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.

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  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.

    • 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.

    • donna isbell says:

      I have been ostracized since childhood starting from my mother, down to friends, college, ex husband, my entire family EXCEPT FOR ONE AUNT. Now I have no self esteem, self worth, and I feel like a speck of sand in a overcrowded city. I am unemployed and isolated. This has been going on for 54 years. I feel like a wasted space on this earth. I do not reach out to anybody anymore because it is pointless. People I know only want to text and not hang out or hang out only where there is alcohol involved. I am lost. I have a husband who listens if tolerated. I hate it when I wake up in the mornings because I have a whole day ahead of me and it sucks. I have had “so called friends” that turned their back on me because of my depression and one even spread deep personal information about me regarding a health issue I have. She even twisted the story around that is totally false. Sad thing, she is a nurse yet she spread everything about me to the city. Life sucks

      • Jo says:

        I am in a similar situation to you and understand how debilitating it is. I have a lovely counselor who believes I have a lot to offer the world as does my partner so I hang on to them. I still feel chronically alienated from the world around me and fear that this is my lot. Just wanted you to know that you’re not alone in feeling like this xox

        • Coral says:

          You don’t need the approval of anyone for your life. Try not spend any more time replaying the hurt. You will be as confident as you tell yourself. You know you are a good person so why allow other people’s small mindedness to rob you of a happy life. You are the only person who can decide your worth. You don’t need to please others. Love yourself. Maybe decide when you wake up tomorrow that no more time will be spent reviewing the hurts. There are wonderful people around just waiting to be your friend. Work out how you can meet them. Little by little you can get some joy in your life. XX All the best

  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.

    • 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.

  3. MissSassyPant66 says:

    I’ve been definitely and without explanation, been deliberately ostracised by my ENTIRE FAMILY!
    The LIES TOLD TO INNOCENT CHILDREN who loved their Auntie ( and devastating of all, their Nanny!)
    7 YEARS of being excluded in EVERY,
    SINGLE OCCASION where they’ll gather like Christmas, Birthdays and Weddings!
    I myself dread Days such as Christmas, Mothers and Especially my birthdays as even when my 50th hit, I’d been hoping against all logic that MAYBE…… but of course it came and went without receiving a card, phone call….nothing!

    I’m going in to my 8th year and must inform the writer that there’s been three ocadssions in Rehab when I’d badly broken my leg- I was admitted with the agony of admiring, ‘no NOK’ I was looked at like some specimens, ‘you HAVE to have somebody……anybody you’re related to??’
    When do hurt I replied, ‘Is that in case I die in your care and you’re stuck with a Stiff?
    Thank you and such a ‘appreciative’ was that you’ve thanked me for donating my body to science!!I then in form them that that’s EXACTLY where I’m going! There’s NO ONE who’d go to my funeral let alone claim my body! If I’m murdered or go missing, NOONE WOULD NOTICE PERIOD !

    I’ve had 4 ‘major cries’ over the burning question of WHY and actually ‘shocked’ a Neauro Psycologist over the EXTENT, DURATION AND BY JUST HOW MANY ARE IN THIS ‘ORGANIZATION OF CRUEL AND SPITEFUL BULLIES ‘!!
    A nurse turned up incidentally to just take my observations and as I had been crying quite hard, my blood pressure was extremely high and I was in risk of having an aneurysm or stroke. I casually told them to all calm down because that was how I always felt after having a cry about this! Nevertheless, I was treated as a high risk patient for stroke aneurysm !
    ( I wish) so I suppose I do support your theory re ‘depths of pain’ as I promise you, I wouldn’t wish this on ANYBODY! It strips you of your self esteem, you can’t make old memories so stay ‘stuck in the past of your last memory’ but they’ve ALL MOVED ON, Children grown and you haven’t crossed their nasty, spiteful and hatred mind not even ONCE!!

    I’ve read A LOT of your work and studies. Please would you consider replying?

    • Amen Clinics says:

      Hello, thank you for reaching out and sharing with us. We will have a Care Coordinator reach out to you to discuss the specifics that you’ve mentioned.

      • Debbie M says:

        I am in the same boat! I have no hope and I don’t know of one single place to reach out for help! I am autistic and I want to die!
        Can you plz at least point me in the direction of somewhere to go for help???

        • Amen Clinics says:

          Hello Debbie, thank you for reaching out. We’d be happy to contact you directly via email to discuss options with you.

