Ostracism hurts—but how? Shedding light on a silent, invisible abuse

Humans need to belong. Yet they also commonly leave others out. Animals abandon the weakest to ensure the survival of the fittest. So do kindergartners and ’tweens, softball players and office workers.

Common though they are, rejection and exclusion hurt. Endured for a long time, ostracism leaves people feeling depressed and worthless, resigned to loneliness or desperate for attention—in extreme cases, suicidal or homicidal.

Yet ostracism “was essentially ignored by social scientists for 100 years,” says Purdue University psychologist Kipling D. Williams. His upcoming article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, begins to fill that void. The paper, co-authored by Steve A. Nida of The Citadel, offers important insights into what Williams calls a “non-behavior,” a slippery, invisible form of abuse.

Ostracism, says Williams, is experienced in three stages. In the first, “immediate,” stage, the rejected person—that means everybody—feels pain. Williams’ research has found that “it doesn’t matter who you’re being rejected by” or how slight the slight appears. People playing a computerized ball-toss game feel “the grief of exclusion” when a cartoon figure ignores them. In the lab, “African-Americans feel immediate pain when a Ku Klux Klan member leaves them out.” An alarm has gone off in the brain—the same part that registers physical pain: Belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful recognition are under attack.

Next comes the “coping” stage, when people figure out how to “improve their inclusionary status.” They pay attention to every social cue; they cooperate, conform, and obey. If belonging is a lost cause, they look to regain control. In extreme cases, “they may try to force people to pay attention.” For instance, a 2003 analysis of school shootings found that 13 of the 15 perpetrators had been ostracized.

But “coping requires psychological resources,” says Williams. Endure ostracism too long and “they’re depleted. You don’t have it in you to cope, so you give up. You become depressed, helpless, and despairing.” Even memories of long-ago rejection can bring up those feelings. This, psychologists have learned from interviews, is the third stage, “resignation.”

Williams is skeptical that ostracism can be eradicated. “It’s pretty ingrained,” he says. “If you tell kids it’s powerful, they’ll use it.” Although some people are seeking legal redress for ostracism as a form of workplace discrimination, “it’s hard to document something that isn’t happening”—not being asked to lunch, not being “in the loop”—and easy to deny. The perpetrator can even turn around and accuse the accuser of paranoia.

There’s more hope, he thinks, in developing tools for both victims and therapists to deal with the effects of ostracism. Broader and deeper understanding can also give substance to this inaudible, invisible form of torment. “Some people will say, ‘I’d rather be bullied. Then at least I could show my bruises to the police.’” More scholarly attention to “the silent treatment,” says Williams, can “give people a voice.”



Thank you. You have just named my disease. I thought I was going crazy. My 7 sisters and 2 brothers ostracize me since about 2 years ago. At first they banned me from assisting of my bedridden mom. They told my oldest sister who told me I was banned. Ever since I have being scared of rejection and now I know ostracism on their part. Some tried to help me, but ended up being threatened of being ostracized as well, so they gave up. My psychologist or psychiatrist never mentioned the term. Actually they only said that it just didn’t make sense to have all siblings against me and that I couldn’t see my mom. Tania, my oldest sister came home one day to promise me things would be fine if I went to help and care with my mom. I was scared but went. I was the happiest kid again to see my mom after one full year. Three hours after I left my mom’s house, she called me crying for forgiveness, repented for asking me to go with mom because my oldest brother threatened her she would be next to not see my mom. She even told me: “you don’t need to see mom”. She was in tears so I comforted her, and no one would comfort me. Now my son 11 feels ostracized as well. These are his relatives and are closest of kin. Who does he turn to for value, love and care? Thank you for defining what I feel.

I am sorry to hear about anyone having to go through this especially with family. I can fully understand what you are experiencing because I myself is ostracized by both of my older brothers. We were raised as Jehovah Witnesses. At one point I could not agree with the doctrine any longer and decided to separate myself from the organization. I always felt there was something wrong from a very young age, it was not until later that I felt I could decide for myself. I was one of those lucky ones to leave without to much grief since I was not baptized. However my brothers chose to shun me as if I was baptized and also labeled me as a Apostate, the worst title for those who are baptized and fall away. It is not fair but there is nothing I can do to change their thinking. My two children had a great relationship with their cousins and they to are included even thou they were not involved with the Jehovah Witnesses that I chose. I did not want to have their lives at risk with this highly controlled religion. Do get me wrong I do not hate them I just disagree with how the organization treats the members which are very good people who want to serve God the best way they can or know. I do feel the emotional pain of not being spoken to and treated as if I did not exist. They feel they are in the right and my children and myself deserve this. Your family are suppose to be there, to support, love, and protect. It seem the term “Blood is thicker than water” has weakened with families over time. The best way to handle this in my opinion is to support the family members that endure this treatment for whatever the cause. At least you should not be looked at as if you did not care and did nothing even though it was like that for you. Never lower yourself to an abusers level, it is not worth it. I hope whoever caused this disrupt wakes up and understands the uncalled for hurt that was caused. I wish you the best and hope thing work out for yourself and child.

people who are inherently different suffer form this acutely, like autism/aspergers. im an aspie and i wouldnt wish my life on anybody, and im so glad i dont have kids to have to suffer what i do. and worst of all nobody cares because we’re weirdos so who cares right? people feel justified in treating us w/out respect….i wish i was never born

Hi CluLu
When I read this- my heart went out to you. I don’t know what you are going through. I do know how it feels to be ostracized. But your life is important. You are loved, you are wanted, and you are not alone. God has a purpose for your life. Every life is important to Him. I hope and pray that you no longer feel like this.

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