Loneliness NZ

Meaning of social isolation

Social isolation is where you do not interact socially with others. It does not require physical isolation. You may for instance be amongst family members and yet contact no-one outside the home.  Feeling socially isolated and loneliness are different concepts and yet they are interconnected… one can exacerbate the other, or they can be simultaneously causing distress. Social isolation takes two forms:

  • Socially isolated by choice; and
  • Feeling socially isolated.
When you choose to be socially isolated then you seldom feel loneliness.

Socially isolated by choice

Many people of all ages live alone, and are socially isolated. You may be one, and you are also happy, physically well and able to take care of yourself adequately and safely; and not only are you able to say to others that you are fine; you truly believe it yourself, and are inwardly satisfied with the amount and quality of relationships you have with others, and with your own thoughts. Your health and wellbeing, however, depends on various factors, including the reasons you are choosing to withdraw from society, for how long you are “hibernating”, and how well you do form connections with those few people you do come into contact with.

If your loved ones are expressing concern about your level of contact with other people, Loneliness NZ recommends you seek help from us on how you might prevent yourself from getting into a declining situation of loneliness or social isolation. For more information, see ‘I’m feeling lonely‘. 

Feeling socially isolated

When you have little or no contact with other people for extended periods of time and you start missing having more people around you, you are feeling socially isolated.  Your expectations of how much social interaction you would like, is not being matched by the frequency of the interactions, or the numbers of people, you are actually getting to be with. Some people have a high need for numbers of people to interact with, and how often they meet up; others only need a few people and less frequency. Feeling socially isolated is a feeling of emptiness or distress about being by yourself.

Examples of social isolation

Social isolation is caused by circumstances, how others treat you, and how you react to situations and people yourself. Examples include:

You withdraw

You actively withdraw from others as you are feeling shame, humiliation, embarrassment, fear, bitterness, or any other negative emotion affecting your ability to interact with people.

Others withdraw

Others withdraw from you as they fear being in your company (eg if you tend to become violent), or see you as stigmatised (eg if you have HIV/AIDS).

Others socially inept

Others being socially inept, and having anxiety as they don’t know how to engage with you (eg after your bereavement, or you coming from another culture).

Life circumstances

Life circumstances (such as living rurally or being physically dependant on others to help you interact outside your home).

Your health issues

You having social anxiety, depression, or any other health problem which prevents you socialising easily.

Depths of social isolation

Social isolation can affect anyone. However the people who experience the highest levels of social isolation would be those who:

  • are typically discriminated against by being in the minority;
  • are already experiencing mental health or physical health problems;
  • have undeveloped social skills;
  • are not able to understand social cues;
  • have not had many meaningful relationships in the past to draw on in difficult times.

Loneliness NZ helps people who feel socially isolated to understand themselves and people around them, and to work to improve their healthy interactions with people. For more information, see ‘I’m feeling lonely‘. 

Additionally Loneliness NZ works with groups to help people understand how they might reduce social isolation in New Zealand. For more information, see ‘Let’s prevent loneliness‘.

Related terms

One way to further understand what social isolation means is to explore related terminology (by selecting one of the coloured rectangles below).

These terms may or may not overlap with the meaning of social isolation, but give further insight into the nature of social isolation.