The Psychological Effects of Feeling Excluded

If you’ve ever been left out and excluded in a social situation, you’ve been ostracized. It’s a common human experience, happening as often as once a day or more, but it’s not any fun. It doesn’t even have to a close friend or family member to sting—it can hurt even when a stranger excludes us.

Research in social psychology has investigated the impacts of this common unpleasant experience. What does it feel like to be ostracized? What do people do when they feel excluded? Let’s look at just some of what these studies have found.


Feeling Excluded Hurts…Literally?

punched-624751_640If you feel excluded, you might say something like “you hurt my feelings!” But when you say “hurt,” you obviously mean it metaphorically…or do you?

Emerging evidence in neuroscience has suggested that the physical feeling of pain (from, say, stubbing your toe) and the social/emotional feeling of pain (from ostracism) overlap in terms of how your brain processes it. That is to say, the same area of the brain that we know to be involved in processing physically painful feelings—the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex—is also relatively active when people have just been excluded.

Further evidence has shown that taking acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol[1]  Or paracetamol for my overseas friends.)—a common pain reliever—was capable of reducing feelings of social rejection over a three-week period, compared to placebo. Once again, as far as your brain’s chemistry is concerned, feeling ostracized seems a lot like experiencing real physical pain.

Feeling Excluded Hurts Psychologically

person-692159_1280-webObviously, being socially rejected and stubbing your toe aren’t exactly the same experience. Lots of research has established that even a brief experience of being rejected by a total stranger can make people feel sad and angry.

Even more than these negative emotions, though, feeling left out can mess with some fundamental psychological needs. For one, people feel a reduced sense of general belongingness after experiencing rejection. This is a big deal because psychologists argue that achieving a sense of social belonging is a fundamental psychological need.

It would be bad enough if ostracism just reduced feelings of belonging, but being rejected can reduce self-esteem, a sense of control, and a sense of having a meaningful existence.

What’s more, these negative reactions seem to apply regardless of who’s rejecting you. Whether it’s someone in your own group or someone who you don’t relate to, ostracism stings. Whether it’s a human or a computer who rejects you, ostracism stings. Even if you think the person who’s rejecting you is someone you despise (like a KKK member), ostracism still stings!

So regardless of who might reject us, that feeling of being excluded produces a range of harmful consequences. I think we can agree that these aren’t great outcomes. So what do people do in response to these feelings?

People Look to Be Included Again

If feeling left out makes you feel reduced social belonging, the natural thing to do is try to make social connections again. After all, you should try to restore what seems missing. A whole bunch of research has shown that this is what tends to happen.

As a simple illustration, one study found that people who were made to feel social rejection went on to express greater interest in making friends than people in control conditions. Similarly, after feeling social exclusion, people are more interested in working on a project with a partner rather than on their own, compared to people who weren’t feeling excluded.

In addition, people who have been ostracized are also better tuned to social information, more likely to conform with a group, cooperate with other people, and nonconsciously mimic a stranger (which helps establish greater rapport).

The Exclusion Conclusion

It’s clear that ostracism is a critically important concept in social psychology. I’ve written before on this blog about how important social connection is—many say it’s fundamental. So interrupting that connection can be damaging in many ways. This review is just one part of all the work that has been done. Other work has shown how people lash out with aggression in response to feeling ostracized, how rejection can impair people’s self-control, and psychologists have also considered the long-term effects of persistent social exclusion.

These effects are important to consider, especially in the domain of bullying and other everyday cases of exclusion, so keep in mind these negative impacts ostracism can have before cavalierly excluding a friend or stranger.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.   Or paracetamol for my overseas friends.

