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The Pain of Feeling Left Out

It is likely that everyone reading this has felt excluded at some point in their life. When we think about feeling "left out" I think most of us first thing of children and adolescents. It's true that is usually our first exposure to this feeling. We are on the playground at school and we go over to play with the group of kids and they tell us there are already too many kids in the game. Or you are sitting at the lunch table with your friends and everyone is talking about a party or sleepover that you weren't invited you. You then feel the inevitable pit in your stomach, the ache -- maybe even a little bit embarrassed and not sure how to act. Some get angry and respond with aggressive or passive aggressive commentary to try to compensate for their deep pain.

Unfortunately, these common scenes are also common in adulthood. The use of social media makes this even worse. WE get online to check in our friends and see that our family has had a huge party and we weren't invited. We see some of our "Best friends" at a gathering in which you knew nothing about. You ask a friend to hang out and she tells you that she's busy with a family commitment-- then you get online to see that she is out with a mutual friend of yours. Yep, this happens -- daily.

Research in social psychology has studied the effect of this common unpleasant experience. Emerging evidence in neuroscience has shown that the physical sensations of pain - like from a skinned knee is chemically similar to the emotional pain you feel when you are excluded/left out. Meaning that it actually releases the same neurotransmitters in your brain. The same part of the brain -- dorsal anterior cingulate cortex is actually active when both types of pain are experienced.

While they are biochemically similar, there are differences too. When you are injured physically your body releases some different chemicals in your brain to turn on the immune response - and you even get a rush of adrenaline often to help you help yourself if needed -- it is a fight or flight response. When we are emotionally hurt -- our brains still activate the same center of the brain that is part of the fight or flight response -- but we just don't also get the chemical pathway for say -- blood clotting. Instead-- we get the neurotransmitter reponse of "use your best known coping skill" which varies person to person.

A sense of belonging has been proven to be a psychological need for human beings. Even feeling turned away by someone we dislike can sting, even when we know it better for us that way. This helps explain why we get hurt when someone we spend most of our time excludes us-- and then sometimes -- often times we go "WHY DO I FEEL THIS WAY!?"

What do we do after we have been excluded ? Everyone responds differently -- and most of this depends on their own life story, their preferred coping skills, their age, and the work they have done on their own past traumas. But research shows that one thing is pretty typical-- after social exclusion, humans tend to seek more social engagement. Social cooperation and seeking more acceptance. WE are social beings -- there is no way around it. Social connection is fundamental. Interrupting that connection is damaging in many ways and when ignored and experiencing this over and over again in your lives-- we often can respond in unhealthy ways such as aggression or isolation.

It is very important to realize that social exclusion can have long term effects on individuals. If you are a parent-- I encourage you to teach your child to be the includer, even when it isn't the "cool" thing to do. Remind them how they would feel if they were the ones being excluded. If you are an adult -- think back to the times you felt this way and how it made you feel. The next time you think about planning a gathering and not including all those who may want to be included, think a little harder. It isn't all about you, and it may be better for your own mental health to learn from this experience.


Dewall, C. N. (2010). Acetaminophen reduces social pain: behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological Science, 7, 931–937. doi: 10.1177/0956797610374741

Luttrell, A. (2015, July). The Psychological Effects of Feeling Excluded. Retrieved from

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