The Psychology behind Social Exclusion: Why Does It Hurt?


Have you ever experienced the painful sting of being left out? Social exclusion is a universal human experience that can leave deep emotional scars. In this article, we will explore the psychology behind social exclusion and why it hurts.

Experiencing social exclusion can be distressing and has the potential to impact your well-being. It's something that most people have encountered at some point in their lives, whether it's being excluded from a social gathering, left out of a conversation, or feeling isolated in a group. The emotional effects of social exclusion can be profound, and it's essential to understand why it hurts and how to cope with it.

As we journey through this article, we will delve into the emotional impact of rejection, take a scientific look at the human brain and ostracism, explore our inherent need to belong, discuss the effects of being left out, and learn ways to heal and cope with exclusion. We will also touch on the role of society in preventing social exclusion.

Social exclusion is a complex phenomenon with significant psychological implications. By the end of this article, you will have a deeper understanding of the psychology behind social exclusion and be equipped with strategies to navigate this distressing experience.

Introduction: What is Social Exclusion?

You might have experienced the feeling of being left out at some point in your life. Maybe you were not invited to a party or were excluded from a group chat. This experience can trigger a range of emotions, including sadness, anger, and even self-doubt.

Social exclusion can be defined as the experience of being left out or ignored by a social group. It can take many forms, including being excluded from social gatherings, not being invited to events, or even being shunned by a group of friends. The impact of social exclusion can be profound, affecting your mental and emotional well-being.

According to Kipling D. Williams, a psychology professor, "Social exclusion or ostracism is a profound threat to the human psyche"1 . It can lead to feelings of loneliness, low self-esteem, and even depression. The pain of being excluded is universal and can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or social status.

Social exclusion has been a topic of interest for psychologists and researchers for many years. It is a complex phenomenon that can have a significant impact on an individual's mental health and overall sense of belonging.

The Emotional Impact: Why Rejection Hurts

Have you ever experienced the feeling of being excluded from a group or left out of a conversation? It can be incredibly painful and leave a lasting impact on your emotional well-being. Why does rejection hurt so much? According to psychologist Guy Winch, "Rejection destabilizes our need to belong, leaving us feeling unsettled and socially untethered" .

When you are rejected or excluded, it triggers a response in your brain that is similar to physical pain. This is because the same areas of the brain that are responsible for processing physical pain also process the emotional pain of rejection. This is why being left out can feel as though you have been physically wounded.

Your brain's response to rejection is a primal form of self-preservation. Psychologist Naomi Eisenberger explains, "We have a need for social connection that is as basic as our need for food and water" 2 . When this need is not met, it can result in feelings of sadness, anger, and even anxiety.

Rejection can also impact your self-esteem and sense of identity. When you are excluded, it can lead to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. As social creatures, we have an innate desire to be accepted and valued by others. When this is threatened, it can be a serious blow to your emotional well-being.

So, if you have ever felt the sting of rejection, know that it is a natural and common human experience. You are not alone in feeling this way, and it is okay to acknowledge and process your feelings.

shallow focus of a woman's sad eyes
Photo by Louis Galvez on Unsplash

The Human Brain and Ostracism: A Scientific Look

Have you ever wondered why being excluded from a social group can be so painful? Well, it turns out, there's actually a scientific explanation behind this emotional response.

The Brain's Response: When you're excluded, your brain's pain centers light up, triggering real physical pain. According to research, the experience of social exclusion activates the same regions of the brain as physical pain. It's as if your brain can't differentiate between being ignored and being punched! As social psychologist Naomi Eisenberger puts it, "The brain's representation of physical and social pain overlap."

The Impact of Ostracism: Being ostracized actually has a direct effect on your brain. Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman explains, "Being excluded is painful because it threatens fundamental human needs, such as belonging and self-esteem." So, when you're excluded, it's not just a fleeting emotion – it's a threat to your basic human needs.

The Role of Evolution: Our brains are wired to interpret social exclusion as a threat to our survival. According to psychologist Dr. C. Nathan DeWall, "Being connected to others is as key to survival as food and water." Our ancestors relied on social bonds for cooperation, protection, and resource sharing. Evolution has ingrained in us the need to belong and the fear of being excluded.

So, the next time you feel the sting of exclusion, know that it's not just in your head – it's literally in your brain. Understanding the science behind ostracism can help you validate your feelings and recognize that social exclusion is a deeply impactful experience.

Remember, you're not alone in feeling this way. In the words of renowned neuroscientist John T. Cacioppo, "Ostracism is a painful experience" that "diminishes our sense of control and self-worth." But acknowledging the science behind it can be the first step to healing and finding a sense of belonging again.

Social Bonds: Our Need to Belong

Think about a time when you felt left out. Perhaps you weren't invited to a social gathering, or you were ignored in a group conversation. Remember how it made you feel – the sense of loneliness, sadness, and even worthlessness. Human beings have a deep-seated need to belong, to be accepted, and to be part of a group. This need is ingrained in our psychology and has a profound impact on our emotions.

According to leading social psychologists, "Humans have a pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and impactful interpersonal relationships." This drive is so ingrained in our nature that when we experience social exclusion, it can be deeply distressing. It triggers emotional pain similar to physical pain. Evolution has wired our brains to treat social exclusion as a threat to our survival, which is why it hurts so much.

In today's fast-paced and interconnected world, the desire to belong is as important as ever. And as technology continues to change the nature of social interaction, the need for genuine human connection remains constant. Research shows that people who feel a sense of belonging have higher self-esteem, better mental health, and overall greater life satisfaction. It's no wonder that being excluded from social groups can have such a detrimental impact on our emotional wellbeing.

