Written by Rachel Barclay and Aaron Moncivaiz | Published on December 2, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik on December 2, 2013

What Is Alienation?

Alienation occurs when a person withdraws or becomes isolated from other people and his or her environment. People who are alienated will often reject loved ones or society, and feel distant and estranged from their own emotions.

Alienation is a common human condition that can affect anyone. There are many potential causes. It is a sociologically and psychologically complex state. In addition to having social and psychological implications, alienation can affect health and aggravate existing medical conditions, both mental and physical.

Types of Alienation

Alienation is a complex and pervasive condition. Sociologist Melvin Seeman identified five types of alienation that have been used as starting points for research. They are:

  • Powerlessness: A person believes that his or her actions have no effect on outcomes.
  • Meaninglessness: A person is unable understand his or her situation and doesn’t know what to believe or expect.
  • Normlessness: A person feels disconnected from social norms or believes that social rules for behavior have broken down. This might cause the person to believe that socially unapproved behavior is necessary in order to achieve goals.
  • Isolation: A socially isolated person puts low value on the goals and beliefs of his or her given society. Isolated and detached people may create their own value systems.
  • Self-Estrangement: Alienated people may feel disconnected from themselves. In such cases, they may not be able to find activities that are interesting to them.

Adolescent Alienation

Alienation is common among adolescents. Teenagers may distrust adults or the values they were raised with. Teens can often feel isolated from their parents, teachers, and peer groups. They may feel anxious about their social skills or physical appearance. Teens can even feel isolated from their own identity. To a certain extent, this is a normal part of development, as adolescents struggle to define themselves and learn to think critically about their place in the world. Adolescent alienation is considered pathological if it accompanies other disorders, such as a phobia or an antisocial personality disorder. Alienation can be a common side effect of insecure attachment to a parent or caregiver in early childhood.

Parental Alienation

A child can become alienated from one parent, often after a divorce. As a result of manipulations by one parent, the child will reject the other parent.

This is not to be confused with the alienation that a child may feel towards an abusive parent, particularly if the child severs ties with that parent as an adult.

Work Alienation

Work alienation is one of the earliest theories of modern social alienation. It occurs when a person feels estranged from what they produce in the workplace. This disconnection may cause dissatisfaction and a feeling of alienation from others, the environment, and oneself.

What Causes Alienation?

The possible causes of alienation are limited only by the number of ways someone might be able to feel disconnected from other people, the environment, or oneself.

Some possible social causes of alienation are:

  • divorce or other forms of familial separation
  • any significant change of environment, which may include immigration, starting a new job or school, changing technology, and other types of environmental complexity
  • prejudice, by the individual or by others, such as racism, sexism, or ethnocentricity
  • humiliation
  • being bullied and abused

Alienation can also be the result of a mental disability, physical disability, or illness. Possible health-related causes of alienation include:

  • mental health disorders, such as anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • self-stigma as a result of mental illness
  • conditions that cause chronic pain
  • any diseases that may cause a person to feel singled out or disconnected

What Are the Symptoms of Alienation?

Symptoms of alienation can include:

  • feelings of helplessness
  • the feeling that the world is empty or meaningless
  • feeling left out of conversations or events
  • feeling different or separate from everyone else
  • difficulty approaching and speaking with others, especially parents
  • the inability to feel safe when interacting with others
  • the refusal to obey rules
  • signs of depression, including poor appetite or overeating, excessive sleep or insomnia, fatigue, lack of self-worth, and feelings of hopelessness

What Are the Complications of Alienation?

Feeling alienated can lead to many different social and health-related problems. Social problems that may result from alienation include:

  • drug or alcohol abuse
  • truancy
  • criminal activity
  • poor school or work performance

Alienation may also affect a person’s mental and physical health, causing problems such as:

  • psychological pain, including anger and depression
  • health effects from drug or alcohol abuse
  • eating disorders
  • attempted suicide

How Is Alienation Treated?

To treat alienation, the cause must be identified and tended to.

People who experience psychological pain because of alienation may benefit from seeing a mental health professional. Gaining a feeling of empowerment may also help a person battle feelings of alienation.

For adolescents, a sense of purpose is an asset, but searching for that purpose can induce stress. Researchers suggest that parental support can help adolescents who experience alienation due to feelings of purposelessness.

Research also shows that a strong parent-child relationship can help a child cope with bullying, another possible cause of alienation during childhood.

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