Isolation and Loneliness

Language... has created the word 'loneliness' to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word 'solitude' to express the glory of being alone

Paul Tillich
Isolation and Loneliness


We all know that loneliness is an oppressive and uncomfortable state of being. You’ve been there, just like everybody else. We usually tend to think of loneliness as a lack of human connection, but in an existential sense, it runs much deeper than that; it is a fundamental part of modern human existence. Existential loneliness stems from not having a clear role carved out for us, from not being able to rely on our instinctual apparatus or any other structure that tells us what we are supposed to do and when we are supposed to do it.

We are inclined to look at freedom through rose colored glasses. In this manner we fail to acknowledge the reality that with increasing personal freedom comes increasing personal responsibility to make our own choices. In turn, with such increasing personal responsibility, comes increasing loneliness because we truly are alone in the choices we make.

Most organisms act from their instincts, making them part of and inseparable from nature. Therefore a state of existential loneliness is impossible.  Loneliness can only be experienced if you can see yourself as a separate entity from nature. The more freedom we have to direct the course of our life the more will this feeling of separation and individuality grow. If our role is clearly defined for us and we are completely sure of our place within a society or group, then we feel part of and not apart from.

The price to pay for being an intelligent organism who is aware of itself as a separate entity, capable of making its own choices and able to direct its own development, is loneliness. We may be able to deal with our loneliness better by deciding that such a tradeoff is worth it. For, we get to experience the world unlike any other type of organism on this planet does or ever has.  We have the privilege to decide who we are and who we will become. This unique relationship to existence means feeling lonely at times.

Instrapersonal, interpersonal, and Existential Isolation

Yalom (1980) makes an important distinction between three forms of isolation; Interpersonal isolation, intrapersonal and existential isolation.

Interpersonal isolation refers to a way of being in relationships which is not satisfying our relational needs. Research suggests that lonely people spend an equal amount of time in relationships as people who are not lonely.  The difference is the type of social interactions they chose to create (Jones, 1982). In other words, lonely people tend to spend more time with a larger number of people and strangers, were as people who are not lonely spend their time with less people and fewer relationships. This suggests that the difference lies in a person’s preference to have more depth and quality in their interactions rather than quantity.

Intrapersonal isolation… results from the splitting of oneself, off from themselves and their relationships. This does not allow a person to be fully present in their relationship or with themselves. This form of isolation is connected with the false idea that loneliness occurs from a way of being in relationship.

Finally, there is existential isolation This occurs to us when we cannot face the reality of  existential isolation and we are therefore unable to ever fully overcome it. Existential isolation is part of our limitation of being human. If we are not able to accept this limitation, it can lead to neurotic, dependent, and symbiotic relational patterns. Through our acknowledgment of this limitation, a person is actually freed to an ability to relate on a deeper level with others and themselves.