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Rejection Sensitivity

Shunning: The Ultimate Rejection

What does it mean when we shun others or are shunned?

In the past few months, the topic of shunning has presented itself to us one too many times to be ignored. And so we off-road from our usual topic of PTSD and delve into this unfortunately pervasive social phenomenon.

Most of us can probably recount an incident when we have been either the perpetrator of the act of shunning and/or the recipient of being shunned. In the first instance, maybe you didn't want to see someone you know because you didn't have the time to deal with them. So you turn your face away and walk quickly by, hoping they didn't see you. You know perfectly well why you ignored the person, but they don’t have a clue, if you have had a good relationship previously. Conversely, let’s say you notice someone you haven’t seen in a while and want to say hello and catch up. You are sure they saw you. So you make a beeline toward them, but they do an about-face and walk in the opposite direction. You spend hours or days—maybe longer—trying to figure out what you did to warrant being ignored, or worse, being rejected. This really hurts when that other person is someone you thought liked you, accepted you, and maybe even ideally respected you.

Nani Nani Boo Boo

We've read stories such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter about people being shunned in centuries past by communities for what were considered having behaved immorally. In the past several decades, we've expanded this type of rejection to the fine, negative science of avoidance; one that can be upsetting and hurtful to the recipient. For most, we get our first taste of shunning in grade school. You know the scenario: a group of friends decides that some kid in the group just doesn't fit in—too fat, too ugly, too poor, too smart, too nerdy, too whatever—and the shunning begins. Unfortunately, this behavior continues for many well into adulthood. When it becomes evident that the shunning is directed at just you, it is like silent bullying.

Enduring Damage

From a psychological standpoint, the act of shunning is social or mental rejection. Why do people shun others? Here are some reasons, instances, forms of shunning and the damage done:

  • Embarrassment: You recently had a party that the other person knew about but wasn't invited to and you don’t want to talk about it. You see them at the mall and dart into a store. The person wonders what’s wrong with them.
  • Shame: You left your job for another one and told your new employer confidential info about your former employer. Now you shun your former employer and former co-workers because you know what you did was unethical. Your formers speculate what happened and may eventually lose respect for you.
  • Jealousy: You are resentful about the progress made by someone in your field and have found your passive-aggressive behavior toward the person isn't working. So you shun them instead. The person and others notice your behavior which reflects poorly on you.
  • Annoyance: You just don’t like the person. They irritate you and don’t pick up on your signals. You don’t attend events you know they are invited to and shun them if you happen to be in the same room. The person: a) may think they did something wrong, b) experiences a plummet in self-esteem, and/or c) may think you have a personality flaw.
  • Racial or cultural bias: You have a negative bias towards cultures other than yours. You shun those whom you think are of those stigmatized races or cultures. You offend others and miss out on rich opportunities to learn from individuals you may actually enjoy as well as their cultures.
  • Poor timing: You just don’t have the time to talk. The person thinks: a) you are a snob, b) you are blind or oblivious, and/or c) don’t care about them.
  • Shyness: You are painfully shy and shun just about everybody—when down deep you want and need that social connection. You miss out on rich opportunities.

Take Control (Of Yourself)

If you tend to shun people but want to give it up, start by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Compassion and communication work wonders. For instance, in the party scenario, instead of darting into a store, meet the person head-on and explain what happened; you are sorry that you could only invite a limited number of people. That’s an acceptable explanation. If you don’t have time to talk, don’t turn away, be civil to the person who wants to chat and explain you are on a tight time schedule. They will understand. If you are shy, annoyed by others, or culturally biased, a simple, “Hi! Nice to see you,” works—and keep moving. By acknowledging the other person, even for a moment, you validate them and do no harm to their self esteem.

The two work-related examples are more complicated—the damage may be irreparable. Make a vow to handle situations better in the future.

If you believe you have been shunned intentionally, you have two options. You can hold your head up high, move on, and not waste time trying to figure out what you may have done to create the situation. Or, you can bite the bullet and have a “courageous conversation” with that person, simply saying that you feel he or she is avoiding you and you wonder why. That way you have closure, and it may be that you learn something valuable about yourself or the shunner.

What Phil Did When Shunned

This is what Phil did to solve the social puzzle he experienced when his family moved from New York City to North Hollywood, California, way back when he was in high school. He had always been a really popular kid—liked, admired not only for smarts and leadership skills but also for his athletic abilities in baseball and track. But from the very first day in this new school, he was totally and brutally shunned. Classmates would not sit next to him, they would all move away from wherever he sat in the cafeteria or auditorium. This total social exclusion hurt so deeply that he developed severe asthma, bad enough that he would have to stay home when he had not been able to sleep at all (obviously a psycho-somatic coping mechanism.)

In the spring, after making the baseball team, on a bus ride to a game, Phil had to know the "why" of his shunning. So he simply asked a teammate what he had done wrong to deserve such social abuse. The answer was startling: “A lot of kids are afraid of you because they think your family must be from the East Coast Mafia, since you are Italian—the only one in our school—so it’s better to avoid you than takes any chances angering you.” Not so, of course. But it no longer mattered; his asthma became the reason the family all moved back to the Bronx, and as you might suspect, his dreaded asthma vanished shortly thereafter. He was voted "most popular boy" in the senior class at James Monroe High School the very next term.

So forgive and forget the shunners, while making more time for all the people who love you unconditionally, and whom you can love fully in return.

For information, visit Portions of the above are from Rose Sword’s Lifetips column.

More from Rosemary K.M. Sword and Philip Zimbardo Ph.D.
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