Castaways: addressing hostility and helplessness in severely lonely adults

J Psychiatr Pract. 2015 Mar;21(2):93-106. doi: 10.1097/01.pra.0000462602.94853.2f.


Hostility and helplessness are recurrent themes in severely lonely adults, and they can be both causes and effects of subjective feelings of loneliness. Since many lonely patients report a history of abuse, hostile and helpless states of mind may reflect identification with hostile (aggressor) or helpless (passive) attachment figures. Hostile intrusiveness and helpless withdrawal by the parent are 2 distinct patterns of parent-child misattunement that can lead to infant disorganization via disrupted emotional communication and to loneliness later in life. Anxious-ambivalent lonely older adults tend to exhibit hyperactivating hostile behaviors (to deal with a core sense of powerlessness), whereas those with fearful-avoidant attachment styles exhibit deactivating helpless behaviors (to deflect intense underlying feelings of rage). Based on this model, we outline different treatment approaches for lonely persons with different attachment styles by describing the successful treatment of two severely lonely, suicidal veterans. We describe an approach to treating hostile and helpless behaviors in lonely patients, using validation, mentalization, reality orientation, and socialization. Validation provides a sense of safety and rapport. Mentalization allows the lonely individual to better appreciate his or her own mental processes and those of others. Reality orientation provides feedback to lonely individuals on whether their perceptions are accurate and reality-based and helps them appreciate the consequences their behavior may have for self and others. Finally, socialization reduces disenfranchisement by teaching/re-teaching individuals social skills that may have become impaired by prolonged isolation.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy / methods*
  • Female
  • Helplessness, Learned*
  • Hostility*
  • Humans
  • Loneliness / psychology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Object Attachment*
  • Suicide Prevention
  • Theory of Mind
  • Veterans / psychology