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Sticks and stones can hurt my bones, but words cannot hurt me.

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Photo credit: By himself of a shopkeeper enjoying small talk with a customer in Naha, Okinawa, 2017

If social connections are important, useful even, why are we afraid of socialising?

May be we fear the social rejection of others. No wonder that public speaking is #1 fear most cited.

As I write this blog, one of my all time favourite coaches for creatives, Mark Mc Guinness has a blogpost, “Are you willing to be laughed at?”

Pain of social rejection

Cyberball Experiment 1
Reviewing Michael Liebermann ‘s book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Emily Esfahani Smith reported an experiment involving a internet video game, Cyberball. Researchers (Liebermann and Naomi Eisenberger) put people in a brain scanner where three people toss a ball around to each other. Only one person is a real subject, the other two are pre-programmed avatars.  (The subject does not know this.)

The aim of Cyberball game was to make the player (the research subject) feel rejected. Initially, all three players toss the ball to each other in turn. But at some point, the avatars only toss the ball just to each other and cut the human research participant out of the game.

Interestingly, although the research subject never met the other players in this silly game, the research subjects were really hurt. They started feeling distress. They felt rejected. When they came out of the scanner, they kept talking to the researchers about how upset they were.

Is pain from social rejection real? Is it as real as physical pain?

Yes. The most interesting part of the study was how their brains processed the social rejection. To the brain, social pain felt a lot like physical pain—a broken heart can feel like a broken leg, as Lieberman puts it in his book. The more rejected the participant said he or she felt, the more activity in the part of the brain that processed the distress of physical pain.

Experiment 2
In a follow-up study, participants were again called into the lab and played Cyberball with a brain scanner. This time, there was a twist. Before they came into the lab, half of them had taken Tylenol every day for three weeks while the other half had taken a placebo.

What the researchers found was remarkable: the placebo group felt just as rejected and pained as those in the initial study, but “the people in the Tylenol group were immune to the social pain of feeling left out“.

A broken leg and a broken heart did not seem like very different forms of pain”. Researchers hypothesise that pain is a sign that something is wrong. “Social pain signals that we are all alone—that we are vulnerable—and need to either form new connections or rekindle old ones to protect ourselves against the many threats that are out there”.

Social pain may be a survival instinct because being low on status means last to enjoy spoils of the hunt.

In humans, researchers suggested, social pain can be relieved through forming attachments. In studies of rats and their pups, when mothers do not respond to the distress call, the pups often die within two days of birth.

Connecting with others

Maslow is wrong in the sense that there is no hierarchy in needs. Social connections are as important as the need for food, safety, and shelter. But as society prospers, our social connections weaken. Oftentimes, our social skills are left wanting, and we cause pain- both social and physical to our lives and others unwittingly.

Evolutionary, humans have learnt both to connect and to exclude others. We simply do not have the capacity to include everyone.

Social rejection can take the form of sniggering at another, to discrimination to outright bullying.

Could this be why depression and stress has increased?

Holidays are social events and also account for the highest suicide rates, because of another phenomenon, social rejection.

Can this fear of social rejection be unlearned?

1. Be proactive. Build Circles of Influence not circles of concer. (Stephen Covey’s Habit #1). A kind word a day, keeps the doctor away.

2. Living a meaningful life, does not have to be big as scaling a mountain. All muscles need to be exercised and built.

3. Pick up social skills. Invest in your tribe.

4. Hurting people hurt others. Forgive

5. Next time, someone hurts you socially or emotionally, don’t withdraw.

Connect.

Dig your well before you are thirsty.

Build status.

I enjoyed the article by  EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH and can’t wait to read her book on The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters.

Nature vs Nurture: Inside an introvert’s brains in a cocktail party