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Rubins, J.L. (1964). On the Psychopathology of Loneliness. Am. J. Psychoanal., 24(2):153-166.

(1964). American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 24(2):153-166

On the Psychopathology of Loneliness

Jack L. Rubins, Ph.D., M.D.

Loneliness is one of those ubiquitous terms which everyone uses and seems to understand, and yet which, on analysis, may have quite different connotations for each person. What seems to make for the apparent understanding is that each individual projects his own personal feeling into the general concept to which the term refers. It is my thesis that loneliness is not one feeling but that there are many forms of it, or many root-feelings included in and underlying what we generally refer to as loneliness.

It is perhaps significant that although loneliness is such a common experience—as analysts we meet it as a symptom in our patients, as well as in our ordinary human contact with people—so little has been written about it in psychoanalytic literature. As Fromm-Reichmann1 emphasized, it is one of the least understood and least satisfactorily conceptualized psychological phenomena we have to deal with.

There are probably several reasons for this paucity. One is that it is such an exquisitely subjective experience that we may limit or distort the phenomenal experience in our attempts to objectivize it. It is an example of where the laboratory observation, so to speak, automatically changes its essential nature; where, in phenomenological terms, knowing the experience as an object is different from the experience itself.

Secondly, loneliness, both by its inherent nature and by the patient's attitudes toward it, may be difficult to communicate. Some states of loneliness can be felt empathically, communicated on an emotional level. However, analysts have noted that some patients in the grip of intense feelings of loneliness cannot or will not communicate it verbally. This may be due to the hopeless feeling that nothing can ever be done about it or because of the frightening, painful effect of awareness of it1. It is likewise possible that the emotional communication of such intense feelings is impeded because the analyst's ability to meaningfully sense or empathize is blocked by the anxiety-arousing qualitites of the loneliness. Such anxiety-producing effects may be due to a number of factors; for instance, the intense, irrational and insatiable demands for closeness placed upon the analyst, demanding fulfillment, yet impossible to fulfill.

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