Affective isolation separating the affect from the object

Philip Kelley
Affective isolation separating the affect from the object

Affective isolation according to psychoanalysis is a defense mechanism that consists of isolating a thought, memory or behavior, so that the lived experience is stripped of its affect or its associations, in the intellect or externally. What generates a dissociation, through which the person avoids "feeling" because it causes conflict or reminds him of a painful experience that also produces unpleasant emotions or some displeasure, it can even separate the ideas and memories associated with what generates conflict and anguish.

Through this defense, the person departs from the affective component associated with a certain idea. A person who was the victim of an attack, for example, might try to deal with the conflict by trying to be objective, separating the emotion and trying to be descriptive, staying attached to the cognitive elements..

A healthy affective isolation can help the individual to choose to focus his attention on situations that he can effectively resolve at that moment. Like when you prefer to concentrate on studying and preparing for an important exam, instead of attending a party, as the individual separates emotion and affection from the idea.

An example of emotional isolation is when someone tells you a traumatic and difficult story in their life; However, he does it as if he were talking about some everyday life, as when he talks about the weather, with a certain indifference and without any apparent emotion, this is because he tries to separate the intellect from the affection in an attempt to protect the self from the real emotions that remembering that event would bring him. In this way, although the memory of the event is kept in memory and in consciousness, it has an attenuating form that is tolerable to the subject. You can do this by focusing on the descriptive and objective elements of the conflict situation..


  • Object relationships
  • Isolation as a factor for poor school performance
  • Loneliness or isolation?
  • Isolation and self-destructive behaviors
    • When the isolation condition may require psychological attention?
  • From emotional isolation to other disorders
  • Affective isolation and phobias
    • Conclution
    • Bibliographic references

Object relationships

According to Sigmund Freud, the drive has its origin in the impulse, which has a biological basis. The constant battle between impulse and defense makes the external object necessary for the impulse discharge, although it can be a contingent.

Melanie Klein and Hartmann, consider that there is a relationship between the subject and the object, where the former has its innate potentialities for internalization. It implies the feelings of hatred and love, the libidinal and aggressive ones with which the qualities of the object are distorted.

The theory of object relations follows several lines, so its definition is complex. However, it can be said that they “privilege the link with the object”. Certain fundamental ideas emerge from the theories of object relations:

  1. The relationship is decisive, the bond with the mother and then with the parents.
  2. It is not thought in terms of impulses that think to discharge (or not, exclusively), but in a need for contact with the primary object, whether for security, identification, tranquility, unity of the self, humanization, processes of fusion and separation, etc..
  3. The pathology, especially the most serious, originates in these stages of the baby's initial bond with the mother.
  4. The Oedipus complex, like the superego, has as its antecedent the stages and needs of the first periods of life. If during these stages of development, it is adequate and the bond is healthily strengthened, the Oedipus complex can be resolved naturally by passing to other stages of development..

It may interest you: Stages of Freud's psychosexual development

Isolation as a factor for poor school performance

In the affective aspect, the use of this ego defense in an excessive way can affect social and individual development, display the anguish produced in the avoidance of tasks that presuppose some social interaction, such as activities of: leisure, pleasure, entertainment, education and work. In the intellectual and academic area specifically, it influences the avoidance of tasks where they have to interact with others, in case the person attends school, they can avoid doing group dynamics and exhibitions, which can cause lower performance academic. When it gets too complicated, it can lead to school dropout.

Isolation can be a defense that is resorted to since childhood, it can be established in the child from early childhood with his love object, especially when he perceives contact with that object as threatening or dangerous, therefore, it separates him from affection . This can lead to isolating behaviors both at home and at school, requiring special attention. Psychological counseling can be of great help for parents, as it helps them to know some tools and strategies that they can use to modify these behaviors early and in a timely manner, before they have more harmful effects on the child's health and social development..

Loneliness or isolation?

Loneliness is a subjective appreciation, it can derive from the lack of close relationship or links with an attachment figure, either in a real or perceived way, a person can feel alone and be surrounded by people; while isolation has more objective elements and behaviors that can be appreciated, so they can be quantified and measured. In some cases, it reaches such degrees that the individual does not have people with whom to share his joys and sorrows, at the same time, he lacks the support and support that social networks usually give and being affiliated with a social group.

Spending more time in the virtual world and moving away from the real world and the relationships that are close or around, in the near reality, is a kind of escape and isolation as well..

Isolation and self-destructive behaviors

“The typical defenses of obsessive neuroses protect against impulsive behavior, delinquency or schizophrenic breakdowns; they have a stabilizing effect. Likewise, they prevent the regression from continuing to levels prior to the present stage, thus avoiding the extension of the pathology ”. Anna Freud

Patients with a serious or terminal illness can try to reduce suffering through emotional isolation, try to withdraw, and not adhere to protocols that could help improve their quality of life. Yet another reason, why it is important that they receive a multidisciplinary treatment that includes psychotherapeutic support, since they can be provided with tools to accept their disease, as well as contain it throughout the course of this and the stages of their disease..

