Ostracism and stigma are my bread and butter. In my work with people diagnosed as suffering from psychiatric symptoms, they are my chief concern. I believe many or most of the behaviors I see in my clients involving motivation and even organization have to do with the injuries caused by the social trauma of ostracism and stigma. In fact, I use a term for this in my work: psychosocial trauma. In a world that dogmatically sees human behavior as existing in the self-contained world of the individual psyche, the notion of social experience causing behavioral change is remarkably hard to sell. Clinicians nod their heads, and say they “get it;” but when they return to work, they continue to see psychiatric problems as entirely skull-bound. 

This drives me crazy. So much amazing social psychological research has been conducted on the social aspects of behavior—and often it is much better science than psychiatric or psychological research— yet the findings are often utterly ignored by the therapeutic professions. To see the roots of human behavior as isolated inside the person, as if contained within her skin, is ridiculous. It’s like looking at a fish without recognizing that it lives in water, or that it swims. We are cultural and social animals, plain and simple. And the “here and now” of social interaction and environment strongly affect our behavior. Sure, we have character, personality, neuroses, values, and ideas that are our own; but they aren’t locked away like some computer program. They manifest themselves in interaction. 

So I spend my days trying to prove my point, asking for just a bit of consideration about people as social animals. Just a crumb, please…please?

Well, one day my wish came true. And it came from a source I would have never imagined: my sixteen-year-old son. Of course, thinking back on it now, he was the perfect person to talk to (allowing for teenage angst and father/son tension). As a teenager, Max is both an expert on the impact of social experience, and a novice in the dogma of individualism.

Max needed to give a speech to his English class. He was thinking of speaking on the problem of feeling left out, and how painful this is for teenagers. Seeing my chance to have a little influence on Max’s life, I told him about the work of Kipling Williams, a social psychologist who has conducted significant research on ostracism. Max understood and integrated his ideas in a flash. Here is his speech:

                                                        A Part or Apart?

You are playing Cyberball, a game on the internet where you are basically passing a ball between you and two strangers. All of a sudden, the two other players start to pass the ball between each other, and no longer you. You write to them on the small chat screen, “Hey, pass me the ball!!”, but they continue to pass to each other, leaving you out. You continue to write, “Hey, Why don’t you pass to me?,” and they still continue to pass between each other. At this point, how do you feel? What emotions are you feeling? This is exactly the question that social psychologist, Kip Williams investigates in his experiments, using his creation, Cyberball. You see, there are not actually three people playing Cyberball. It is just you, unwittingly playing against a computer program. A program Williams created to make people feel ostracized, the feeling of being left out. How can something so simple and harmless make people feel ostracized? Well actually, through brain imaging, Williams, shows that the same part of your brain that experiences pain is activated when you play Cyberball. Ostracism is not just psychologically but physically painful.

We as human beings are social animals, we feel insecure and meaningless when we feel left out. But we do not need to fall apart, every time we feel invisible. The way we as societal people can overcome the obstacles of ostracism is to gain competence and a sense of community. I, like many of you have felt left out before. Whether I was actually intentionally left out, which is highly doubtful, or I was being my sensitive self, which is more likely, I felt the pain shown in Williams’ studies and the pain that we as humans, especially as teenagers, often feel. I used to be very sensitive to feeling left out. For example, when I was very young, I went to a family-friends’ house for a dinner party and I thought it would just be me and my friend. But, it turned out that a few of his friends were already there. I did not know what to do, suddenly feeling excluded, I cried and told my parents “I want to go home!” I am hardly this sensitive anymore. I’ve matured, of course. But my progression really sped up this year. If I was to go to a much larger party now, I would be ten time more put together if I felt like I was being left out.

I have done a lot of thinking about why this is. Is it because I have gotten must more mature? That’s not all of it: I am still very immature. Is it because I have gotten wiser? Definitely not. I have thought about this a lot and I have come to the conclusion that there are two things that make us as humans less sensitive about feeling left out. One is competence. As we get older, we get better at things. As we get better at things, we feel less helpless. When we feel less helpless, we can be our own company. The second is a sense of community. My friends and I play and watch soccer, which makes an automatic connection between us all. Even when I am feeling completely apart from things, I know we have this shared interest and connection. That is what community does for us; it creates unity, even when you don’t feel united.

