March 2012

Solitude and Isolation

Do you live in a big city, are you a Joburger,
a New Yorker, do you hail from Mumbai? Or do you live in a house filled with
people, whether your family or fellow dorm members? People in these scenarios
know how overwhelming it can be, how the chance to escape to quieter surrounds
is enviable and how important ‚Me Time‘ becomes. ‚I just want to get away‘ are
words I’ve heard uttered countless times by clients, friends, colleagues,
strangers. Most of us have also experienced what it’s like to feel uninvited,
left out, unwanted, unwelcome and perhaps the urge to  avoid people in our lives, whether friend or foe. These varying examples centre around the idea of being alone.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, isolation is: “to put/keep sombody or something
entirely apart from other people or things; to seperate“
, while solitude is the: “ state of being alone without companions”  While the two terms are often used
interchangeably, I often make the distinction between them in my work with clients
in my practice, involving agency.

These two words, very close in description can differ in one important aspect: choice or responsibility. Now, while someone can be responsible for isolating themselves and one can be put into solitary confinement against their will, I find it useful to look at these two phenomena in the following way: Isolation is something that happens to people, perhaps against their will, and solitude is something that can be taken on voluntarily.

From Charles Darwin (evolutionist), to Karl Jung (clinical psychoanalyst), to Desmond Morris (zoologist), it is generally agreed that as humans we want to form attachments (respectively for different reasons). According to Karl Jung (see Glossary), we are all born with an archetypal need to form relationships or that the inborn human tendency needs to feel related, not only to people but also to things. Solitude and Isolation can be, at once, on the adjacent and opposite sides of this quinessential human condition.

It is said that when these attachments are lacking (whether broken off or just missing), we suffer. This is what I believe to be isolation.


Isolation is one of the identifying characteristics of depression. A depressed person often feels alone and abandoned and tends to then isolate themselves. There is a reason why isolation is often used as a form of punishment. Erich Fromm stated that:‘ To feel completely alone and isolated leads to mental disintergration just as physical
starvation leads to death’

Refugees are an example of the cripplingeffects of isolation, uprooted from their surroundings and homes, without family, friends, communities, etc.


Some people enjoy solitude, some even go out of their ways to seek it, everyone needs to be alone sometimes. The search for solitude can be understood as the search for transcendence.

According to Wieland-Burston (1996) in her book, Contemporary Solitude, explains
that seeking solitude can be about wanting to break away from feeling obligated to others, of seeking rest, recuperation and regeneration, of relishing a heightened sense of pleasure and of being able to experience better awareness when in solitary situations.

Through the ages many characters have emerged as heroes who stand apart/alone. Hercules, Ullyses, The Lone Ranger, Superman, etc. While many of these characters sometimes suffer from being alone, there is also strength as a solitary figure.

Religiously and spiritually speaking, much store has been placed on retreat, in many religions.

For me, the distinction between isolation and solitude is an important one and are like the two sides of the same coin. With these distinctions it may be also be easier for people to differentiate what they are experiencing.


1 Comment

Filed under Psychology

One Response to March 2012

  1. When I HALT it gives that much time to set a direction – a new justice for each justice to reach the age
    of seventy. I can make efforts to address those hungry, angry, lonely or tired.
    It should be happy.

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