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The emotional ups and downs of social media: a look at what it means to be "friends" with someone on Facebook, how online interactions can hurt or help us offline, and how to improve your social media manners.

Why Rejection on Facebook Hurts as Much as in Real Life

Why we tend to misinterpret rejection on social media platforms

Everywhere we turn in life we face a gauntlet of rejection. Our colleagues go to lunches without us, family members forget our birthdays, spouses rebuff our sexual advances, neighbors don’t invite us to their barbeques, and friends don’t include us in their weekend plans. It used to be hard enough to get through a day or a week without some incident or another hurting our feelings. But now we have Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, and other social media platforms. While the ability to interact with so many people at once has enriched us in many ways, as we often discover, social media provides just as many opportunities for rejection as it does for connection.

The kinds of rejections we experience on social media can vary in their severity, just as they do offline. And just as in ‘real life’ even relatively minor rejections (such as when friends fail to ‘like’ or to ‘retweet’ our posts) can really sting. One of the most common forms of rejections online occur when our invitations to connect with friends or colleagues on LinkedIn or Facebook are met with silence, or when someone we know well doesn’t follow us back on Twitter. Our feelings can be extremely hurt in such situations. Indeed, we often experience any lack of reciprocity on social media as a kind of shunning. Shunning is such a painful form of ostracism that historically, it was used as a vehicle of severe social punishment (e.g., the Scarlet Letter).

On the far end of the spectrum, some rejections on social media can be extremely harsh and incredibly painful. For example, when our ‘ex’ changes their status on Facebook to ‘single’, it not only heralds an official ‘divorce’ (which sometimes even occurs in lieu of a break-up-talk) but a very public one as well, adding embarrassment and humiliation to an already painful experience. Teens are often bullied on social media by classmates writing harassing, relentless, and cruel things about them. As we know from the headlines, this kind of bullying and public rejection can be so painful that teenagers sometimes resort to taking their own lives because they cannot tolerate the emotional pain it elicits.

As I’ve written previously (read Ten Surprising Facts about Rejection here), one of the reasons rejection hurts so much is because the same areas in our brains are activated when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain. That is why we feel a stab of emotional pain when we check our Facebook feed and find that friends whose status updates we always ‘like’ have posted updates of their own but haven’t ‘liked’ ours. That is why it hurts when we’re looking for work and old colleagues whose network we could really use haven’t accepted our invitation to connect on LinkedIn. That’s why we feel angry when a close friend doesn’t follow us back on Twitter. We’re simply wired that way. Feeling stabs of emotional pain in many of these situations can makes us feel vulnerable and oversensitive or even as if we must be ‘losers’ for hurting so much, but we’re not necessarily any of those things—we’re just wired to experience rejection, even on social media, as extremely painful.

Why We Often Misinterpret Online Rejections

When someone we were dating changes their status to ‘single’ on social media platforms, there’s no mistaking the message they’re sending— they are no longer dating us. But far more often than not, when we feel rejected because we assume someone’s inaction is sending us a clear ‘message’—we’re wrong! That person is not trying to send us a message at all. In fact, we tend to read far more into such omissions than we should. Let’s look at some examples of what is actually happening on the other person’s side of things:

Many people use social media intermittently or selectively. They haven’t responded to your LinkedIn invitation because they haven’t visited the site in months. Or they are scrolling through their Facebook or Twitter feeds and responding only to one or two of their best friends because they’re busy at school or at work. Or a new mother is only checking updates of her friends who have newborns as well to get advice and support, and your child is already in preschool. So while it seems as though your friends are active on the site and simply ignoring you, they aren’t. They just aren’t seeing your updates.

Twitter is another good example. Some people feeds can flow with so many messages an hour, the only ones they see are those that carry specific hashtags they happen to be following on that day (e.g., #Classof2013Picnic). Without the right hashtag, your message is simply getting lost among hundreds and thousands of others. Some people also have strict reciprocity standards. They will respond to people who regularly ‘share’, repost, or retweet their messages and they don’t deal with casual users (like you). If they met you at a party they would be happy to catch up and hear your news, but online, they are all ‘business’ as they take their social platform far more seriously than you do.

In other words, although there are a thousand ways to feel rejected on social media, nine hundred and ninety of them are probably not personal. Assuming the worst in these situations will not only cause you unnecessary hurt, it can make you reach incorrect conclusions about your friendships and assume problems exist where they do not. The most important thing to remember about social media interactions is that you lack huge amounts of information about what might be going on for the other person. So give people the benefit of the doubt, and if you’re worried about the relationship, send the person a “hello, what’s new?” text or email. Chances are their response will reassure you that all is indeed well between you.

View my short and quite personal TEDx talk about Psychological Health here:

Check out my book: Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).

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Copyright 2013 Guy Winch

For more mental health tips and articles, follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch and Like The Squeaky Wheel Blog on Facebook.

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