Isolation and Connectedness

Illuminati by Rich Bargdill

An important point of convergence with humanistic and relational models occurs within this domain. This is also one of the places where existential thought gets greatly misperceived. Many times I have heard people accuse existentialism of being individualistic or “all about the individual.” This is a fair criticism of many existential thinkers across time, particularly some of the philosophers. However, to make this as a blanket statement indicates a lack of understanding of the breadth of existential thought. In particular, the approach to existentialism purported by James Bugental, Rollo May, Irvin Yalom, and many others is profoundly relational.

The Influence of Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers (1951; 1965; 1980) is the founder of client-centered (or person-centered) therapy. His influence not only influenced humanistic psychology, but it also had a great influence on the field of psychology in general. Unfortunately, Rogers thought today is generally taught in an over-simplified manner. Rogers’s theory has typically been turned from a beautifully complex three-dimensional model into a stale, two-dimensional model. This change has occurred as the influence of Rogers the person has dimensioned while the influence of Rogers, the author has continued. Many people have attempted to turn Rogers’s approach to therapy into ‘techniques.’ However, when you remove the technique from the person it loses its power.

Try this exercise which I often use in classes I teach. Think of a time in your past when someone applied the technique of empathy with you. How did you feel? If you are like most people you felt deeply hurt, angry, or unseen. Empathy, as a technique, does little good and often incurs harm. Conversely, empathy, when part of a process or the outflow of an empathetic person, is profoundly powerful and healing.

Rogers is most well known for his therapeutic triad: empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard.  These are generally taught in the introduction to therapy or listening skills courses. Yet they are generally taught in a very misunderstood manner. They frequently are reduced to the idea of reflective listening with a sound voice tone. Unconditional positive regard is taught as tolerance for what your client does. Empathy is identifying the client’s emotions and reflecting them. Genuineness is seen as not much different than empathy. When Rogers’s theory is taught in this manner, it is no wonder people think it cannot be an effective form of therapy!!

Empathy is a very challenging process. Most graduate students who truly understand what empathy is realize this early on in their career. It requires an ability to detach from yourself to join with the other person in their experience. It is a process of de-centering. For some, this can be scary. The therapist gives up some of their control or foundation when they are truly engaging in the process of empathy (notice the language — the process of empathy, not the technique).

Unconditional positive regard is not a mere tolerance for the person of the client and their behaviors. Not even an acceptance of it. It is a valuing of them for who they are. If someone were to say they can “tolerate you,” you will probably be hurt by this statement. It does not feel good to be tolerated. It is not healing to be tolerated. Rather, it is healing to be fully accepted for where you are at.

Finally, there is genuineness. This is the most difficult of the triad to understand and often the most difficult for therapists to engage in. Genuineness is a centered act, whereas empathy was a de-centered act. With empathy, you engage with the client from a place of being de-centered and engaged in their experience. This affords the safety of keeping your authentic self protected. However, in genuineness, the therapist is engaged with the therapeut from a centered place. This entails risks–risks of being rejected, of being hurt, of being vulnerable. Being genuine means that, at times, you will be angry; at times you’ll be hurt, and times you’ll be scared.

Genuineness is not only feeling these experiences but also, when appropriate, sharing them. This is a place where the new relational theories within psychodynamic and psychoanalytic theory have made important contributions. These theories have provided a base for understanding when it is appropriate for the therapist to disclose these feelings, and when it is best to contain them (Stark, 1999). Essentially, the difference entails whose issue is it. If the therapist’s emotions come from their issues, they contain. If they come from the therapy relationship, they may be best disclosed. This means, at times, taking the therapist is called to take the risk of telling a client he or she was hurt by them or angry at them.

To summarize, Rogers’s theory can be summarized well in his book title A Way of Being. Becoming a therapist is about learning a way of being that is healing. When empathy, unconditional positive regard, and genuineness flow from the therapist’s way of being, they are healing. When applied as a technique they often are not and, at times, become counterproductive.

Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Existential Isolation

Yalom (1980) makes the important distinction between three forms of isolation. The first is interpersonal isolation. This is the type of isolation that is more commonly discussed. This form of isolation is different from others. However, it is not just physical isolation, though it may also be this. Interpersonal isolation can refer to a type of isolation that is due to a way of being in relationships that is not satisfying relational needs.

Some research has suggested that lonely people do not spend less time in relationships than other people, but rather the types of social interactions are different (Jones, 1982). Lonely people spend more time with strangers and a larger number of people while people who are not lonely tend to spend the same amount of time in fewer relationships. This suggests that the quality and depth of the interactions are more important than the quantity of interactions.

A second form of isolation is intrapersonal isolation. This form of isolation results from the splitting of oneself off from themselves and their relationships. This doesn’t allow for a person to be fully present in their relationship or with themselves. This form of isolation also connects with the idea of loneliness occurring from a way of being in relationship.

