Why Does Rejection Hurt So Much? Turns Out, It's Biological.

The Physical Pain of Rejection, Betrayal and Abandonment

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Why Does Rejection Hurt So Much? Turns Out, It's Biological.

Few experiences can match the intensity of pain caused by rejection; whether romantic, social, familial, or professional, the suffering inflicted isn’t predicated on the slight’s severity. Major or minor, intentional or not, the emotional distress caused by rejection, abandonment, or betrayal is the same.

Age makes no difference. Neither does gender.

My earliest experiences of feeling rejected and abandoned hurt as much as my adult experiences. Probably more, since they were new to me.

When I was a child, the sharpest slights were organized around exclusion. Being left out felt like a threat to my existence. If others didn’t want me, perhaps it was because I wasn’t good enough, perhaps broken.

Making matters worse—my parents were divorced, remarried, and my father was making new kids with his new wife. There was no way around the annihilating sense that we, his first kids, were being replaced with a second, better batch.

Rejection made me feel invisible, and if I wasn’t visible, who could see how much help I needed handling my overweight existential agony, my all-consuming mental anguish?

When a person is rejected, they feel betrayed and abandoned. Three forms of disregard coalesce to form one block; when you feel the sting of one, you feel the sting of them all.

Worse yet—implicit in any rejection is the sense that somehow the rejected party has failed, and this belief opens up a new dimension, inside which the “truth” of said defects and deficits are revealed.

Rejection is so painful that the mere perception of being rejected can cause emotional chaos. The pain cuts to the core because being cast aside violates the root of all connection—attachment. 

This makes good sense because when it comes to the brain, the neural networks that get triggered by such slights prove that there’s little difference between a broken bond and a broken bone. 

Rejection letter to Gertrude Stein

This means that feeling rejected isn’t a subjective experience that one chooses because, when it comes to rejection, the brain doesn’t distinguish between feelings and facts.

The desire for acceptance is a common human trait—we’re driven by the need to be accepted. It’s how we know we belong. And when we belong, we feel secure and grounded, strengthening our self-identity.

This feeling of security allows a child to leave her parent to try the world out on her own without fear of being cast off or forgotten because she’s out of sight. 

Lack of acceptance can lead not only to feelings of hurt but to acts of violence; in fact, studies show a correlation between rejection and violence.

We need to feel connected to survive—we’re wired for these relationships, and without them, we become emotionally starved. This consequence makes logical evolutionary sense.

Consider the stark difference between a baby animal and a baby human. While many animals are born ready to walk, human infants are relatively underdeveloped at birth. They lack the strength to lift their heads, let alone walk or crawl to their mothers for nourishment.

Human babies depend entirely on others for survival, underscoring the critical importance of social connections for growth. This dependency is so ingrained that infants feel threatened when separated from their caregivers, possibly because the pain of rejection might signal a threat to their survival.

One theory suggests that nature repurposed the existing mechanism for physical pain to signal social pain, explaining why the pain of a broken bone and a broken heart are so closely linked in our brains.

“Because of our prolonged period of immaturity, the social attachment system may have co-opted the pain system, borrowing the pain signal to prevent the detrimental consequences of social separation.” 

Have you ever wondered why we say our feelings “are hurt”? Or, I’m “broken hearted”?

It’s because the neural circuitry between social and physical pain is shared, and does not distinguish between them. 

In 2003, Naomi Eisenberger, a psychologist and social scientist, tested the connection between physical and emotional pain.

She and her colleagues gave subjects virtual-reality headsets, through which their hands, a ball, and avatars depicting the other participants were visible.

One participant was alone in one room, and the other two players were in a second room. While all three subjects tossed the ball to one another, a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imagine machine (fMRI), which can detect neural activation to emotional stimuli, measured their brain activity.

They called the game “Cyberball,” and in the first round, they played as usual, but in the second round, they instructed the subjects in the second room to ignore the player in the first room. Yet, the two players who ignored the first weren’t players.

