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Rejection Sensitivity

The Social Pain of Rejection

Sticks and stones will break your bones and names will hurt you too!

Amy Banks
Source: Amy Banks

I was many things at 10 years old, but one thing I was not is accepted. My family moved to a new town the summer of 1972. When the bell ran on the first day of school I stood in the middle of the girl's line anxiously waiting to meet my new classmates. As I was studying my shoes I heard the laughter and the whispering, “what is that new boy doing in the girl's line?” They were talking about me, well-dressed in boys clothing. I was humiliated, filled with shame, desperate to go back to my old school where people knew and accepted me. It was a long year of pain, punctuated by my teacher routinely trying to force me to join the girl scouts.

This memory popped into my mind when I first discovered SPOT (social pain overlap theory) by Eisenberger and Lieberman at UCLA. These researchers study the brain in social situations. They devised a clever experiment where people were asked to join a game on a computer screen. As the game progressed, the research subject (attached to a fMRI machine) was slowly left out of the game. Now, being left out of a computer game, where you do not even know or see the other players, is mild compared to my year of ridicule and ostracism in fifth grade, nor does it compare to forms of social rejection like bullying, racism, and homophobia. But still, this rather mild social exclusion told these researchers something very important. Being left out hurts most people. They feel uncomfortable, unsettled, irritated….distressed. The next step was to see what area of the brain was activated with this distress.

This is where the story gets really interesting. The area that lit up when a subject was excluded is a strip of brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate gyrus (dACC). The dACC already had been mapped as the area of the brain that is activated when a person is distressed by physical pain. To humans being socially excluded is so important that it uses the same neurological pathways used to register when you are in danger from a physical injury or illness. Remember the old saying, “sticks and stones will break your bones and names will never hurt you”? Not true.

The human nervous system has evolved to be held within the safety of safe relationships. When we drift away from our group or are pushed out, when we are ridiculed, bullied, or shunned it creates real pain. This happens to individuals within groups and to groups of people within the larger society. SPOT theory confirms that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones – but it also tells us that we all live in glass houses, we are all vulnerable to the pain of being left out. It is simply how we are wired.

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