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.

25 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. There comes a time when a person must either choose to be a door mat or actively and deliberately refuse to be abused. We are overloaded with poor advice that basically says either “suck it up” or “get another job”. I think people should watch closely, think clearly and fight back intelligently. It’s long overdue to put bullies in their places. The tragedy is that the business, legal and law enforcement professionals will NEVER side with the victim. Currently, if the bully is part of the larger group, a member of a “protected” group or simply someone in authority, whatever happens is “OK” and those in power will simply look away.

    • There’s nothing you can do to fight the bullies, your best option really is to leave and start afresh somewhere new

  8. 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.

  9. My big general compassion to all who feel ostracized by someone. Most of time, I don’t even know whether am ostracized. I just know that people often just ignore received texts after reading them. I don’t do it. My one friend has texted me to not expect his replies anymore. He has told that it’s abusive how I demand replies and that I want it only my way, and that he doesn’t care about my drama. I would like to ask what exactly felt abusive to him. I’ve even tried to ask, before him rejecting me. But what a point to text again if that human has excluded me? Am not guilty for not reading minds. An admin of one FB group has accepted him as a friend and rejected me. She has told that I want too much if I want replies from people. Now, regarding that male friend: his mom calls herself a therapist. But I haven’t heard from her since summer. Tried to text her few times. Finally asked other friend to text her. Nothing. Then asked him to ask that male friend, and he has told that that male friend has told that his mom doesn’t want to talk with me. If they didn’t lie, it hurts. Though I don’t even know whether she has even received any of my texts to her. I don’t want to say their names. I just want to say that I don’t need anyone’s sorries. I just don’t know how to trust them. I don’t want to seem a chaser or a stalker. So I don’t text 1st usually. I worry whether people receive my texts, but am usually afraid to just text again or to even open their timelines. As never know who ghosts me and can take it as me chasing them. So I rather just try to reply on each received text.

  10. I have been wrestling with these feelings myself on and off throughout my life. From a very early age I can remember a feeling of desperation to ‘belong’. The anxiety of it plagued me during my childhood, adolescence, and even now in my adulthood. I could never pinpoint why I felt it, and as a result I am afraid that I became the girl/woman that ‘tries too hard’ to fit in with others. Part of me wondered if it was because I was an only child, another part wondered if it was because I was the product of a broken home, etc. (at age 5 I was astounded to learn that real mommies and daddies lived together in a house, not just on t.v. because my parents divorced when I was 2)

    Throughout my childhood I asked my mother again, and again why she divorced my father. The answer was always the same; he was an alcoholic. Finally at the age of 40, I asked my mother again. My father had passed 3 years prior and I was trying to put some unresolved feelings about him to rest. Consequently at the same time, I was entertaining the thought of leaving my husband whom I had been married to for 18 years, (at that time…we are still together 4 years later and I am still wrestling with it) and was looking to her for some guidance.

    I finally asked her what the last straw was for her. What was the tipping point? I expected that his drinking, inability to keep a job, etc. had finally worn her down to the point of her love for him being worn away over time. What I got was very different. For 8 long years my mother had spent her time most nights driving around searching for him, and praying that he hadn’t killed someone, or himself after a night at the bar. She was exhausted, and at that time the only one employed as he had once again been laid-off from his sheet metal job with the local union. (this was 1973) They had just purchased a large, beautiful home in a prominent, and sought after part of town. She worked 3 part time jobs to be able to make the mortgage, and put food in our bellies. At this time I was 4 months old. Old enough to barely know how to roll over, and maintain a sitting position on my own.

    These jobs had different schedules, and she worked 7 days a week. Sometimes the schedules of these jobs over-lapped each other, and she worked all 3 in the same day. These were days she was gone 14-18 hours. One day she got up knowing that it would be a 16-18 hour day for her. She tended to me, and said that she felt guilty that they couldn’t afford a babysitter. She had strong misgivings about leaving me with my father, but he was home, and he was free, and she felt that she had no choice. To prepare for the day she put changing supplies out and in reach of the changing table, prepped bottles, baby cereal, baby food, and extra outfits for me and left him a note regarding each. When she returned home 18 hours later, she found him passed out, and me – still in my crib…screaming hoarsely…red faced, and S T A N D I N G UP, my fists wrapped around the spindles of my crib. My diaper had never been changed, I hadn’t been fed, or had any of the bottles, and all of her careful preparations of supplies had been left untouched. She threw him out that very night, and promptly filed for divorce the next day.

    Learning that was hard, but it also helped me to identify the source of my desperate attempts to be included. To be invited to the birthday party, to be invited to the weekend kegers as a teenager, to be included in the private jokes, to not be the friend you call when there was no one else available, etc, etc. It was powerful…but my feelings of being ostracized have not abated.