14 thoughts on “The Psychological Effects of Feeling Excluded

  1. This to me is an extremely poignant and meaningful subject. I have only just found that my biggest trigger in terms of seeking self-medication (alcohol) was because of social/family exclusion. I have had many instances of being left out, ostracized and made to feel unworthy while ‘everyone else was included’ from a very early age….. I was amazed and comforted at the fact that this article confirms that there is a physical connection in response.
    Feeling ostracized to this day (rationally or irrationally) warrants an intensely physical sensation for me. I feel heat in my head and ears, intense nausea, increased heart-rate, and a feeling of devastation and panic override rational thoughts and processing. Id say it is what many might feel in a ‘jealous rage’…
    Coincidentally, I have been working with a rehab center to learn how to stop, consider and then act instead of allowing my triggered feelings to instantly react; falling into substance abuse. I have been able to catch most things now and I make healthy choices easily — but being ostracized is still my biggest and most painful trigger. I proved this today. I had an episode of feeling left out – frankly because I really was left out of a family situation. I had been working toward; clearing old patterns in order to live ‘in the now’ without being hijacked by my ego, my instant response or thinking patterns. Today tested my mettle. After being left out – I had all the physical responses/feelings that drove me to self-medication take me over. I am happy to say that I started to come out of this response after 45 minutes. I did not choose a bad path, as I always did, to avoid the awful feelings. I recognized something was not right in my reaction… and then, boom – I found this page. This mental/physically tangible connection you bring to light gives me great hope. I am gaining a much better understanding and ability to recognize how to stop and think/feel before reacting…I was able to work myself down off a ledge…powerful stuff — so glad I read this blog!

    • That is great! I’m so happy to hear someone else’s success. I am here because my sister and her girlfriend who my fiancé and I let live with us have decided to throw a two week long party where they invited their friends to spend then night for literally 14 days (which is against the lease technically at that point except they decided to split it up so its not… technically) even though I’m extremely uncomfortable with it. And the reason they are allowed to is because my fiancé is okay with it. So all 5 of them are having fun in the living room while I cry silently by myself in my rooms because I can’t handle being “on” for that long and “performing” aka pretending like I’m totally okay with it.. I don’t know what to do. The whole situation with them out voting me is driving a wedge between me and my fiancé because he doesn’t respect how the things they do effect me. It’s gotten so bad I don’t even know if I can even marry this man. But to them, I’m just “over reacting.” Except I know they don’t actually want me out there because I’m a Debby Downer, a Party Pooper, a Wet Blanket. The ironic thing is I’m all these thighs BECAUSE I’ve felt so left out and ostrisized by them. :'(

      • Feeling/behaving like a party pooper/wet blanket/debby downer triggered because of your feelings of being left out – this rings so so so true to me.
        I connect with you so much on this.
        Reading that there is a deep connection between feeling ostracized and fundamental psychological needs makes a lot of sense to me.
        I’ve always feel like any time I’ve felt ostracized, it’s a very painful experience. I wonder though if some people are more likely to feel left out, or if there is some sort of extrovert/introvert correlation? Or maybe a connection to social anxiety? (I am an introvert with social anxiety)
        I don’t think most people feel ostracized as often as I do. If they do, it doesn’t seem as painful. Or maybe people just aren’t taking about it.
        Are there coping techniques?

  2. Good Morning Universe, and all my excluded friends out there,
    Hello, my name is Liz, and I am your friend.
    I deeply emphasize with others who are chronically excluded. I know your pain.
    Actually I am a lucky person, who has encountered an odd situation with my Mom and Sister.
    I am an adult child of an alcoholic father, and divorce between my parents. My father also suffer with mental illness.
    When my sister marry into wealth, we all supported her, I am not from wealthy family. I’m My sister then took charge of rolling out all holidays, without me. For years I sent gifts hoping I could be part of things. Once in twenty years I have seen family at my mom home, which I consider my home as I don’t have my own home. So my mom has not backed me on having continuity or connections or familiarity with my sister and her family. I have a lot in common with my sister and her family.
    I have made this situation harder on myself by acting out verbally with my mom, raising my voice, and taking it all in a very negative manner.
    My sister and her family are not my favorite people, but my mom is mid eighties and I miss time with her that I will never replace.
    I move to Detroit area 3 years ago, near where my sister, brother in law live, and I ask to be included at mom eighty birthday, offer to cook brunch, and buy ingredients.
    They don’t want me over at my own mom birthday, and I have sent high end gifts into their home, I have been good to my sister over the years, sending bday cards, get well cards etc.
    They have a closed system and my mom is intimidated by my super control freak sister
    So I am odd woman out. They tell her what to do and she goes along so not to make waves , as my sister easily gets furious and irate with everyone.
    After doing research on family conflict, by the way I have asked my mom if we may please resolve our situation, I have worked with clergy at my mom church, and my own church etc,, I have also been in therapy. Anyway I have learned that being excluded is a reflection of my sister and mom behavior and actions, and I have talen all this way too hard.
    I can’t even talk to my sister for five minutes with out being verbally abused, so guess what I now avoid her serious. I would like to divorce my sister for good and be happy to have her out of my life for good.
    I have no sense of understanding why I am chronically excluded, and bullied by this other woman.
    When my sister gets irate, I can’t tell if she is a man or a woman…..she certainly doesn’t talk or act feminine.
    I am your new friend Liz, to all excluded people out there.
    I Feel Your Pain. Thanks for listening.