So, consider the importance of belonging in your own life. Whether it's through friendships, family, or communities, the need to belong is a fundamental aspect of being human.

silhouette photo of six persons on top of mountain
Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash

The Effects of Being Left Out

Have you ever wondered what happens to your mind and body when you feel excluded? It's not just a fleeting feeling - it can have real and lasting effects on you.

When you experience social exclusion, it can lead to a range of emotional responses such as sadness, anger, and even depression. According to renowned psychologist Edward Hirt, "being left out... can have real implications for an individual's mental health."

But it's not just your emotions that are impacted. Being left out can also affect your physical health. Research has shown that social exclusion can lead to increased stress levels, higher blood pressure, and even a compromised immune system.

Not only that, but being excluded can also have significant effects on your self-esteem and confidence. Dr. Kipling D. Williams, a leading researcher on ostracism, states that "social exclusion can make you doubt your self-worth and can lead to feelings of unworthiness."

So, if you've ever felt the pain of being left out, know that it's not just in your head - it has real effects on both your mind and body. The emotional and physical toll of being excluded is undeniable, and it's important to recognize and address these effects in order to heal and move forward.

Coping with Exclusion: Ways to Heal

Experiencing social exclusion can be deeply painful, but there are ways to heal and move forward. It's important to remember that you are not alone in feeling this way. Many people have gone through similar experiences and have found ways to cope and heal. Here are some strategies to help you navigate through the difficult emotions of exclusion:

  1. Seek support from trusted friends or family: Surround yourself with people who genuinely care about you and make you feel valued. Talking about your feelings with someone you trust can provide a sense of relief and comfort.

  2. Practice self-care: Engage in activities that bring you joy and positivity. Whether it's going for a walk, listening to music, or indulging in a hobby, taking care of yourself is crucial during this time.

  3. Challenge negative thoughts: It's common to experience self-doubt and negative thoughts after being excluded. Work on reframing your mindset and remind yourself of your worth. As Dr. Vikram Patel, a psychiatrist, says, "Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others."

  4. Develop resilience: Building resilience can help you bounce back from the pain of exclusion. Look for opportunities to learn and grow from the experience. As resilience expert Brene Brown suggests, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

  5. Engage in new activities and communities: Exploring new interests and connecting with like-minded individuals can help you rebuild a sense of belonging. Join a club, volunteer, or take up a new hobby. Creating new connections can help fill the void left by exclusion.

Remember that healing from social exclusion takes time, and it's okay to seek professional help if you find yourself struggling to cope. As you navigate this process, be gentle with yourself and allow yourself the space to heal.

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Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

Preventing Social Exclusion: What Can Society Do?

It's crucial for society to take proactive steps to prevent social exclusion and create an inclusive environment for everyone. Here are some practical approaches that can help:

  1. Promote Diversity and Inclusivity: Encourage diversity in all areas of life, including education, workplaces, and communities. Embrace and celebrate differences to create an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and accepted.

  2. Educate and Raise Awareness: Increase awareness about the harmful effects of social exclusion and the importance of inclusion. Educate individuals, organizations, and communities about the psychological impact of exclusion and the benefits of a diverse and inclusive society.

  3. Foster Strong Community Connections: Build strong social connections within communities to reduce the risk of social exclusion. Encourage community activities, support networks, and events that bring people together and promote a sense of belonging.

  4. Provide Support for Vulnerable Groups: Take specific actions to support and protect vulnerable groups who are at a higher risk of social exclusion. Offer resources, services, and programs to help individuals facing exclusion due to factors such as disability, age, gender, or ethnicity.

  5. Implement Inclusive Policies and Practices: Advocate for policies and practices that promote inclusion and diversity in organizations, institutions, and public spaces. Create diverse representation, fair opportunities, and inclusive policies to prevent exclusion and discrimination.

  6. Encourage Empathy and Understanding: Foster a culture of empathy, understanding, and kindness towards others. Promote empathy through education, storytelling, and real-life experiences to nurture a society where everyone feels understood and valued.

Remember, creating an inclusive society is a collective effort that requires the active participation and commitment of individuals, organizations, and communities. By working together to prevent social exclusion, we can build a society where everyone feels seen, heard, and included. As Dr. Brene Brown once said, "True belonging doesn't require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are." .


It is undeniable that social exclusion can have a profound impact on our emotional well-being and mental health. As human beings, we have a fundamental need to belong and connect with others. When we are left out or ostracized, it can cause us significant pain and distress.

But the good news is that there are ways to cope with and heal from the effects of social exclusion. It's essential to remember that you are not alone, and there are people and resources available to support you through these difficult experiences. As social psychologist Roy Baumeister once said, "Humans have an inescapable need for a social self, a way to define themselves in terms of others."

1Kipling D. Williams, Ostracism: The Power of Silence, (2001).
2Guy Winch, "Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts" (2014)
3Naomi Eisenberger, "The Pain of Social Exclusion" (2012)
4Naomi Eisenberger, "Why rejection hurts," Scientific American (2003)
5Matthew Lieberman, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (2013)
6C. Nathan DeWall, "Social Pain: The Invisible Demon," Psychological Inquiry (2011)
7John T. Cacioppo, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (2008)
8Edward Hirt, "Rejection and Self-Esteem," 2011
9Kipling D. Williams, Ostracism: The Power of Silence, 2001
10Brene Brown, Rising Strong (2015)
11Vikram Patel, Where There Is No Psychiatrist: A Mental Health Care Manual (2003)
12Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (2017)
13Kipling D. Williams, Ostracism: The Power of Silence (2001)
14Roy F. Baumeister, The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life (2005)