      • Lone wolf in life says:

        I’ve never fit in anywhere. I wonder if I’m on the autism spectrum or have non verbal learning disorder. Everyone has always said of me (or even told me) that I’m just too weird yet they don’t explain WHAT is weird I do or say when I ask except for 1 thing years ago & it’s that I divulge too much information about myself. So I consciously avoid that since but still I have no friends or boyfriend. I don’t have any addictions, don’t have face piercings or tattoos that might put ppl off, don’t dress weird or have weird hair. Don’t have weird hobbies, no scandal in my past, no criminal record. So the problem is how I act but idk what! Sometimes when I speak (if I’m really nervous) I blush, stutter& have a hard time making eye contact. I can’t help the first two but I work on eye contact all the time with hit & miss success depending who I’m talking to. I’m often at a loss for words what to say. I know my body language must be a problem but I dk what exactly so I can work on it. I also think I probably say the WRONG things but again idk what I’m saying wrong or not saying which I should. My neighbors all avoid me, won’t even say a hi or wave back. Some even give me dirty cold looks when I greet or if I try to say something friendly (like when one is out with their dog, I’ll say something about the weather to come/are having, or “such a cute dog, what kind is he? Or even pretend Idk something & ask “is this the week for recycling pick up?” Because it picks up every other week. Nothing I try to say chatty wise gets a reaponse. Depending on the neighbor I’ll get totally ignored like I don’t exist & they didn’t hear me or they’ll acknowledge me with a wilting look & then ignore my comment or question. It’s very hard to deal with this every. single. day. Family has nothing to do with me either. Not for anything I’ve done. No falling out or anything either. I am left out of everything news wise or gatherings wise. The few who had me on their fb have unfriended me since the last election because I post political things they don’t like. They’re very conservative. I’m embarrassed that I’m childless & single. I’ve been asked by several people in my history if I’m gay. Which I’m not so that makes me feel even more like a freak because I wonder if others assume so too. It sucks being a weird spinster. I’m also the “weird one” wherever I work. I try hard to be pleasant & compliment but the range of treatment is bad. From total ostracism to outright cruelty. Still I keep acting like things they’ve done didn’t happen & like today is a new clean slate. It’s impossible to work on myself when I don’t know what to work on but I know the problem is me.

  4. Sad says:

    I used to have a lot of friends from my kids’ elementary school. There was a whole group of moms that would go out, I was always included. About two years ago I suddenly stopped being invited. My older son is now in middle school and he has plenty of friends from his old school and new friends from the middle school. I’ve noticed that my younger son doesn’t get invited on playdates anymore or birthday parties. My husband and I have no idea why we have been ostracized. The part that hurts most for me is that I feel like these women just threw my friendship away, like I didn’t matter and never did. It also breaks my heart that my son doesn’t get invited anywhere, he only hangs out with other kids when he’s at practice for sports or knocks on a neighbor’s door. I know I need to find strength somewhere else b/c I feel myself falling into depression which makes me a terrible parent and role model. Any advise would be appreciated.

  5. Rufonious says:

    Having had a strict upbringing and made to feel inferior, I keep myself to myself. Most of my life has been spent living quietly, not going out much or if so, keeping to a corner of the room. Now nearing 64, I have resigned myself to the fact I will be without friends but to be honest, I prefer it that way. People let you down and I have had some nasty comments made about me from neighbours and strangers passing by me in the street. At least I can return home and punch my pillow where nobody can see or hear me; plus I receive unconditional love from my cat, so all is not lost.

  6. Jennifer says:

    I can’t tell you how relevant and specific this is for me and my situation at work.
    I have been so harsh and critical of myself thinking “I should be able to handle this better” and realize that all of my feelings and needs are completely valid and my colleagues/bosses will not understand b/c they’re not ostracized.
    Thank you for bringing light to the darkness.

  7. Mookie says:

    I was estranged from my whole family but my son. Both parents, divorced and my daughter. It’s horrific and bleeds into relationships when I’m not included. Fight with my dude this weekend. Cancer diagnosis hasn’t changed…still not invited to anything, never called, random texts, I just wanna be apart of. Thanks for this article. It definitely is relevant and I appreciate knowing there’s stages.

  8. J says:

    I’ve been going through this for years. They know about this in the office and I’ve been trying hard not to be affected. I don’t expect people to like me — no one can please everyone. But in my case, it’s like as a group, they have the “We can’t be bothered by your feelings of worthlessness” attitude. They’re not bad people. It’s just they don’t want to be bothered with including me in their group anymore. It’s like one big school with the popular ones excluding the least favorites from activities and such. I’ve accepted that a long time ago even if it hurts. But when EVERYONE except you is invited or given consideration, when even those they don’t always interact with are invited and not you, when they do that to your face and not care how you take it…IT EFFIN’ HURTS. You just want to cry. But you don’t want to do that in front of them ’cause they’ll think you’re being a drama queen again, being unreasonable again. I have acknowledged to myself that I have a problem, but how I wish they stop causing more pain and just be sensitive enough. I don’t really mind not going to or joining activities. But it won’t hurt to ask me, right?

    I EFFIN’ want to stop this tendency to be depressed. I wish I were as cool as other people. Obviously, I’m not or I wouldn;t have this problem.