Finally, there is existential isolation. This refers to the reality that we are unable to ever fully overcome our isolation. This is part of the limitation of being human. An inability to accept this limitation can lead to neurotic, dependent, and symbiotic relational patterns. Through acknowledging this limitation, a person is actually freed to an ability to relate on a deeper level.

Skills vs. Being

American society seems to be obsessed with efficiency and effectiveness in communication. While neither of these is necessarily bad, they are also not necessarily a good end. Anyone can find any number of books, workshops, and seminars that focus on teaching people to improve their communication skills. Parenting training, anger management, and marital therapy is often little more than skills training. The assumption is that if one can communicate effectively they will have satisfying relations.

It is hard to think of a more sad and lonely idea that viewing the height of relationships as effectiveness. Many couples today may be highly effective at communication but yet tremendously lonely in their relationship because it never goes beyond being effective. While communication skills may be necessary for intimacy and connection, they are not sufficient. What is needed for relationships which are meaningful and deeply satisfying is to learn or discover a way of being in relationship.


Martin Buber (1970) added to this theory with his conception of the I-Thou versus the I-It relationships. In a nutshell, relating to someone in an I-it manner is relating to them as if they were an object. It is a mechanical way of interacting. In ways, this could be compared to the idea of applying techniques to relationship. Take for example of communication skills, relationships skills, and parenting skills from the previous section. All of these things can greatly enhance relationships. However, when relationships are reduced to effective communication and management, something precious is lost.

In an I-Thou relationship, two people are engaged in a genuine relationship. There is a mutual risk involved here. This risk involves the possibility of being hurt. If a person doesn’t share their ‘authentic self’ and gets rejected, it hurts. But if a person shares their genuine self and is rejected, it hurts much more. The I-Thou relationship lives in this greater risk to receive greater rewards. Second, I-Thou relationships encounter the other person. This is also a risk.

The Anam Cara

One of the most powerful conceptions of relationship is that of the Anam Cara, which is Gaelic for soul friend or soul mate (O’Donohue, 1998). The Anam Cara encapsulates the understanding of empathy, the presence of the I-Thou, and goes beyond to encapsulate the entirety of one’s being. In today’s society, people are becoming less and less present in their relationships. People often keep aspects of their identity out of their relationships in order to protect themselves. Protection is valued over intimacy and connection. In other words, people relate in terms of personas and parts, not as wholes.

The Anam Cara pushes beyond this to a deep connection of two whole beings who are fully present. O’Donahue (1998) identifies several aspects of the Anam Cara relationship:

1) Friendship – While this seems self-evident, it often is not. It also refers to a      particular type of friendship that continually seeks the I-Thou connection.

2) Going Beyond the Relationship – This is one of the most beautiful and powerful distinctions. O’Donohue’s view of the Anam Cara makes the implicit assumption that human beings desire compassion and service to others. A test of a true Anam Cara relationship is that it brings for the desire for the love and compassion to seek expression beyond the self and beyond the relationship. In other words, Anam Cara seeks the expansion of the love and compassion experienced in the relationship.

3) Creativity – The Anam Cara can express creativity through ways of living in relationship creatively, but it can also inspire acts of creativity. People who experience this relationship are often drawn to the various arts including drawing, painting, poetry, and music.

4) Solitude – The Anam Cara not only respect the time apart, but it values it. Being apart is part of being together. If two are unable to apart, their relationship is not that of the Anam Cara. This time apart allows for processing, self-nurturance, and a deeper valuing of the time together.

5) Embracing Death & Limitation – The Anam Cara sees death as a transitional point. While this is not intended to take away the pain of the loss of a loved one, it does frame it differently. Without embracing the limits of a relationship, including death, one cannot fully embrace the current relationship.

When discussing this conception of death in the context of relationship in a class I was teaching, a new question began to emerge. The class began to talk about the pain of the loss of loved ones. In this context, I will often refer to the common question, “How would you live differently if you knew you had only a short period of time to live.” I often share that if living in a truly authentic way, one would not change their life much if they knew they only had a brief period to live. However, this day a very different question came to mind: “How would you live differently if you knew you were to live forever in the relationships you currently have?”

Since, I have asked this question many, many times. The most common answer is “I would start to neglect those that I love.” Death, endings, and limitation are part of what helps us to value what we have. It makes it more meaningful and precious. Occasionally, I get a different answer: “I would finally feel free to engage in relationships because I would no longer be afraid of losing the other.” This answer reflects our tendency to hold back and protect ourselves instead of really engaging. In reality, I imagine if we were to be honest, there would be some of both these answers in our personal truth.


Relationships are the deepest and most profound source of meaning for our lives. Existential and humanistic perspectives provide some of the most profound frameworks for understanding this profound power. This leads naturally to the next topic: Meaning.

Click here to continue to the Meaning versus Meaninglessness Page.

Created 2004; Never been updated.