When the person tries to have control over their impulses, they can become very rigid, they may want to impose that control on others, which can generate repressed hostility or outbursts of anger, due to the excessive pressure imposed by intrapsychic conflict, and not being able to control all circumstances can generate frustration and more antagonism, it is common that they lead to obsessive-compulsive neurosis, lack of emotional regulation, stress and anxiety problems.

When the isolation condition may require psychological attention?

Some people who tend to isolate themselves may seem hostile, however, it is often due to intense needs for affection, which they can try to satisfy through developing certain behaviors that can be destructive to their health..

One way of emotional isolation is to put time and space between ideas and associations so that they do not generate further distress for the person. The time interval could be associated with some compulsive neurotic behavior, such as performing rituals in which the person uses a lot of time and energy, but which they perceive as necessary to release some anxiety.

Overeating or not eating properly (eating disorders), changes in sleep habits, overwork, use and abuse of both legal and illegal drugs, ending healthy relationships, careless sexual activity, may be indicators that intervention is required.

Some of the dysfunctional behaviors of the person who uses emotional isolation excessively could be:

  • Try to avoid contact and relationships with other people.
  • Social isolation.
  • Wishful thinking: seeing only what you "want to see".
  • Rumination of destructive thoughts towards others and himself, constant negative reassessment instead of this acting as an adaptive confrontation.
  • Maladaptive confrontation: associated with a lack of emotional and affective regulation.

From emotional isolation to other disorders

“This defensive mechanism consists of the primary dissociation between love ties and aggressive ties. It tends to prop it up and maintain it, preventing the dissociated pairs from uniting in fantasy or reality, since such a union would mean the disorganization of the self, fantasized as chaos or madness ”. Melanie Klein

Affective isolation can imply a series of avoidance behaviors, where the individual, in severe cases, can avoid social interaction, as it causes him too much anguish or anxiety and it is about taking refuge in himself, combined with other very defense mechanisms. primitive can produce negative effects; the person can distance himself physically and emotionally from people he appreciates and vice versa. It is very characteristic in obsessive and compulsive neuroses.

However, other more serious conditions can also be seen as they impede the functionality and adequate development of the individual in their different contexts, especially when this mechanism is overexploited as a protective resource. This is the case of generalized anxiety disorder, anxiety attacks or panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder; even in some, eating disorders can flourish. When anxiety and emotions are constantly under repression, the mental exhaustion is very great, and there may be very little energy available for normal and convenient activities for the subject..

Affective isolation and phobias

When the person avoids work or activities that involve contact with other people, such as school, for example; When you avoid creating bonds with other people beyond superficiality, for fear of being: embarrassed, criticized, ridiculed or rejected, it may be that you have developed an avoidant personality disorder. Psychological attention should be provided because many of these conditions can have consequences for the person who suffers and lead to the development of agoraphobia, social phobia or other phobias, which could have their genesis in part, precisely in the separation of the object with the affect, as a defense mechanism of the self.


Through the mechanism called affective isolation, the subject separates the affect from the intellect. Separating certain emotions can be an effective strategy, when it is required to do an adequate management of emotions, using this tool in a "healthy" way and not excessively, it can be beneficial for the person, because in this way, the individual can concentrate their efforts and energies in your goals and objectives, instead of just doing what you want. Confrontation is sometimes adaptive, because it is associated with the regulated expression of emotions and assertiveness within communication. Being careful, orderly and systematic can be beneficial, when not falling too much, the person can use these traits to maintain balance.

It is common to resort to this defense mechanism, it is frequently found as a resource in obsessive-compulsive disorders, in other disorders such as anxiety and anxiety, and even an excessive use of this defense could lead to phobic states.

People who overexploit this resource may try to isolate themselves from others, thus freeing themselves from some anxiety and stress. However, it can generate other personality problems, as well as other serious disorders, so it is important to detect destructive behaviors in time so that a timely intervention can be made.

Bibliographic references

  • Freud, Sigmund (1981). Complete works of Sigmund Freud. Volume III. 4th. Edition. Spain: Editorial Biblioteca Nueva.
  • Bleichmar, N. M .; Lieberman, C. and Cols. (1989). Psychoanalysis after Freud. Mexico: Eleia Editores.
  • Hall, Calvin, S. (1990). Compendium of Freudian Psychology. Mexico: Paidós.
  • Kernberg, Otto (1991). Object Relations Theory and Clinical Psychoanalysis. Mexico: Paidós.

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