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Can Ostracism Cause Lingering Pain in Your Brain?


It’s often been noted that rejection is among the most painful of human emotions. Anyone who has felt the sting of rejection, ostracism or shunning knows how deeply these experiences sting.

According to a Purdue University expert, ostracism can cause pain that often is deeper and lasts longer than a physical injury.

“Being excluded or ostracized is an invisible form of bullying that doesn’t leave bruises, and therefore we often underestimate its impact,” said Kipling D. Williams, a professor of psychological sciences. “Being excluded by high school friends, office colleagues, or even spouses or family members can be excruciating.”

“When a person is ostracized, the brain’s dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which registers physical pain, also feels this social injury,” Williams said.

The process of ostracism includes three stages:

1. The initial acts of being ignored or excluded
2. Coping
3. Resignation

Fundamental and foundational for our human needs are the feelings of belonging. Exclusion or ostracism is so painful because it threatens this need and the core of our self-esteem. “Again and again research has found that strong, harmful reactions are possible even when ostracized by a stranger or for a short amount of time,” said Williams.

More than 5,000 people have participated in studies using a computer game designed by Williams to show how just two or three minutes of ostracism can produce lingering negative feelings.

Even when being ignored briefly by strangers, with whom the individual will never have any face-to-face interaction, the negative effect is powerful and consistent. This was true even with a great variety of personalities.

People also vary in how they cope during the second stage of ostracism. Coping can mean the person tries to harder be included. For example, they may try to engage in behaviors that might foster acceptance: mimicking, complying, obeying orders, cooperating or expressing attraction.

If this tactic doesn’t work, and hope for inclusion is lost, people stop worrying about being liked and decide they just want to be noticed. In this stage, they may resort to provocative behavior and even aggression.

However, if a person has been ostracized for a long time, people can’t continue to cope with the pain and often eventually give up. This is the third stage, called resignation.

The third stage is called resignation. In some people who have been ostracized, they become less helpful and more aggressive to others in general. They also may feel an increase in anger and sadness. “Long-term ostracism can result in alienation, depression, helplessness, and feelings of unworthiness.”

Sometimes “extreme groups” (gangs and the like) can provide members with a sense of belonging, self-worth, and control, but they can also fuel narrowness, radicalism and intolerance, and perhaps a propensity toward hostility and violence toward others.

When a person feels ostracized they feel out of control, and aggressive behavior is one way to restore that control.

Here are some tips if you have experienced ostracism:

  • Seek a safe, supportive therapist, counselor or wise friend who can help you traverse the pain. Seek out healthy individuals who are accepting, healthy and supportive. We also need to be aware (and teach our kids) that ostracism hurts people as deeply, if not more so, than a physical wound.
  • Sometimes, ostracism happens unintentionally and for no reason, in this case. When you are feeling composed and confident it’s important to stand up for yourself and remind the other person that you are also important.
  • Being lighthearted and finding humor in these situations may pay off. By understanding that nothing catastrophic happened by someone else ignoring and excluding you can help improve your mood.

At the Amen Clinics, we have compassionate therapists who may be able to help you find peace, self-esteem, and acceptance after a painful ostracizing, shunning or other experience of being excluded. We may also be able to suggest exercises, supplements, and if needed, medication to help. No doubt such experiences hurt. But remember, there is always help. Call us today at 888-288-9834 to get started, or tell us more.

4 thoughts on “Can Ostracism Cause Lingering Pain in Your Brain?”

  1. Bruce Trueman says:

    Interesting post. Does the author include romantic rejection or the breaking up of a long term relationship to be a form of ostracism? Please comment.

    1. shelia in TX says:

      My personal opinion would be Yes. The brain isn’t selective about the cause, just the fact that there IS. And if the experiment was with strangers, wouldn’t it stand to reason to be even MORE damaging with people you know and who may have accepted you previously. This is certainly a form of child abuse I would conclude. This is also why prisons are effectively inhumane. Isolation from human interaction. Not that I am advocating no prisons. Just the consequences on the human psyche.

  2. Blue Lilac says:

    Does this include the rejection experienced by people who work in sales? It’s a double whammy when rejection also means no income.

    1. shelia in TX says:

      Probably and especially if you can’t separate the rejection of the product from a personal rejection. Which we all know , people buy primarily from people they like. In other words, if they like the salesperson, they are more likely to buy the product. So yes, there is some level of personal exclusion in my mind.

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