There will always be times when you feel left out, whether you actually are being left out our not. Kip Williams’ Cyberball proves that there is a high chance that we as humans feel painful emotions when this happens. But, we can push through these emotions by getting good at things, which will create confidence in yourself, and by creating community. I may be more sensitive than you, but as some point or another, you will feel excluded. Whether you are intentionally being excluded or not, the pain feeling of it can be the same. The trick to getting past the pain is to get good at things, and make friends who share common interests. The goal, in all of this is for us to feel a part even when we are apart. 

I am of course proud of this little speech. But honestly, I’m not quoting it here out of pride. Instead, I think it vividly points out the common-sense position of a social-psychological outlook on many experiences; experiences too often attributed to an individual’s traits. If, upon hearing about Max’s assignment, how inspired would he have been if I had responded to him by saying, “Introverts have a harder time connecting with groups,” or “You are talking about the Eriksonian stage of ‘Intimacy vs Isolation,” or “Some people have more resilience than others,” or “Sounds like social phobia!” or “It’s really the self-system that mediates the space between self and other, and this mechanism must be sturdy for us to engage fluidly in our interactions with people.” I think if I said these things, he simply wouldn’t get it. It would require too much theory, too many abstract explanations to get there.

No offense to Max, but it’s a simple, intuitive and easy-to-make line between ostracism and pain. It takes a lot of book reading, and a lot of theory (often lacking good science) to describe this experience as based purely on a psychological trait.

Let me give an example. Here is my explanation for why social interaction can make a person nervous:

We are social animals. We are dead if not in the tribe. It makes sense, then, that the part of our      brain in charge of warning signals is activated when we are left out. We thus worry about being left out when we are in a group.

What do you think? It took only four sentences to describe this experience. And, for me, it’s clear.

Referring to Max’s description of how to overcome the pain of ostracism, let me write a few more sentences.

We best withstand the pain of ostracism, when we develop strengths in the social arena. The more competent we are, and thus the more we have something to contribute, the less we will feel the pain of ostracism. Ostracism hurts less, too, the more we feel connected to a community, and thus carry with us a sense of shared experience.

Only three sentences here, and again it seems rather obvious.

Let me take this now a step further, and into some darker territory, the land in which I work. Open the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (the bible of my profession), and you will find that many of the criteria for mental illness involve behaviors related to lethargy, lack of motivation, and estrangement from the social world. Take, for example, schizophrenia. With this diagnosis, doctors differentiate between positive and negative symptoms. Positive symptoms are those symptoms we most immediately relate to this disorder: hallucination, delusions, bizarre thinking. Negative symptoms have to do with the person’s interaction with others, and his motivation. Negative symptoms are considered untreatable by medications. Yet research shows they have more impact than do positive symptoms on a person’s quality of life, his or her daily functioning, and reliance on others. These symptoms include “loss of interest in everyday activities;” “appearing to lack emotion;” “reduced ability to plan or carry out activities;” “neglect of personal hygiene;” “social withdrawal;” “loss of motivation.” Lastly, while researchers have postulated the causes for negative symptoms, there is no definitive scientific evidence regarding their cause.

Interesting. The symptoms of schizophrenia that cause people problems with moving forward in life are untreatable with medication, and their roots in the brain are currently undetected. It’s a “medical” problem that doesn’t respond to medicine and can’t be detected physically. To nevertheless insist that these negative symptoms are biological takes a lot of leaps of faith and a lot of highfalutin’ logic that is simply beyond my grasp.

Here is another explanation. And here we go again: We are social beings. Social connection is what keeps us alive. If we are treated repeatedly as outsiders, and this is confirmed repeatedly by experts in our community, we begin to wither, to become despondent and give up. We stop trying to get involved, to interact with others, to show our emotions, and put in the effort to move forward in life.

That explanation would make perfect sense to Max. Does it to you?


About the Author

Ross Ellenhorn, MSW, Ph.D.
Ross Ellenhorn is a trained psychotherapist and sociologist, and uses his unique psychosocial lens to create effective models of care.

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