Rejection, Why Does It Hurt So Much?

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Ever had the experience of asking someone out for a date and feeling depressed after you were rejected? Ever go to a party, talk to some people you never met before and experienced a lack of interest in you or about what you were saying? Did you feel depressed and anxious after this experience? Do you remember feeling utterly dejected during childhood if you were chosen last for a team because you were thought of as the worst athlete? Remember feeling rejected and hopeless when your boyfriend or girlfriend broke up with you? Most if not all of us have had these or other similar types of experiences from time to time during our lives. In fact, some of the readers may be going through something like this at the very present time. But, why do these experiences hurt so very much?

Rejection hurts badly because it awakens a primal need that we all have for social connectedness. Think about it. From the time we are born we rely on the love and nurturing provided by our mother and father to help us survive and thrive. Perhaps that is why the language carries so somatic types of terms to convey how rejection feels. For example, it is interesting to say that we feel "hurt" as a result of a rejecting experience. Lovers sometimes think about suicide after suffering a loss of their partner. In other words, we fear that we will not survive if we are abandoned. In other words, on a certain level that is not fully conscious, we need to feel that we belong, are included, are part of the group and partnership and if we are we can feel happy. I would go so far as to say that a certain percentage of people who are depressed either fear social isolation or are socially isolated. Among these are individuals with poor social skills and cannot seem to find acceptance from others, and people who are shy and socially avoidant. The point is that rejection awakens early fears of being left to the "wolves." In short, "it hurts to be left out." All of this is discussed in a wonderful paper written by Eisenberger and Lieberman, entitled "Why it hurts to be left out," Department of Psychology, University of California.


This paper discusses one of the factors that could drive certain types of addiction. They point out that heroin and opium addiction go to the same part of the brain that relieves the suffering assoicated with the pain of rejection. The addiction could be a means of reducing a pain experienced by some types of avoidant people. It was speculated, at a time when I worked with psychotic patients in a day hospital, that addictive behavior involves having to socially interact with both pushers and users that provides a type of social structure for some people.

The social pain of rejection is so powerful that it explains why some people would rather avoid social interaction than experience the threat of rejection or social failure. This is self defeating in that the individual does not make the social contacts they need to feel better. Very often, the prior experience of rejection causes people to avoid socializing in the future, avoiding it like the child whose hand has been burned by a hot stove and avoids kitchen all together.

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A recent study shows that people, after being rejected, are better able to detect false or phoney smiles as compared to those who have not been rejected. Here, too, researchers speculate that the reason for this improved ability to translate smiles has to do with the same basic need we all have for belonging or being included. In fact, the authors of the article report about animal experiments that demonstrate how animals can tolerate electrical shocks if they have either another animal in the cage or their mother. Our prison system seems to understand the importance of social connectedness in getting incorrigable prisoners to behave by putting them is isolation for months at a time where they speak to and see no one. Some prisoners are driven crazy by this technique.

I get a lot of email from people who struggle with shyness, social avoidance and other types of anxiety disorders that prevent them from making friends and belonging to a social network. For any of you who experience this it is important to enter psychotherapy, especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and to join one of many self help groups available around the nation so that the process of overcoming blocks to socializing can begin. In addition, there are many self help books available that explain how to do useful exercises that are motivating and encouraging in getting people to experiment with socialization.

It is important for the family and friends of people who suffer after experiencing a social rejection that their pain is just as real as if they had fractured an arm or had a tooth pulled. The whole point of the paper that is discussed here is that soical and physical pain are activated in the same parts of the brain. Pain is real whether it is of rejection or of an ear ache.

Your comments and questions are always welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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