The Hard Facts: The Pain of Rejection

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“New research suggests that the same areas in the brain that signify physical pain are activated at the moments of intense social loss.”  (“Rejection May Hurt More Than Feelings,” New York Times, 5/6/2011)

Love hurts. So can friendship. This latest study proves it.

One quote, from the study’s lead author Ethan F. Kross, really stuck with me: “When we sat around and thought about the most difficult emotional experiences, we all agreed that it doesn’t get any worse than social rejection.”

It’s not that I don’t agree—I absolutely do. I guess the image of five scientists sitting around and talking about what hurts the most, and agreeing that feeling left out is The Worst, just surprises me. Admitting to social rejection calls for a certain amount of vulnerability that I don’t equate with the science lab.

It’s also interesting—might I say, nice?—to hear that men feel the same sting of social rejection that women do. It hurts! Bad! Good to know we’re all on the same page.

Previous research had found the opposite, that “while social rejection hurt, it did not activate parts of the brain associated with physical distress.” Turns out, though, that not all social rejection is created equal. “According to the authors, the emotional pain simulated in previous experiments (being told a stranger dislikes them, looking at rejection-themed paintings) wasn’t powerful to elicit a true-to-life response.”

I’m kind of surprised that any scientist, ever, wouldn’t realize that thinking a stranger dislikes you is far less painful that getting dumped by a friend, mocked by a colleague, or left out by your group of besties. I mean, really. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist. (Get it? Get it? ‘Cause these people are actual scientists!)

Most women have been through this kind of painful physical rejection before. Even if the official science wasn’t out there, I wonder if we all knew, in some small way, that this pain was legit. That might explain why we have such horrible guilt when we break up with friends. If we know, however subconsciously, that we’re inflicting genuine pain on someone? Well, that’s just not in our nature. I hope.

I don’t know. This is all just hypothesizing.

But regarding the pain aspect, apparently the part of the brain that is affected by spilling hot coffee on yourself is the same as the part affected by social rejection. Ouch.

Personally, my social rejection pain seems to manifest in my stomach. Just thinking about my worst moments of feeling rejected starts to tie my stomach in knots. Blurgh.

Have you experienced the physical pain of social rejection? Does this research surprise you, or is it a bit of a duh moment? Think this is why we ladies feel so guilty about breaking up with friends?

12 Comments

Filed under The Search

12 responses to “The Hard Facts: The Pain of Rejection

  1. Maureen

    Hi Rachel,
    This is fascinating to me! It’s very validating in a way, because recently someone who I thought was a good friend severed our relationship with “cold finality” (as another friend of mine — who was also cut off by this person — describes it). I was crushed, confused and hurt — and yes, in pain. My chest ached for days; it felt bruised, like I had been kicked there. This research you write about explains why!

    On the other front, I had to end a friendship once and it was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I didn’t know about the physical pain issue then, but I still knew how much it would hurt her (it hurt me too, but it’s harder being on the receiving end). I hope I never have to be on either end again. Do you think friendship is worth the risk of the pain?

    • Yes! I really do think it is worth the risks. And, if we’re talking straight science, benefits of having friends far outweigh the pain of rejection. I really believe that. Plus, not to sound like a cheerleader, but friends are fun. Life without them is just hard, and the lucky thing is that, unlike dating, you can have lots. So even if you feel the sting of rejection, hopefully you will have other friends to pull you through.

  2. Melinda

    I think we have all had this issue once or twice in our lives but it’s nice to know that I wasn’t just being over dramatic!
    Recently, I had a male friend who was rejected my a mutual female friend’s new boyfriend. I think it’s a jealousy thing on the part of the new BF because all he keeps saying is there’s just something about male friend he doesn’t like. Male friend is not taking this so well. I was surprised by the reaction because I just didn’t think men cared that much. Now that the research shows that men are just as vulnerable to these feelings, I don’t feel like such a crazy girl!

  3. Ivana

    Hi Rachel,
    Rejection is not something I wish upon anyone, not even my worst enemy-if I have any…lol! I’ve been on the receiving end of it too many times and each time hurts like the first time. Am not in the habit of rejecting people/friends because I know first hand how much it sucks and would hate to inflict same pain on someone else. Now I try to build walls to protect my emotions /feelings from getting crushed, it is a terrible pain and nobody should have to go through it. I suppose people who reject others do not know how it feels to be rejected until they’ve been there themselves. Does this research help me understand the pain? I guess yes. Am still seeking BFF! But just like Maureen, I wonder if friendship is worth all the pain!!!

  4. Laurie

    The timing of this post is quite amazing for me. I just experienced what you would call an “univitation,” Rachel, courtesy of Facebook. Because of Facebook I know that a group of high school friends are getting together and I was not invited. I’m 48 and have plenty of friends and this is actually not an outing I would really want to attend but “it’s always nice to be invited.” I was invited on this outing last year, had the flu and had to cancel. Did that get me bumped? The entire group except me is divorced and “on the prowl” which I’m not into. Last year when I was sick I was glad not to go, yet this year seeing the posts on Facebook stung. I feel like I’m back in Jr. High. Funny how Facebook has that affect. Without Facebook I would be none the wiser and have no idea there was an outing planned.

    I feel it in my stomach too, btw.

  5. anonymous

    Maybe this is why it’s hard to eat at work…

    • Oh, Megan, it will get better! I’m so sorry….

    • Devon

      Oh noes! I read this and just had to say something. At work your employer is paying you and your colleagues to work as a team, so if colleagues are deliberately excluding you from the team have you considered that this might be workplace bullying?

      I moved jobs this year to get away from the meanest bunch of Mean Girls you could imagine. At the time I felt like there was something wrong with me that they would all go to lunch without me, arrange outings at the weekend (their personal life was their own business, but they would literally spend hours at work discussing these outings I was not invited to in front of me). Now I realise that maybe, in a way, keeping me as an outsider helped to cement their group together.

      Stay positive. If things don’t get better soon consider moving jobs for your own peace of mind.

  6. Susan

    In my adult life, the instances that girlfriends have broken off the binds of friendship too abruptly and with no explanation have hurt the most and I feel that I still carry the scares. The pain of rejection is worse, when one really cares about the person and has invested time with them. I cared for these individuals and I mourn the friendship that we had. But perhaps if we had gradually grown apart over the natural course of time, it would seem less painful.
    The other negative aspect of these break-ups is that in our society we can talk about break up of relationship or divorce a with other girl-friends. But when a woman break up with another female friend, she can not talk about this loss with another friend. She is suppose to just get over it. It seems like our society shames us for yearning for, mourning the break up of female friendship?

  7. Craig BArtlett

    Hey Susan. I hear you. It’s even worse if the person who you thought you were friends with is of the opposite sex and they break off the friendship with you. Try getting anyone to sympathise with that feeling of loss. They’ll just say “maybe your friend thought that you were having romantic feelings towards them and they were uncomfortable about that”. And if on top of that you are male, then there is no sympathy for that. If a female friend no longer wants to be friends with you it is treated with the same lack of sympathy as a romantic prospect who isn’t interested.

  8. Hi Rachael,
    I really like your blog and I am enjoying exploring the archives.
    I recently had a misunderstanding with someone I wasn’t even that close with and I avoided her from awhile. I was surprised how much it affected me. Another friend ran into her one day and cleared up the issue and from what I could tell it seems like it had bothered her a lot as well. Now the ice is broken. I still don’t feel quite as chummy as before yet, but at least it isn’t awkward anymore.

  9. Pingback: 6 Surprising Facts About Rejection - Genius Awakening

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