Being left out by friends isn’t something that only occurs during childhood. Here’s what could be going on.

On candy left alone as other spheres rolled away, example of social exclusionShare on Pinterest
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For many, flashbacks of the school playground involve at least one incident of being left out of a game of catch or a ‘secret’ conversation.

But exclusion from friendship groups and social activities isn’t only restricted to kids. Recent 2021 research by Cigna revealed adults are often excluded, too: 42% of Americans ages 18-34 reported feeling ‘always left out.’

So what causes us to exclude others intentionally, and how does being ostracized impact mental well-being?

A couple of primary factors are typically behind the rejection.

Removing the competition

The first is when exclusion is used by someone “as a way of protecting their own place in a social group,” reveals Leah Roberts, a counselor and master of social work based in Florida.

For instance, maybe the excluder views themselves as ‘the funny one,’ but another friend makes everyone laugh just as much.

She continues: “When we perceive a threat to our sense of belonging, we want to recover our position in the social group. [This] unfortunately too often results in senseless rejection of someone else.”

Interestingly, 2011 research found that, compared to men, women were more likely to engage in exclusionary behaviors when they felt their social position was under threat.

Pure dislike

The second, explained Dr. Brianna Gaynor, clinical psychologist and director of Peace of Mind Psychological Services in Atlanta, is that “they do not connect with the person or do not like them.” As nice as it might be, we don’t get along with everyone.

Is social exclusion a form of bullying?

According to the anti-bullying organization Defeat the Label, being repeatedly and intentionally excluded by friends is a form of bullying.

Gaynor states that social exclusion, particularly in our earlier years, can leave emotional scars. “We carry our traumas, and our experiences with friendships can often shape whether we see the world and others as safe,” she explained.

However, Roberts notes it’s also important to consider context, and recognize the difference between being purposely excluded by a friend and them ending a friendship.

“Bullying is about repeatedly and intentionally harming someone,” she says. On the other hand, while “it can be very painful, not all friendships last forever.”

Being the friend that gets left out leads to far more than just fear of missing out. Gaynor explains that exclusion can cause an individual to:

  • believe something is wrong with who they are
  • focus on their shortcomings
  • blame themselves for actions
  • have embedded insecurities exacerbated (such as not being good enough)

Ostracization may also impact broader mental health. Long-term alienation, reveals Roberts, can lead to:

Research from 2018 also found that experiencing depression can cause an individual to be more sensitive to social exclusion — potentially creating a vicious cycle.

Rejection can be painful. However, various approaches can aid in soothing the hurt and dealing with associated emotions.

Considering whether the exclusion was intentional

It can be easy to get carried away by thoughts and feelings, so take a moment to “assess your perspective,” suggests Gaynor. Is your perception, reality?

Asking the friend if they meant to leave you out can help bring clarity to the situation, she adds. Doing this may also “bring awareness to the other party and give [them] the opportunity to correct their behavior.”

Knowing that it’s not you (no, really)

As noted, individuals often socially exclude others due to their own insecurities.

Be reassured that their actions are likely not a result of anything you’ve done wrong. If anything, they may think you’re too good and feel threatened!

Rather than blaming yourself, you can transform negative energies into self-kindness. “Service and compassion do wonders for reducing stress and keeping us emotionally and mentally healthy,” states Roberts.

Diving into hobbies

Whether picking up an old favorite or trying a new one, hobbies “help you to feel good about something and bring joy,” Gaynor shares.

Furthermore, she notes, focusing on a hobby “can help change what you are focusing on to something positive, which is beneficial for your mental health.”

Make other connections

You deserve to be treated well. If a friend isn’t acting kindly toward you, turn to others!

“There are loads of friends to be made,” says Roberts — and you can find them through activities,” including:

  • volunteering
  • local meetups
  • online communities

Also, don’t forget you have existing friends and family who do appreciate you. Spending time with them could remind you “that there are a lot of people out there worthy of connecting with,” she assures.

Keep being yourself

As tempting as it can be to change yourself to fit in, it’s wise to recognize that you’re already good enough. Additionally, doing so could impact your other relationships.

“Changing yourself and discarding your values to fit into a group denies you quality, satisfying friendships,” reveals Roberts.

“Being true to yourself is likely to improve your confidence,” she continued, and “feeling confident is likely to lead to stronger friendships.”

Social exclusion can occur at any age. The main reasons people exclude others are because of a perceived threat or personality clash.

Feeling left out can be distressing, but you can self-soothe by:

  • being kind to yourself
  • engaging in hobbies
  • focusing on other relationships