Remember that stomach ache before going to school after a fight with your friend that your mother said was in your head? Well, it might just be real! Research shows emotional distress resulting from social rejection activates the same neurosensory pathways in your brain that process physical injury. This means your brain cannot tell the difference between heartache and a broken bone; therefore, sometimes, it physically hurts to be rejected.
However, not just the act of being rejected, but even a picture of you and your ex-partner can invoke the same physical pain. The need to belong is undeniable - to be accepted, to be included. It overpowers even the strongest of individuals; no matter how introverted or socially elusive one might be, the desire to be acknowledged remains. The need for social acceptance is a phenomenon that has been present since the beginning of time. Survival depended on being part of groups. This lifestyle allowed humans to give and receive resources essential for survival. Like all needs, if the need for inclusion isn’t fulfilled, it results in a great decrease in the quality of one’s life.
So how do people react to social rejection? Well, there’s no one certain way. Hurt, jealousy, and anger are just some of the negative emotions associated with rejection, but it is more than that. Small rejections such as not being greeted or ignored by one’s coworkers may result in temporary negative emotions that fade within a small amount of time. The damage is proportional to the act of rejection. If larger, it can lead to lifelong resentment, aggression, and even impulse control disorders like addiction.
The individual factors in reactions to social rejection play a huge role in its impact on one’s mental health. If an individual is naturally introverted, prefers to spend time with themselves, or suffers from social anxiety, social exclusion would have less impact. To not be invited on a night out would be relieving for them. However, if a more extroverted and outgoing individual finds oneself in the same situation, they would be uncomfortable and face mental challenges such as overthinking and anxiety.
In a study by DeWall (2009), a link between acts of aggression and social rejection was established. The study suggested that rejection causes activation of hostile thoughts that are later expressed through aggression. There have been studies by experts that suggest rejection may also result in impulse control disorders such as eating disorders.
The feeling of being rejected is so painful that some individuals develop a rejection sensitivity. They’re constantly anticipating rejection and the onslaught of negative emotions it brings with it. It results in further issues such as attention bias, where they are hyper-fixated on one rejection and let it overtake their thoughts and actions. To prevent themselves from being rejected, these individuals may avoid social gatherings, stay aloof, and simply refrain from participating in the conversation at all.
It is no secret that being rejected hurts, be it physical or psychological. Social acceptance is a need. It drives people to do the things they do - if it were socially acceptable to walk around naked, we would all do it. So, when you are deprived of that inclusion, it can lead to depression, aggression, or social anxiety.
As put by Lily Fairchilde;
‘Deep down, even the most hardened criminal is starving for the same thing that motivates the innocent baby: Love and acceptance.’