They weren’t even human.

“They” were a computer programmed to reject participants for the scientists to study how exclusion affects the brain.

During this period of rejection, the brain activity in the excluded person’s brain lit up in the same neural circuits that process physical injury. This ahead-of-its-time study showed that the brain doesn’t distinguish between a broken bone and a broken heart.

When people attempt to dismiss emotional pain by stating, “It’s all in your head,” they don’t realize how right they are. It is literally all in your head, because that’s where your brain lives.

Other studies have replicated the experiment, and other researchers have found that rejection doesn’t have to be explicit to be triggered; just showing a photo or video of an ex-partner activates the same neural pathways as physical pain.

This begged the question: could a painkiller like Tylenol lead to a decrease in social pain after a rejection? The answer is yes.

While no one recommends medicating your emotional pain with over-the-counter medication, it reveals what the original study proved: a correlation between physical and emotional pain exists.

If emotional pain can make you physically unwell and physical pain can make you mentally unwell, we can make sense of the deleterious effects of social, economic, and racial inequality. Why do some people remain ill when others don’t? To assess this, we must look at the environment to understand the effects on a person.

Roy Baumeister is a social scientist well-known in the world of laboratory research and for his work studying willpower, including his book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

He found that when people feel socially rejected, they are more prone to aggression, risk-taking, and cheating. They are also more unwilling to help others. Yet, upon measurement, there was no evidence of emotional distress. This repeatedly happened until they discovered that instead of feeling their emotions, the socially rejected had shut down their emotions altogether. 

This became a phenomenon Baumeister called, “Ego-shock.” The term describes the state of paralytic numbness one feels right after an injury, but in this case, it’s prolonged. Instead of feeling the pain, your psyche attempts to protect you by shutting down all emotions. 

This means that the pain of social rejection is so corrosive and shattering that our bodies sometimes cannot handle holding it all. We don’t just live with others, but also through them and in them.

To a large extent, we are all the stories of ourselves that others tell. We base ourselves on how others treat us and how we imagine or fear other people think of us. We exist through other people; without them, we often feel unknown.

Rejection is threaded through everything: in social status, in classrooms, in families, in social inequality, in office politics, in politics. When judged based on external metrics, we can feel worthless because this rejection goes unquestioned. We accept groupthink more than we reject it. 

Being negatively evaluated is bad for our health and impacts our neurobiology.  Emotional stress can give rise to inflammation, and uncontrolled inflammation can give rise to chronic illness and disease. 

What is identity but the slow, lifelong accretion of gazes: us looking at ourselves being looked at by others?

Society was organized around frameworks of hierarchy and systems of dominance. People who fall outside these systems live outside the limited, accepted schema of how to be a person in this society. Instead of viewing people outside the system as original, revolutionary or defiant, we view them as failures, rejects who don’t belong.

This backward assessment leads to isolation and despair, which gives rise to a host of degenerative diseases. 

So, what is a person to do?

I propose this: When we feel rejected, betrayed, and/or abandoned, we flip things on their head, and instead of looking to receive, we offer to give.

Help someone clean the snow off their car. Help someone cross the street. Help a neighbor carry their groceries up the stairs. Smile at strangers. Strike up conversations with people while waiting in line. The small things add up. 

And always remember, when you break a bone, you tend to it. You are careful and patient as it heals. Now that you know the brain doesn’t distinguish between physical and emotional pain, why should you?

Tend to your emotional pain when it hurts. Be kind and careful, and it, too, will mend.

Does this finding surprise you at all? Let me know in the comments!

Until next week, I will remain…

Amanda

VITAL INFO:

Nope, I am not a licensed therapist or medical professional. I am simply a person who struggled with undiagnosed mental health issues for over two decades and spent 23 years in therapy learning how to live. Now, I'm sharing the greatest hits of what I learned to spare others from needless suffering.

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