A surprising number of Dupont Circle's sophisticated singles are lonely. Socially cowered, some psychologists say, by the glittering high-profile whirl of power-driven Washington.

They are not alone in their isolation.

For all its allure as a city of rising, young professionals breezing from embassy parties to theater openings, Washington is better known at home for its socially disenfranchised.

Convinced that they aren't part of the fashionable "in" crowd, they feel being alone in Washington is more acute than it would be anywhere else. They consider themselves in social exile at home.

For them, Washington's social glitter is confined to the powerful and politically well-connected. Their night life is often a blur of unsatisfying discos and bars far removed from the exciting social life they read about in the newspapers.

"I don't know if it's my age or what's happened to me," puzzled a 47-year-old New Yorker who moved to Chevy Chase a bride 10 years ago and landed at Dupont Circle a divorcee last year.

"I just feel more isolated here. People talk about their contacts. It's such a power city."

And the right job is the key to power in this town. Without it, one is all but stripped naked in public. A 46-year-old southern college professor who moved here four years ago has learned that brutal lesson.

Unable to find a job here, he is recovering from a nervous breakdown brought on by related stress, and struggling to regain his confidence.

Both are enrolled in a social skills training program offered at the Area A Community Mental Health Center, 1611 Connecticut Ave. NW. Operated by the city's Department of Human Services, the program is trying to ease loneliness and insecurity by teaching people how to make friends or put enough distance between themselves and their jobs so that they can open up.

Stressing such skills as how to introduce oneself, enter into a conversation, change the subject or reveal one's inner self to others, the course encourages the socially withdrawn to relate to others. Dr. Maria del Carmen Puig-Casauranc is the psychologist who developed the course. She notes the Washington's demanding, highly competitive jobs are an inhibiting factor.

"It's a liability in this town to be open, honest, direct and sincere," she said. "If you're not well-grounded yourself, it's almost as if you have to choose between yourself and your profession. That choice is a terrbile double bind."

Because of the often overwhelming pressure to succeed socially and professionally -- while at the same time feeling the acute pressure of isolation -- people abuse themselves physically and socially in Washington, Puig-Casauranc said.

"People do not find time for themselves. They work very late during the week and weekend. The buses at 7 and 8 at night are full. People in this town feel guilty about taking vacations. They're last on the list.

"I have a friend right now, an attorney who works on the Hill as a lobbyist. He has a 102-degree fever and he's wondering if he's sick enough to stay home."

Her program has been used by Catholic University students, staff members and patients at the Green Door (a local program for the mentally ill), the Northern Virginia Mental Health Center and a local television personality, Puig-Casauranc said.

She has also taken the social skills program to local Hispanic groups and area youth. Her programs include assertiveness training for Hispanic women, courses on parenting and stress management.

"I'm on key committees in town from the mayor's office to the White House," she said. Through her, people are learning a lot more about psychology, she said, and that one need not be "scrampled" to need what the field offers.

"I think it serves a great need in allowing people to become aware that functioning human beings need a lot to continue functioning. That psychology is not just for those who aren't functioning, but also for people who need social reinforcement."

The social skills program, which is free and open to all Washington residents, grew out of a series of Dupont Circle community rap sessions last spring. It is moving into its second season.

About 125 people attended the first rap session, which was advertised throughout the neighborhood as simply a forum for community concerns.

Joan de Pontet, a volunteer coordinator with the center, said staff members were surprised to find loneliness an urgent hidden issue.

"They didn't want to talk about housing, but how to meet people," she recalled. "All the younger singles, the newcomers especially, and single parents said, 'You know we feel very cut off.'"

Puig-Casaranc, who has formulated similar social skills programs in cities from San Francisco to Fort Collins, Colo., said social isolation is a sign of the times suffered by a range of people from those socially unsure of themselves to those reluctant to begin social relationships for fear to being left alone again.

"There's a reluctance to hook up and once a hook-up is made, it's almost a latching-onto. I see it as a result of technology, political uncertainity and economic uncertainty.

"Another thing I've noticed is, regardless of the socio-economic level of people, it transcends race, class and economic group."

The 10-week, two-hour-a-session skills program advances from "how do you do's to the how do you want to do it," Puig-Casauranc says. Homework assignments challenge participants to go to a local bookstore and engage in small talk with a stranger or to introduce oneself to someone at a gathering.

At the workshops, emphasis is placed on simply helping develop social skills, rather than analayzing why people don't have them, de Pontet said.

Dr. Rosemary Schwartzbard, group leader for the first group, said most of the participants "felt realtively uncomfortable developing social skills." Some were recovering from the recent loss of a meaningful relationship, others were just trying to relearn how to socialize, but most felt the project was important enough to them to stay.

Washingtonians are signing up for the spring group, Schwartzbard said. Puig-Casauranc is not surprised.

She points out that, most importantly, people must believe in themselves and not need anyone else's approval for security.

"There's a paradox that happens in regimented, structured society," she said. The less freedom, the less anxiety about making a wrong choice.

"Here there is too much choice. In a land of abundance we want the entire cake and we want it all in one piece . . .

"The speed and rapidity of our society is another factor. We don't value patience. We don't value or tolerate sitting back and reflecting. There isn't the time to consider, "Who am I?'

"They say, "This is what all these folks say I should be like.' They forget that they're the only experts on themselves. That's why we have divorces, suicides, interpersonal breakdowns. They don't listen to themselves."