  3. Hey Liz. Kudos to you and everyone on here for sharing! I’m not ready to tell my story of exclusion because it’s too painful. With me it’s been both family and peer for many years. I don’t bother trying to establish deep connections with anyone for fear of ever feeling ostracism ever again.

  4. I placed an earlier comment but it appears that it didn’t take so I apologize if you have already seen the comment. Kudos to everyone on here for sharing! I’m new to this exchanging comments and my story is too painful to tell right now. My exclusion story is both of family and peer for an extended time. I no longer attempt to connect with others on a deep level for fear of ever feeling ostracism again. I keep all relationships shallow and simple. Thanks for listening.

  5. I excluded myself from his conservative family. They let me know passively that they are not happy with me.
    It hurts so much that I decided not to spend the holidays with my in laws.
    I don’t want to throw a tantrum out of weakness and depression.
    I don’t to embarrass my husband.
    I am alone in a foreign country.

  6. The problem with exclusion is that you believe others are actually “right” to exclude you: there’s something wrong with you and that’s why it hurts so much. But having people that dislike you / gossip about you / deliberately exclude you isn’t as bad as having people from your social spheres who do not even acknowledge you. Feeling invisible is a real killer of the soul and mind. And when you feel that way, I am sorry to say, you are either severely depressed and so distort everything in a very negative way, or there is something that really makes others not see and want to interact with you. So, what if others are “right”?

  7. I’m in my early 50s and have been no stranger to feeling excluded. It all started when I was a child, and my sister came along, then progressed to being bullied in school and ostracized. My sister has taken to having holidays where she bugs my mother about getting together with my brother, but never bothers asking me. My mom has since moved 1000 miles away, and it’s been nearly one year since I’ve seen her. After another holiday went by with sis calling the shots again, I decided enough was enough, and I didn’t bother showing up at their holiday – mind you, my sister had my mom come stay with her (she lives in PA and I live in RI – the farthest away from everyone – they made plans to stay over in CT the Friday and Sat. night of New Years weekend, and finally my sister only bothered saying anything to me because my mom told her to remember to invite me.. This would have meant driving 100 miles one way for a get together that started at 12:30 and ended around 5 because my brother had to get his daughters back to his ex.. I know they got together that Fri and visited because my brother sent a mass email about the “PA crew” and what they were going to do. I decided I didn’t want to be a part of the furntiture again so I blew it off, sent regrets before it.. My sister actually had the nerve to email me after and say she was ‘looking forward to seeing me and my engagement ring’ … but no one ever offered formal congrats to me – my fiance and I got engaged Dec. 10…. I was so upset about how they didn’t bother including me or really wanting to see me at all (I asked Mom when I knew in OCTOBER MIND YOU that my sister wa planning to see my brother and stay over, couldn’t they stay somewhere halfway so I could be included,), I got an airy “It has to work for everyone” from Mom.. whereupon I said I think what you MEAN to say it it has to work for BETH.. I ripped my sister a new one finally, in an email reply back and told her how hurt I was at continually being excluded, along with some other stuff that had happened over the years.. Know what I got back? “I am sorry you feel that way. ” and some crap about how they all ‘love me and want me to be happy.’ Done with them.. And it happens all the time to me.. I get tremendously hurt over it.. it’s so painful.. Wish I had a close nice family who wanted me around and some nice friends.. I do not know what the answer is.. Thank you for letting me vent. It’s been a hard day at work.

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