Much like tax returns and putting the bins out on time, social rejection is an unavoidable part of adulthood. Nobody likes feeling left out by their friends or colleagues – after all, humans survive on a sense of community and social belonging – but when you suffer from social anxiety (SA), feeling ignored turns into a debilitating cocktail of insecurities and depression.
Exclusion feels like shit.
When you have SA you’re constantly worried about engaging in social interactions. You worry if people will want to talk to you and, if they do, will you be able to hold the conversation? Will they find you interesting and funny? Will they want to hang out with you again? Or are they just pretending to like you? You second-guess everything you do or say. Even on the off-chance that an interaction goes well, you replay every little detail in your head, beating yourself up for any mistake you might have made (you most likely made none).
But the worst thing about SA? Although being around people makes you break out in a cold sweat, you depend on it. Your self-esteem depends on it. Your happiness depends on it. How's that for a catch-22?
“Being included and accepted in a group is a fundamental human desire,” says psychotherapist Dr. Aaron Balick, author of the forthcoming The Little Book of Calm: Tame Your Anxieties, Face Your Fears, and Live Free. “This goes back to our very evolution, where our lives depended on being accepted by the group in hunter-gatherer times,” he tells Refinery29.
Being rejected by our tribe in our pre-civilised past was a matter of life and death because it would have meant losing access to food, protection and mating partners. While it’s unlikely now that not being invited to a party would literally kill us, the consequences of ostracism were so extreme that our brains (specifically, the amygdala) developed to experience social rejection as a risk. “Loneliness [can actually be] quite dangerous,” says Dr. Balick, “there are lots of mental and physical health consequences of not being part of a community. We need to be relating to others regularly for our mental and physical health.” One study even suggests that social isolation can be as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
As someone with SA, my confidence is heavily based on how often people like me and include me in their plans, so when they don’t, I clutch onto all my insecurities and together we go down the rabbit hole and jump to the worst conclusion. I immediately assume that they’re sick of me, they don’t like me, they’ve never liked me to begin with. I picture the worst-case scenario, where my friends plot to ghost me and my boyfriend dumps me because I’m simply not good enough. It might sound ridiculous to many, but anybody who struggles with anxiety or depression can probably relate to the feeling of worthlessness that comes with being left out of plans. Whether it’s a coffee, a networking event or a party, knowing that my friends are having fun without me makes me feel unworthy because I wasn’t given the option to have fun with them.
Our need for social acceptance affects almost everything we do, so much so that exclusion not only destabilises our fundamental feeling of belonging but it also erodes our confidence and self-esteem, triggering anger, anxiety, depression, jealousy and sadness. According to the American Psychological Association, the emotional pangs of feeling excluded are just as bad as the pain of physical injury. “The areas in the brain that sense physical pain also sense social pain,” says Dr. Luana Marques, clinical psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. In other words, social exclusion or rejection can literally feel like a stab in the back.
Feeling like you belong is a fundamental psychological need, but because anxiety leaves no room for rational thinking, you don’t have enough self-confidence to realise you’re not intentionally put to the side, and your brain will begin to interpret things the wrong way. You feel unwanted, worthless and rejected.
While social exclusion affects everyone at some point in their life, it’s not uncommon for people with SA to be biased towards perceiving being-left-out-itis. “People with social anxiety crave but fear contact,” explains psychotherapist Tamsin Embleton. “They deeply want to be included, connect with others or feel that they have been thought about, considered, are relevant and matter, however they are hampered by beliefs that they don’t belong, can’t fit in or may suffer some form of rejection or humiliation.”
Unsurprisingly, social media only makes it worse. “Social media concretises exclusion, it makes people aware that they weren’t involved in something,” says Dr. Balick. When you’re left out of plans, every Instagram post you see or every tweet you read reminds you that you were cut out; it translates to that nagging, self-deprecating voice in your head that says, 'You’re not good enough, you’re boring, you have nothing to offer and no one likes you'.
Then that sadness turns into resentment. You act cool, like it didn’t bother you, but secretly you’re waiting for an apology. “It was a last-minute outing”; “We thought you were busy”; “We didn’t think it was really your thing”. And maybe it wasn’t your thing, but that invitation would have made you feel wanted and appreciated.
It ties back to our desire to belong, which is particularly acute for those with SA. “Being invited to events, even if we may not actually be interested in them, signals to us that we are important, we are accepted, we belong, we are part of a community,” says Dr. Marques. “The important thing is not the event itself, but the fact that we have been accepted into a social circle by being invited to it.”
The less you’re invited, the less confident you feel when you do get invited – it's a self-destructive cycle of social isolation. Dr. Balick explains that it’s important to check your thoughts and conclusions about why you were not included. “We often come to irrational conclusions that keep us in a loop of further exclusion,” he says. “For example, perhaps you weren’t invited to a party, in which case you might think, ‘Nobody likes me. I’m no good. There’s no point in making friends'. When an invitation does arrive you might think, ‘They’re just being nice. I’m not going to go. They’ll all think I’m lame'. In this case you build a loop and start to believe your own story.”
Because our brain registers social exclusion like it would a physical threat, it’s trained to avoid it at all costs. In an attempt to avoid FOMO, we increase our efforts not to miss out on anything, constantly checking social media to see if we’re being left out of something. But if you’re feeling ignored, Dr. Marques suggests the solution is to give your amygdala a break and stay off social media altogether. She reminds us that the information we receive from social media is biased, “carefully selected and constructed to give off the impression that people’s social worlds are perfect.” When you’re left out, it’s easy to take it as a personal affront and although your emotions are completely valid, it’s likely that you weren’t excluded intentionally. It’s not you, but it’s not them either.
“Feeling left out is natural, and based on our inherent need to belong,” Dr. Marques explains. “Remember that the pain of exclusion has a purpose – it encourages us to make more connections and bonds with others. Whenever we face exclusion and rejection, we should seek out healthy social connections with others, such as close friends and family.”
“The important thing is not to avoid things you're anxious about. By taking a risk, you can learn to tolerate your anxieties and expand your comfort zone,” adds Dr. Balick.
If you’re lucky enough not to suffer from SA, I only ask one thing: always extend the invitation. Even if you know for sure that someone can’t make it or won’t be interested. Even if you know they’ll probably reject the invitation, make them feel wanted, included, show them their presence is not only welcome but desired. I guarantee that the fact you thought of them will make them feel so much better.