  9. Cheryl-an Peters-Richards says:

    I’ve been ostracised by my entire family going on eight years now but the thing is, I reached out to my dad who doesn’t understand the long-lasting pain that this disastrous thing has caused. I am a ghost, I have no legacy and no one can even notice if I go missing. My dad keeps telling me to move and just won’t recognise what damages it’s done!
    He gets to see everybody I don’t. I wish I could find something on the Internet to do with people not understanding is just how emotionally! and physically devastating ostracism can be so I can send it to him instead of him always telling me to forget about it and move on i’m absolutely heartbroken then he can recognise that my pain is real

    • Leslie says:

      Dear Cheryl, I understand your pain honey.

      Please believe in yourself & that you dont deserve to be treated like that.

      Your family have failed you & the shame belongs to them.

      My father, who i thought loved me …has chosen to side with my family & i have been shut out. My mother has painted me black to all of them…she is narcissistic & tells lots of lies. I have reached the point that i cannot change them, nor their faulty perceptions of me.

      I have faced the pain & decided my life is better without that behaviour from them.

      Stay strong & find your true self, its a new life for us now. maybe not what i would have chosen…

      Give yourself unconditional love & let them go….they dont deserve you…

      Hope this helps

      Sent with love xx Leslie

      You are not alone

    • Bell says:

      Dear Cheryl -an,
      When I read your post it described me completely, i understand exactly how you feel. Hurt, worthless….I have been ostracised by all 4 of my adult siblings and the pain is unbearable. Like your father my father thinks I should just move on – he sees them I don’t.
      The world thinks we’re the perfect family if only they knew what a cruel, narcissistic bunch of morons I’m related to.

  10. Bizarre Boy says:

    I was ostracized as a child… I’m anti social, it’s too late for me, but not for others to find friends and acceptance

  11. malificent says:

    This. Isn’t the 1st for me and in late 2015 I went no contact with my 6 older siblings. Fast forward four months the “Golden Child” showed up the morning of my Husbands surgery to my surprise. To be a support of course , I ddI say to her she was like MRSA and didn’t go away to which she laughed. But . within the setting I didn’t want to even address it. However, what was to be non problematic surgery turned into a shocking 10 days life support. I was making decisions left and right as Power of Attorney and he miraculously came to. Still on a ventilator but rather miraculous.
    The following day he was scheduled to go to a rehab to get off the vent , however I was in a room watching open chest resuscitation for 30 minutes and I was left traumatized, My other siblings showed at the funeral but it was for face value and after my no contact it was they who came and silently shunned me while I stood there and nobody knew. I lost 120 lbs in 3 months and with my children every thing I built was sabotaged and my sister has my kids and documents are illegal and school officials, social workers have dismissed me from my children as have they. I am silently stalked and am in therapy but feel it’s a waste of Time. in February I uncovered the illegal school affidavit and that led to danger. My daughter posted a fb tribute to me that we don’t talk and how she loves me but that is different from the text I have. I go to the store and I am called a whore. dr.s ,therapist don’t seem to care , I can’t time them but I am putting paper work in a safe deposit box so that there is a paper trail. Mostly ,the fact that nobody even gives me a thought and were at the funeral. I had 150 at my wedding. I seemed to have vanished. I am mostly hurt by my children who are strangers and raised better than that. I have made 300 calls in the alt year and I can’t help myself regardless. Superintendent of a school, children youth workers , etc don’t even care to see my face and I have been dismissed fraudulently which I can’t get close ? Even my HIPPA laws violated and my Doctor isn’t concerned. So why should I ?

  12. Budeez says:

    This shines light on why I contiinue to experience deep pain, as the family scapegoat. Helps to know it is unintentional, they too are coping with our family dysfunction. I experience much satisfaction and belonging socially and professionally. I have successfully distanced myself from my family but am reminded on holidays and birthdays. Realizing the shame I carry and at the same time understanding why I am such a fan of the under dog and work in the field I do It is somewhat lke a physical disability in that I can’t get rid of it and coping with the consequences at times is big work and will be a life long challenge. I have unsuccessfully worked on these relationships and moving forward will no longer allow myself to feel guilt for not. I will take that effort and apply to learning to love myself. I am beautiful and important! and so are all of you.

  13. Lisa says:

    I am impressed by the thoughtfulness and sincerity of the comments here.

    Ostracism becomes a heaviness carried about . . it lingers. And yet, somehow, we maintain the morning routine and find joy in the intimate, simple necessity of daily living ..

    I appreciate the thought of the heightened sensitivity to others who are left behind. Somehow, it seems to lend purpose to the carrying of this burden in my heart.

  14. KD Welles says:

    We are empathetic, those of us who have been marginalized. We can’t wrap our heads around being delibritely cruel for sport, pretty much. Holidays are really tough and I get off of FB during the season as to not add insult to injury by looking at all of the happy (supposedly happy) families out there. My ostracism started when I was a toddler and witnessed abuse. I was to be silenced at all costs. My mother told everyone about my over active imagination and that I was prone to fibbing. She set me up.. and I have managed to keep going despite her. My advice is to be a shining example of strength. They can’t kill our spirit, although they try. I honestly believe my family would be pleased if I died so they could be comforted and receive casseroles, etc. I plan to live as long as I can just to be a constant reminder of their sh#% show they call a family!


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