It happens on the playground, in the park, at the corner hangout. It happens in the office, in the academy, in professional organizations. It happens in our romantic relationships, in our personal relationships and in our families.
What happens? Lieberman and Eisenberger ran studies with adults that showed our brains deal with social pain in the same ways it deals with physical pain. In other words, we hurt when we feel rejected or not accepted. Our emotional pain is both psychological and physical because it is processed in our brains even though we may think these two types of pain are not connected. Social and emotional pain is not as evident as physical pain. It is more difficult to point to a particular place on our bodies where we hurt emotionally, because at that stage it is also physical pain. Do we treat the symptoms or try to get to the root cause? Aspirin can help this pain, but that is temporary as it deals with the symptoms.
Do we ever leave the need to be accepted behind? We are social beings and want to belong. We use a variety of behaviors to bring us closer to others so they accept us and even like us. This social dynamic of wanting to belong, be accepted, starts when we are young, when we play with our siblings and cousins, the kids in our neighborhoods and schools. The dreaded sports team selection process when we hope we are not picked last as we relive the pain watching the annual football draft on television. Or the “wallflower syndrome” when we sit on the sidelines waiting to be asked to dance and relive this dynamic as adults waiting to be asked on dates through our online dating service.
Here are some self-reflective questions we may ask to better guide ourselves toward more fulfilling relationships with others. You can substitute the word recognize with acknowledge, need, or another word that is meaningful to you:
What is it I want to have recognized, to be recognized for, so I feel accepted?
Why is this important to me?
How would I like to be recognized?
How can I get myself recognized?
What will this do for me if I am recognized?
What kind of relationship will I be making through this recognition?
Here is an example of how these reflections may play out in a workplace relationship.
I want to be recognized for being a team player.
It is important to me because it shows I can balance supporting others with advocating my own ideas.
I want the team members or team leader to thank me with a specific reference to something I did.
I can get myself recognized by volunteering to work extra or take on a task others do not want to do.
If I am recognized it will motivate me to want to continue contributing or do even more.
I will be building collaborative relationships with my team members that are long lasting.
The cautionary note to add here is that in building relationships, it needs to be mutual. If one side over accommodates, that will not lead to the recognition desired and may have the opposite effect. There needs to be a felt balance so that both sides give and receive and recognize and value the ways in which this is done.
Lieberman, M. D. (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. New York: Crown Publishers.