Understanding Rejection's Psychological Sting

The average person feels ignored, excluded or ostracized approximately once per day. Most of these incidents are "seemingly" trivial.
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Some people think that scientists research their unresolved personal issues. Well, I study rejection and social anxiety, and like everyone else on the planet, I have experienced my share of both.

My first kiss was at age 7 with an older cousin. In the garage, she casually played rocket man on a red fisher price record player. There was nothing at all pleasurable about the slow dance, kiss or awkward silence. But I did think my friends would be impressed with my official entry as a sexual being. A tactical mistake. Their expressions of disgust were enough to impact me, no words were necessary.

When someone passed a note in class that said, "Todd kisses his family all over their bodies," I experienced a sinking feeling that only got worse over the day. Friends felt the need to be physically distant from me. Everyone sat at least two seats away from me at lunch. Rendered invisible for a mere hour, just one hour, I felt alone, alienated, as if I didn't exist.

Looking back, I find the incident to be an innocent reminder of childhood. I didn't lose any friends. I mocked myself much more than anyone else did. Yet, I can still recall the visceral feeling of being excluded. The tightness in my stomach, the inability to look people in the eye and the dejection of sitting alone in a room full of people, where it took great willpower to lift a fork to my mouth. I can remember it all. It makes it easy to imagine the devastation of people who are victims of chronic ostracism.

I won't bore you with more recent tales. I want to turn to the science. How much rejection is required to experience pain and to doubt life's meaning? The quick answer: not much.

The average person feels ignored, excluded or ostracized approximately once per day. Most of these incidents are "seemingly" trivial. The word "seemingly" is essential because acute pain is the norm. In a study conducted this year, a trained researcher walked past other pedestrians and did one of the following:

1. Glanced quickly at them.

2. Gave a perfunctory nod and smile.

3. Looked right past them, as if they didn't exist.

Another member of the research team hiding in a shrub would stop the pedestrians to ask a few questions about whether they feel disconnected from other people. When pedestrians didn't get any acknowledgment from the stranger passing them, they reported a substantially lower sense of connection to other people.

These findings mirror research of elevator riders from over 20 years ago that showed how being completely ignored by the stranger standing next to you leads to a shift away from happiness toward hurtful feelings. Take a moment to think about this, just a glance from a stranger helps us remain connected to other people ... and then there's the driver that refuses to give you the nominal wave after you let their car cut in front of you (grrrrr).

In the weirdest studies, people played a five-minute computer game of ball toss with another person. Unbeknownst to the research participant, the other person was an actor given a script to be accepting, by throwing them the ball regularly, or to ostracize them, by keeping the ball away.

In some cases, they were told that it's unlikely they would like the other person. Black participants were told the other person was a KKK member, Jewish participants were told the other person collected Nazi paraphernalia, feminists were told the other person was a fluffer working for a pornographer. You get the idea. What happened?

The impact of being left out of the ball tossing game was the same regardless of whether the stranger seemed like a friend or foe. Either way, after a mere five minutes of not getting the ball in a pointless computer game, people felt an increase in sadness, despair and hostility, and a decrease in self-esteem, belonging, sense of control and meaning in life.

It's easy to underestimate the power of inaction and thus, parents, teachers, bosses and friends often neglect the consequences of ostracism. Even when someone from a despised group rejects us, we feel the psychological sting. The cruelest bodily tortures often pale in comparison to the impotence of being left out. Time to bring those powerful human capacities for awareness, openness and compassion to bear on the people that cross our path.

NOTE: for more, listen to me and the rest of the paneldiscussing social anxiety and shyness at The Diane Rehm Show on NPR

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University who regularly give keynotes and workshops to business executives, organizations, schools, parents, retirees and health professionals on well-being. He authored "Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life" and "Designing Positive Psychology." If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops related to this topic or others, contact me by going to www.toddkashdan.com

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