Isolation, “I-Thou” and Addiction Recovery

By Steve K.

Human beings have evolved with inherent needs for physical, psychological, emotional, social, and many would suggest, spiritual connection. If these needs are unmet, neglected, or abused in the developmental years of childhood and adolescence they often result in lifelong difficulties with intrapersonal (within self), interpersonal (with others), and transpersonal (beyond the self) relationships.

Feeling alienated in childhood and adolescence seems common to many in recovery from addiction, which doesn’t surprise me as often those who have suffered addiction have had less than perfect childhoods and have attachment problems as a result. I also think feelings of disconnection are probably quite common in the teenage years as it’s a difficult time of transition for most, and existentially, it can appear that we are fundamentally alone and separate. Anxiety about our aloneness is one of the four main existential human concerns.

However, many suggest not all who’ve suffered addiction have had difficult childhoods, and some in recovery say they felt loved and a part of when growing up. There are various interacting bio-psycho-social-spiritual factors that can lead to addiction, and those who haven’t felt alienated throughout childhood and adolescence will have developed problems with addiction due to their own unique mix of these influences. For example, some, I believe, have a strong genetic predisposition to addiction, and when combined with a culture that encourages drinking etc.. and where there’s abundant availability, addiction can develop.


I would add that I don’t think feeling alienated is an “excuse” for addiction, but suggest that it is one of the many valid causal factors that can lead to it in those with other vulnerability. It’s also the case that not everyone who felt alienated or neglected growing up develops an addiction problem. My response to this observation is that they were blessed with other resilient resources e.g., genes, character traits and biology that are resistant to addiction.

Thinking about my own experience during my adolescent years I often felt lonely, neglected, and unloved growing up within an alcoholic home. These feelings of disconnection and unmet needs fuelled my relationship with alcohol and my first girlfriend. Due to my emotional insecurity, I needed to get drunk at every opportunity to cope with trying to connect intimately with another human being. Getting drunk wasn’t that difficult for me as my family lived in a public house where access to alcohol was easily available. I realise now that I struggled with interpersonal relationships as a result of my sense of intrapersonal disconnection. Inwardly, I felt cut off from love, joy, and happiness and my primary conscious feelings were of fear, sadness and anger. This led to very dysfunctional relationships with other people often characterised by conflict, aggression and rejection. This pattern of relating followed me into adulthood and later into my recovery from addiction.

These feelings of alienation compounded my sense of separateness existentially, which is an intrapersonal and transpersonal sense of our ultimate aloneness in the world. The experience of existential isolation “is part of the limitation of being human. An inability to accept this limitation can lead to neurotic, dependent, and symbiotic relational patterns.” (1) Within loving, supportive relationships we can learn to accept and fully connect to ourselves and others and lessen our sense of separateness. This in turn allows us to develop the capacity to be emotionally independent and to apply healthy boundaries with others.

Recovery groups that facilitate social connection, and a program of self-development psychologically, emotionally and spiritually, can help greatly in our efforts to connect to ourselves and others in an authentic and healthy way.

However, for this to occur we need the willingness and capacity to be honest with ourselves and others. For me, this is a fundamental of the recovery process of change and growth. In order to feel truly connected within, between, and beyond I must strive for relational authenticity and integrity. It’s the quality of the relationship with myself and others that’s important in terms of feeling whole and meeting my inherent social, emotional and spiritual needs.

The existentialist philosopher Martin Buber’s theory of I-It vs I-Thou relationships expresses the need for authenticity really well – if we are to feel genuinely connected. The I-It means of relating is superficial and lacks depth and meaning. It’s relating to others in an objectifying and mechanical way. This type of relationship is ultimately unsatisfying and we remain alienated in relation to It. By contrast, the I-Thou (or, “I-You”) relationship is from the heart and is meaningful. It requires a mutual sharing and a willingness to be vulnerable. A ‘way of being’ that includes respect and empathy for one another. I would suggest that the intimacy within authentic I-Thou relationships is connecting intrapersonally, interpersonally, and transpersonally.

I think that for those of us that feel disconnected within, sharing as honestly as we possibly can with others what we think, and, more importantly, what we feel, is essential for developing a greater sense of wholeness. According to Buber, we become whole through the quality of our relations with others. He also suggested that all authentic relationships ultimately bring us into connection with the Eternal Thou. An ineffable “encounter” with that which is greater – which is a transpersonal connection.


In order to be authentic in relation to others in recovery groups we need to practice trust and to feel safe. This requires a mutual willingness for group members to practice empathy, non-judgemental acceptance, and genuine openness with each other. A high ideal for many with a history of relationship dysfunction. Although, the best recovery groups often do come close to this ideal, and then we are provided with the opportunity to be real.

Applying Buber’s relational theory to recovery groups has been personally helpful for me. Recently, I’ve been struggling with resentment primarily due to feeling disconnected and rejected in recovery group meetings. Historically, I’ve suffered with these feelings and they’ve often caused me relationship difficulties as a result. My thinking tends to get hijacked because of these unresolved emotions and I then externalise them onto others. The “blame game” as we say in recovery. This relational pattern is explained by Freud’s theory of Transference, and my projection of past relationship issues into the present.

The shame, hurt, and fear associated with my feelings of rejection and disconnection are often expressed through anger, rather than the more painful feelings underlying this cover emotion. This way of expressing myself is inauthentic to a degree and a strategy to avoid vulnerability. It tends to be a self-defeating behaviour as anger generally drives others away. The rare occasion when I’ve shown genuine vulnerability in recovery meetings has usually been met with love and support from others. Ironically, the risk of rejection is what prevents me from being more emotionally honest in meetings. Clearly showing vulnerability wasn’t wise during the developmental years of my past.

My solution to chronically feeling disconnected is to seek out supportive and empathic relationships with people who are secure in their relational patterns. These I-Thou relationships are not easy for us to find, although if we are lucky they do exist.

According to Buber we cannot force authentic I-Thou relationships. He suggests that they are a combination of “will and grace”. We are required to wait for the opportunity for authentic relationship with others, and when it’s presented must have the courage and willingness to engage in it. If we are willing and ready the opportunity will come to us. The authentic relationship, where mutual vulnerability is present, is an “encounter” with the other, where those involved grow in the process of relating. We become fully human within the I-Thou relationship.

While I cannot force the opportunity to connect genuinely with others, I can seek out the right groups, people, and interests where opportunity is more likely to happen. In the meantime, I can work at being ready and willing to courageously and honestly meet and engage with grace.


One thought on “Isolation, “I-Thou” and Addiction Recovery

  1. As an undergrad at Smith College, Mass, my concentrations were religion, theology, ethics, philosophy, social work. My Master’s is in the Science of Criminal Justice from Fitchburg University Mass and I was licensed and certified for counseling. I have been an existentialist ever since I could cognitively relate to the world and have applied the academic life of philosophy to all of my work with others. Applying the existential factors and considerations to AA has been difficult as it seems both traditional/secular AA remain cemented to Bill W, the Big Book, sponsors, 12 Step work in Bill W’s framework and uninterested in evolving within the treatment world and utilizing options other than AA standards.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s