When we think of bullying, a picture of aggression is typically conjured — the taunting, name-calling, and physical abuse. Beyond the playground in the adult world, however, bullying often takes place masked in more insidious forms. Deliberate social exclusion can manifest in many ways across situations, occurring in the context of university, work, or within a group if people not connected by their field of study or job.
You may, at some point in your life, have been in a recurring situation where you approach a group of people in mid-chatter only to have conversation come to an abrupt halt. Perhaps a social gathering was organized after work one night, which you found out about while unsuspectingly scrolling through your newsfeed on Facebook the next day. In another example, a message containing important information was purposefully disseminated to everyone for whom it was relevant — except you.
As much as you don’t want to care, and as much as you hate to admit it, it still hurts. The definition of bullying is not limited to overt harassment, but encompasses any repeated actions intended to cause distress physically or emotionally. Being quietly victimized by “under-the-table” torment of sort can deal an equally or even more damaging blow to the individual than bullying in its more explicit form. Even more frustratingly, no tangible evidence necessary for a confrontation exists for you to point to; nothing really that couldn’t be turned around and used to paint you in an unfavorable light, or to make you feel and appear paranoid and oversensitive. This brings us to the first of the few suggested ways to cope if you are on the receiving end of deliberate social exclusion:
1. Consider if the exclusion was indeed intentional.
There is always the possibility that the reason you were not invited to a particular event was situation-related; for example, a gathering of friends from the same high school of which you did not attend. Perhaps you were not in the loop concerning an important piece of information because everyone involved simply assumed another member of the group had told you. In contrast, bullying occurs with consistency and malicious intent. It is important to evaluate and identify what is going on.
2. Reflect upon yourself.
If you have identified with some certainty that you have been systematically left out of a social group — with more consistency than could be attributed to accident or coincidence — stop to have a think about whether the exclusion was a reaction to something you might have done. Did the exclusion represent a change in how you previously got along? Are you able to pin down this turn in behavior to any particular point in time or event? If so, it may be important for you to maintain these relationships — either because you see them on a regularly basis, or simply enjoy their company. Make it known to them that you acknowledge having made them feel bad or uncomfortable, and apologize where in order. People naturally respond well to sincerity, and chances are that they would be willing to overlook misunderstandings of past.
If you are absolutely unable to come up with anything you might have done to evoke being treated hurtfully, read on.
3. Know that it’s not you (No, really).
While being left out can sometimes feel like a “group attack”, the experience of social exclusion is more frequently the product of a single person’s determination in making you feel bad. As hard as it may be to believe that someone who has succeeded in making you feel small on numerous occasions is acting based on their own insecurities, this is often true of bullies.
This is meant to serve as an explanation rather than a justification for their behavior; people who gain relief from devaluing others are clearly unhappy in their lives, and likely struggle with feelings of inadequacy of their own. It is nonetheless unfair that one person’s insecurities should make it difficult for you to spend time with the mutual friends you have between you, with whom you get along with well.
As an attempt to make you feel invisible, the bully in question might go out of their way in making it a point to address everyone in a group situation except you. Confrontations, as earlier discussed, are not likely to work under circumstances like these — not to mention you don’t have time for dramatic trivialities in your busy schedule. Be the bigger person: play nice, even when they don’t. Besides, nothing discourages a bully more than a lack of response.
4. Make other connections.
The last thing you want to do after a long and grueling week is to spend Friday night navigating a complex social milieu someone has set up just to make things difficult for you. As a result, the sad but unavoidable truth is that you probably end up seeing the friends you have in common with your bully on a less frequent basis that you’d like. It is important to ensure you feel like there are people you can turn to for simple, uncomplicated and meaningful interactions without hidden motives embedded in every corner. This might involve some work, like calling up friends you don’t encounter on a regular basis. It will be worth the effort, nonetheless; chances are high that they would be happy to hear from you too.
5. Keep being you.
There is clearly something about you that your bully sees, probably lacks and covets, and feels extremely threatened by. You are not a smaller person just because someone has tried to squash you down into an ill-fitting mold in hope of containing your positive qualities. This is a sign, in the least, that you’ve got a thing or two right in life.