The Pain of Rejection By Social Groups

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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

As a youngster, I remember all of us being required to read the short story, The Man Without a Country. The historical background is the Civil War. A young soldier, Nolan, a soldier in the United States Army, becomes furiously angry at the trial  of Aaron Burr who is on trial for treason. Nolan, in his rage, yells out, “Damn the United States.” As a result, he is sentenced to live out his life in isolation, being transferred from ship to ship. In addition, no one is allowed to speak to him. While he at first remains defiant he ultimately manages to tell a young sailor to love his country and never repeat what he did. What does this have to do with mental health? Let’s take a look:

Were you one of the youngsters who sat on the school bus alone because no one wanted to sit next to you? Do you remember sitting at a table, by yourself, in the school cafeteria during lunch because no one wanted to sit next to you? In the present, do you find yourself being ostracized at work, within the family, among a group of “friends?” This is what is referred to as ostracism. As a verb, ostracize means to exclude someone from a group or from society. The experience is extremely painful can have devastating results on ones well being.


Every human being has a powerful need to belong. Belonging to a group has always been a mechanism to help us survive. That is why we are organized into nations, states, counties, cities, neighborhoods, families and groups of friends. We depend on each of these groupings, regardless of how small or large, to meet our emotional and physical needs. This dependence begins in infancy when our mothers and fathers nurture and protect us until we reach adulthood.

Ostracism, or social rejection, is used to punish people. In the nation’s penitentiaries, incorrigible and violent prisoners are put into isolation for 23 to 24 hours per day, sometimes for many months. There, they are deprived of all social contact. Some of them cannot withstand the isolation and “crack.” They develop psychotic-like symptoms while others develop a full psychosis. The depravation of human contact is devastating and that is why its such a power means of punishment. But, is it effective?

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In another and related posting, I wrote about the power of the “silent treatment,” used by spouses or families, to punish. The effects are maddening for the targets of the silence. Most often, the silent treatment is used after an argument. The conflict may happen between husband and wife, parents and children, friends against friends. Is it effective?

Many articles on Mental Help Net have discussed the harmful effects of bullying. Its essential for every reader to understand that one of the most terrible means of bullying, used by kids of all ages, is to exclude someone from a group to which they once belonged. The isolation is just as terrible, if not more so, of being physically beaten by a bully.

What makes social ostracism most terrible of all are the frowns, averted eyes, scowls and smirks that the target person receives. It reinforces the feeling and sensation of being alone, not part of, not acceptable, etc.

The result of ostracism is extreme anxiety, depression, self hatred, increased blood pressure, loss of appetite, self injury and suicidal thoughts and attempts. This is not only painful but excruciating.

However, ostracism can arouse anger and rage that approaches and crosses into violence. This is one of the outcomes for those prisoners who are placed in the “hole.” Ultimately, they become more difficult to manage than before.

We have tragic examples of High School students who were targeted for bullying, including social exclusion, exploding into rage and violence that resulted in mass murders of other students and teachers.

So, does ostracism effective? I suppose it depends on your definition of “effective.” In other words, if the attempt is to cause harm to another, yes, it works. But, does anyone deserve this type of punishment. In my opinion the answer is NO. Even if we have done something to offend another, social rejection is not right. Its just another form of bullying.

What To Do?

This is a difficult question to answer, especially among adults. I suppose one thing to be done is to move on to another group of friends and even to another spouse. But, most importantly, we must know that ostracism is irrational and has nothing to do with anything we have done.

If your child or teen is ostracized, a parent can do the same types of things as with any bullies: confront them, go to school, speak to other parents and advise and support our own child. However, here, too, we as parents are limited, especially when dealing with teens and adults.

In the end, there is psychotherapy. Not therapy based on feeling at fault but at recovering the damaging effects of this bullying. Of course, this includes learning that we are not at fault.

What are your experiences with ostracism, both personally or with your children or others?

Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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