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.

I also was affected by this”mysterious disease”, I thought I was going crazy also! I was always seeking therapy about my fears – never knowing what they were – I could never explain or point out what exactly I was fearing. When I and the psychologist begin to speak about it I have a tough time describing what I was suffering through, was it death? nope, violence? nope again, fear of responsibility? IDK. I do know that I had some kind of fear involving rejection, invalidation, not trusting my own decisions, and getting overpowered in conversations or debates. I always heard the term “ostracized” but never looked into it, until recently and was surprised how accurately describes the problems that I have been dealing with. I was also surprised to know how simple it was to know that this is a common thing but never really researched and this is a scary tool for manipulators. I am pretty psyched about learning more about this topic because it shed some new light on my issues.

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.

I recently met a relative and her daughter. Not seen them for years. Then a few days later rang her up, only for the call to go ignored. I tried again a few days later. Ignored again. The initial meeting went very well and was successful and very friendly . For some reason I now get blanked, which is the best word i can find to use.

I have been ostracized by society from as early as when I went to kindergarten. I am born with facial disfigurement and nobody wanted to talk to me or befriend me. Those very young classmates of mine told me that I am the devil and that they will never befriend me because I am evil. I continued to be ostracized in junior school and then in high school but, fortunately, my classmates learnt some basic manners by then and they do not say to me why they shun me. I did not have to hear them say it anyway because I knew why. Throughout the course of my life, I only knew how to make superficial friends and learnt to engage in purely non-personal communication so that I just get on with life. Every year at school, one or two temporary friends who took pity on me befriended me but they soon dropped out of the equation after a semester because maybe I never learnt any social skills to keep and maintain a close friendship or maybe they were pressured by the other classmates to leave me alone.
It is untrue that ostracized people will do badly in society. I am a professional and command a good salary. However, I hide behind a mask that I wear every day of my life. I still walk around with little or no knowledge of social skills of how to make long lasting friendship with anyone. I still have superficial friends and probably never will be able to foster any close friendship with anyone. I thought I had a friend in my soon to be divorced husband but I realised that my relationship was only a superficial one based on the power of such financial stability that I could provide.
Yes, I have reached acceptance of the state of affairs when I was as young as 5 years old. However, I admit that I am psychologically damaged. To anyone who wants to get to know me and have a long term relationship with me, I can only say that he has to beware as there is really nothing to get to know and there can be no long term relationship with me because I am just a worthless piece of trash without a soul who is better off dead.

Hey, I just wanted to say that the end of your post killed me.

Don’t forget there’s such a cognitive bias as the halo… And horn effect. It’s likely that you haven’t and that others would never let you. But to internalize that so strongly, I truly feel for you. You are not a worthless piece of trash without a soul who is better off dead.

It’s one small comfort of the disconnect of the Internet and writing at large that we may be able to express ourselves sincerely without the fear of some immediate judgment. Unfortunately, small comforts are sometimes all some of us can afford.

I’m not the kindest, most open minded or open hearted person there is, but I do like to be honest. I have been petty and I have ignored people without much care for if they had others to rely upon or how they felt about me. And I have felt alien to others, and alienated by others, but I cannot say to the same extent.

All of that being said, I couldn’t pledge my love to you or any other’s and you may not ask for it, but I hope one day you can find peace with what you are able to attain. Peace that does not involve reducing yourself to ruins.

I don’t care who you are, or anything you have or haven’t done but that pain is too much for anyone to have to bear.

Lix Kate McBride,
I just wanted to add to others’ comments and say that you are beautiful for who you are. We all have differences, even if they are not outwardly obvious. I believe your life is so precious, because you are created by God in his image. He loves you. He sent you a love letter (it’s called the Bible) to show how you can know his boundless love and acceptance.
You are in my heart…I pray you are blessed, that you find deep and meaningful relationships, and that you know that you have a soul and so very much worth.

My mother uses this very clever technique of calling me crazy/ needs to be sent to mental institute, and everyone in the family agrees with her (particularly my sister, the doctor). For years i believed her until i received confirmation from psychologists there was nothing particularly wrong with me other than depression, anxiety (and as it turns out, very low self esteem). It’s difficult to wake up to the reality of a family which has been excluding me for years.

Heh. My entire social circle put me on ignore for the crime of being a recovering addict. They wanted to act like that’s a personality trait and not a sickness. Not only did they know i had a problem but they didn’t care that i had a problem. Honestly i’m probably better off but its very boring.

I sympathize with all these testimonies but the psychological community needs to provide a remedy for the case where the ostracism is caused by persistent bad behaviour by the ostracized person.

Hi, I also want to respond to Lix Kate McBride. The other poster was correct in saying that your pain is too much for one person to carry. I too was crushed by your last statements. You sound like a very intelligent and deeply sensitive human being. I really hope that you were able to pull through that dark place that you were in when you made that post. I know that you have a lot more to give another soul than you think. Anyone would be lucky to find a deeply thoughtful, sensitive and resilient person as yourself. You haven’t met the right people yet. And that is unfortunate. But you will if you can work to keep your heart open. Don’t allow yourself to become jaded by those who have rejected you or ostracized you in the past. You are better than they want you to believe you are. And you are your own soul mate. I also want to suggest a book you may be interested in reading–“Eleanor Olephant is Completely Fine.” You may be able to relate to this character. The author, whom I have no association with, has provided a gentle masterpiece to help guide others through the darkness of ostracism. A powerful read. Perhaps a gem of hope…

I no longer expect to be included in anything. Sometimes I am
Pleasantly surprised and enjoy inclusions.

Thank you for such a beautiful post. I will be reading your suggestion.

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