    Just this week, I confronted a friend as to why I was never included in the girl’s nights anymore, etc. Had I done something? Had the grief of my 17 year old daughter (that suffers from borderline personality disorder) running away a month before her 18th birthday made me too hard to be around? Was I the person that everyone was now avoiding, but that no one had the balls to tell why? The answers I got were the usual; “don’t take it personally”, “we’re all busy, and life is impulsive sometimes intentions/plans fall through”, “you just aren’t the first person to pop into my head”, “I am a selfish creature, I only look out for myself”…but no real answer to any of my questions. It sucks. I’m 44 next week…and still feel like this. *sigh*

    I also suffer from adult ADHD, PTSD, abandonment issues (obviously), daddy issues (obviously), and clinical depression. I now wonder if what happened to me as a baby had anything to do with triggering a psychological, and physical response in my brain to bring about these maladies? Was my brain so deprived from not having regular doses of serotonin, and dopamine from itself that it regulated itself to release less? Was the prolonged exposure to anxiety, and stress enough to ‘break’ me?

    (what happened to me as a baby would be the beginning of a long line of hard stuff, and lots of disappointments, neglect, family psychological abuse from a grandmother, and my father, parentification, sexually abused at 13 by a stranger, and several social setbacks and disappointments at school, and on through my adulthood.)

  11. Came across this when searching about exclusion from FB groups. Heard about them, was always wondering what makes people to create alternative groups on the same topic/issue etc. I realise that sometimes it’s just a wish to have a group on your own terms. But I also acknowledge that sometimes it’s done by excluded members. I was excluded form a group couple of months ago, without warning. I didn’t do anything against group rules, i.e. I didn’t try to sell or promote anything. Not to be seen/caught as selling/promoting something to all group i PMd to one member who was in despair getting a proper diagnosis on NHS a short list of affordable private clinics. Then I just commented that I PMd her – as people do not always see messages from strangers. I didn’t see it coming. Yesterday I had incident on another group. All post there go past admin team and get approved – or not. Even though the rules forbid selling/promoting I posted a link to a heavily discounted food allergy test. I knew it may not be approved – but hoped the purpose of it would prevail. It was not approved – two days passed – so I was certain admin were not ok with it – and was ok about it. 2 days later there was a post addressing me – to let me know that my post was not approved because it was about sales. Forgot to mention – both groups are support groups for digestion related conditions. I objected – and was bashed badly, with quite few members taking admin side. Out of 2000 members only 1 stepped out to my defence, 2 more liked. The rest watched in silence. I was nearly kicked out – but will leave myself. Seen and experienced exclusion in may forms – it can be soul-destroying.

  12. I often feel left out.. I think sometimes it has to do with my personality but even people who I’m comfortable with seem to like me less than others … it is so painful and hurtful … I just wish there was a way not to care because no matter how hard I try to be included I get excluded

  13. I have a good number of friends but I still feel so upset when I feel excluded. I am part of a group for one of my son’s sports activities and I tend to feel excluded from the people who run this group. Although I have other friends I can’t help feeling blue/down/depressed when I feel excluded from these people. On a logical level it makes no sense and should not matter if these people do not see me as a friend but it does matter to me. This article helps explain these feelings.

    I wish I could find a way to not care whether or not I am part of the “in” crowd with this group. They mean no harm, they are just naturally friends and are not specifically trying to exclude me. But it hurts every time.

  14. I experience these SAME feelings quite often these past few years…I’ve had decent and plentiful friendships all my life and felt blessed. I was also not very understanding of lonely people. Well I get it now… I’m 58 and those friendships have dwindled through the years…some losses of friends with mental illnesses, some loss due to the painful decision to have to get out of some unhealthy patterns, friends having kids (we don’t) and now grandkids…I miss my friends but realistically, we have grown into different people and some of them have become so strange in these later years….sigh** I suppose I have too! The saying ‘good friends are hard to find’ always made me wonder but I understand it now. One thing I’ve noticed is I cannot bear to see people lonely. Never have been comfortable with that and now that I have experienced the pain of being excluded (even after telling a lifelong ‘friend’ I would love to join in to go to our reunion as we have done for the last thirty years yet was still excluded) I now know why I instinctually had such a sympathetic heart to it. It HURTS!! Perhaps I will take some ibuprofen and see if it really does lessen the pain effects as the research shows… ;).
    I do know there are a lot of lovely people out there to meet and it is time to build some resilience and move along. I just wish for connectedness for everyone really. But never give up and never sell yourself short – be the good company you seek and love yourself well. Not easy and Good practice! And let’s never be the ones to put others on the out like that, yes?? xoxo

  15. Well tonight I am at my sadest. I have been excluded from celebrating a close friends 60th overseas. And to add to it was not told by the friends but by their sister in law. When asked anything planned coming still not informed until asked specifically. My close friend wants me to be ok with it even though hurt. But tonight hurts the most as they all fly out tomorrow. I am at such a loss.

Leave a Comment