship, particularly as a result of infidelity, abuse, or other trust issues. One or both partners may feel alone within the relationship, rather than supported and fulfilled. Identifying the source of the distress and working with a therapist to improve communication and rebuild trust can help couples re-establish their emotional bond.
Therapy can help address the emotional and psychological issues that lead to isolating behaviors. Sometimes isolation is not a matter of choice; some people may report wanting to have friends and engage emotionally, but are unable to do so out of fear or because they do not know how to proceed. In addition, many people battle a sense of isolation during major life transitions, such as when someone loses an intimate partner or close confidant, and others may experience isolation simply because they are physically isolated by living in remote areas. In any case, feelings of isolation can be severely distressing, and therapy can help a person develop social skills and learn to manage symptoms. In fact, the therapeutic process itself provides an opportunity to establish trust with and experience the emotional support of another person, all of which will help a person to live a less isolated existence.
- Fear of Abandonment - 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 begins 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.
- Feelings of Superiority - 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 self-aggrandizing 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 a more healthful self-image and better relationships.
- Hawthorne, G., PhD. (2008). Perceived social isolation in a community sample: Its prevalence and correlates with aspects of peoples' lives. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 43(2), 140-50. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00127-007-0279-8
- De Jong Gierveld, J., van Tilburg, T., Dykstra, P. A. (2006). Loneliness and Social Isolation. In Vangelisti, A. and Perlman, D (Eds), Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships. (pp. 485-500). Retrieved from http://www.iscet.pt/sites/default/files/obsolidao/Artigos/Loneliness%20and%20Social%20Isolation.pdf