5 Ways to Cope With Ostracism
Why it hurts to be ignored or excluded—and what to do about it.
Posted December 24, 2016 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Ostracism, “the act of ignoring and exclusion,”1 hurts just as loneliness kills, which explains why we guard against it with great sensitivity (see blog 10 Ways to Get Past Your Loneliness). Surely there are inter-individual differences of how sensitive we are, but hardly anybody is exempt from feeling any sadness or anger when given the silent treatment by a spouse or no invitation to a family gathering. Often people hide their painful feelings in shame because coming out seems to make everything worse. Somehow we fear that once articulated, our feelings become written in stone. Also, we tend to self-incriminate after having been ostracized, either believing that we somehow deserved it or that we are blowing things out of proportion and shouldn’t feel that way. “Don’t be such a child. It means nothing at all.” Hmmm. Really?
Sometimes our feelings are baffling to ourselves. I am by no means a dependent person, nor am I lacking confidence. Standing up for my way of life is not a problem even when an army of people differs from my beliefs; it’s kind of a fun challenge for me to be round when everyone else is square ... or the other way around. Why of all people do I care when a woman I don’t even like suddenly interrupts our conversation, turns away, screams in a southern Californian “Hiiiiii!” and begins to chat with another woman I also don’t like. Why would I care if two people during a school volleyball game don't invite me to sit with them to exchange cookie recipes? It makes sense to feel hurt when excluded by people we love and appreciate. But it seems to defy reason why anybody would feel ostracized when not even emotionally invested or even repelled?
Surprisingly, Kipling Williams et al. (2000) found in their groundbreaking study that we mind being ostracized even in the virtual world, and I am not talking about the new playground of social media.2 The researchers designed a simple game of three dots on the computer screen throwing a ball to each other of which one dot represents the participant. The other two players don’t exist and their moves are computer-generated. As they gradually stop throwing the virtual ball to the participant and only to each other, the participant usually reports feeling increasingly bad, having less control, and losing a sense of belonging. 1,486 people from 62 countries participated. These results can be replicated even when participants know that the game is rigged. Feeling bad after feeling left out seems to be a biological response.
It is part of our evolution to want to be connected to a social circle even when the creatures in it are bad because the creatures outside might be worse, like lions, tigers, and bears. When we leave a group, we want to do it on our terms. Instead of being pushed out of our country, we are much better off when we decide to emigrate and thus to leave our safety net voluntarily. When introverts listen to their nature and decide to be on their own, they are the ones turning their backs. There can be great power in leaving, but to be kicked out can feel disastrous.
What shall we do when we have been ostracized? Here are some suggestions to choose from.
1) Take It Seriously
Feeling bad after having been ostracized is not a neurotic response but a human response. Look at your feelings with an inquisitive mind, understanding that ostracism exists, that it happens unintentionally and intentionally, and that it can be used as a primitive tool to keep order in the ostracizing group or an individual. Become a bit philosophical and take the bigger picture into account. Who was served by the ostracism? Did it lower the anxiety in one or more people? As we think things through, we distance ourselves just enough from our feelings to remain calm and centered.
2) Take It Humorously
So someone decided to ignore or exclude you. What disaster actually happened? Are you seeing any lions, tigers, or bears? Is your environment a dangerous jungle? Or are you reacting like a cat to a cucumber, jumping up in panic in case the green thing is the black mamba? If you can laugh it off, laugh it off. As I discuss in my book A Unified Theory of Happiness, lightheartedness can be learned even late in life (Chapter 12).
3) Take The Other's Perspective
The last thing on your mind may be to be empathetic, but trying to understand the other side can be extremely helpful. The ultimate cause of ostracism is not to hurt the ostracized person but self-protection. Everybody fights their own invisible battle. Maybe the ostracizer is in great need to be soothed by a person other than you. Maybe he was triggered by something with which you have little or nothing to do. While the exact cause can usually not be ascertained, pain and anxiety are usually involved. Protect yourself, but forgive when you can.
4) Stand Up
Because ostracism can happen unintentionally or for no good and lasting reason, stand up and remind the other of your existence. Do this only when you feel confident and calm.
5) Connect With Yourself
If you cannot reconnect, focus on yourself in the most loving, intimate way possible. Relate to yourself as you would to a best friend. If needed, seek out a best friend. The key is to strengthen your connection with life as it unfolds in you. Regardless of what happens in your social life, you are always a living miracle made of stardust, a part of nature that can never really become unattached from God or what agnostics call the web of existence.
Note: If this post in any way “spoke” to you, and you believe it might to others also, please consider sending them its link. Moreover, if you’d like to read other articles I’ve written for Psychology Today, click here.
© 2016 Andrea F. Polard, Psy.D. All Rights Reserved.
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