You see a Facebook post with a picture that immediately gives you pause and—as cliché as it sounds—your stomach plummets. It’s your close friends at a party, and you’re not there, because you weren’t invited.
Or maybe you get to work, and everyone is talking about the cool event they went to the night before—and no one asked if you wanted to come. Or maybe it was something else altogether.
Either way, the fact remains, you didn’t get an invite, and you feel awful. You feel left out.
Why does feeling left out feel so painful? Why does it affect us so much?
It’s so powerful because our desire to belong is primal. It’s vital to our survival. As clinical psychologist and yoga teacher Sophie Mort, DClinPsy, said, “social connection has been integral to the survival of our species.” Being included in a group meant sharing resources, and being protected. Being excluded meant missing out on all of this, and possibly death.
So we developed an exquisitely sensitive alarm system that alerts us to any possibility of rejection or exclusion, so we can fix it—by appeasing the rejection, and avoiding these situations in the future, said Mort, who is working to get effective psychological information out of the therapy room and into people’s lives in a way that feels both understandable and practical. Because exclusion is seen as a “threat to our survival.”
Clinical psychologist Therese Mascardo, Psy.D, said that belonging is a core human need. “In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, belonging is noted as one of the most foundational human needs, after physiological needs like water, air, etc., and the need for safety.”
We also develop our sense of self-worth through our relationships with others—a concept that stems from self-psychology, developed by Heinz Kohut. Kohut postulated that we do this through mirroring, idealization, and twinship. When we’re left out, we miss out on all three, said Mascardo, who offers therapy and leads courses and groups to help individuals thrive in the life of their dreams.
That is, in mirroring, others reflect back our value. For instance, a mother cooing back to her baby sends the message that they matter, Mascardo said. In idealization, “we see someone we look up to and think ‘I want to be like that person’”—and we believe we can become those traits, too. An example, Mascardo said, is when kids want to be superheroes to save the day. In twinship, we see elements of ourselves in others, which validates our own existence. “We see someone that looks like us, thinks like us, or dresses like us, and we think, ‘Hey, I must be pretty OK!’”
In other words, feeling left out is totally, absolutely normal. It is an adaptive response. And there are many things we can do to handle feeling left out in a healthy way. Here are seven strategies to try.
Acknowledge and allow your emotions. Both Mort and Mascardo stressed the importance of giving yourself permission to feel whatever feelings arise—which might be anything from sadness to jealousy to loneliness to anxiety to anger. Sit with your feelings, without judging them or criticizing yourself for feeling them.
Tell yourself that this is a moment of suffering for you, Mort said, and then do something soothing to trigger a relaxation response. For instance, she recommended this breathing technique: Inhale for a count of four, hold for one, exhale for a count of six, and hold for one. Or try this grounding technique: Name five things you see; four things you can touch (“actually touch the items, and notice how they feel”); three things you hear; two things you smell; and one thing you taste (“you may want to sip a drink”).
Soothing ourselves also is important because this prevents us from immediately lashing out and later regretting it. Which we can do if we’re angry about being rejected, Mort said.
Reach out to someone else. Mort noted that research has found that people who feel rejected have a sudden boost in their desire to connect, “so make the most of this.” Talk to a friend about how you feel. Meet a colleague for lunch. Join a running or book club. Reach out to people in a supportive online community, Mascardo said. Calm catastrophic thinking. When you feel left out, you might have a variety of catastrophic thoughts. Everyone is mad at me. Everyone hates me. They intentionally excluded me. This is why Mascardo suggested examining the evidence for your fears. Because even though our fears feel real, they tend to be illogical and inaccurate.
Try this exercise: Create two columns. In the first, list all the evidence that supports your fear (e.g., “everyone hates me”). In the second column, list the evidence that refutes the fear. For instance, Mascardo said, you might list the names of people you know care about you; some of the experiences you’ve had that made you feel loved; and the people whose lives are better because of you or something you did.
Shift your mindset. What if it turns out that your worst fear is true? What if your friends did exclude you on purpose? What if they are furious with you? What if they did gossip about you? This is upsetting, of course. And it’s also an opportunity.
As Mascardo said, “instead of focusing on how you don’t feel chosen…you can seize the opportunity to reexamine what you value in relationships and ask yourself if your relationships reflect what’s important to you.”
Plus, “you get to decide how much you allow other people’s decisions [or] rejection to inform how you feel about yourself. Do they deserve that real estate in your head? Do they deserve that power to make you feel a certain way about yourself? What makes them so special that they get to have more of a say about how worthy you are than you do?”
Mascardo also suggested these two perspective shifters:
Strengthen your self-confidence. According to Mascardo, we can do this in simple ways. This includes practicing self-care, starting with the basics, such as sleeping well and moving our bodies. It also includes practicing positive self-talk, “speaking to yourself the way you would a dear friend.”
And it includes saying affirmations. This “may seem inauthentic at first, but the more we repeat positive messages, the more we are able to internalize them.” Mascardo gave these examples:
- I am worthy of love.
- My life is a miracle.
- I’m important and have valuable things to contribute to the world.
- I’m thankful for me, my body, and my life.
- I can trust my instincts.
- I will get through this.
- I am worthy of good things.
- I’m in charge of my life.
- My life and relationships are up to me.
Approach the person. If you’re feeling left out often, or the situation feels particularly painful, Mort suggested having a one-on-one, face-to-face conversation with the person. Reflect on the outcome you’re hoping for, she said, and approach them when you’re calm.
Instead of saying “you did this…,” use the “positive, negative/honest, positive sandwich.” This increases the likelihood that the other person will actually hear you—instead of getting defensive.
According to Mort, this might look like: “I love being with you and our group. Recently, I have been feeling really left out whenever there has been a party and I haven’t been invited. I would really like to spend more time with you and the rest of our friendship group as I value our friendship so much.”
Remind yourself the sting will dull. “[T]ime is a great healer,” Mort said. She suggested thinking back to your last rejection. Remember that it felt awful at the time, and slowly you started feeling better. You found a way to get through it. Maybe you also reflect on the healthy resources you turned to last time, and see if you can use them, again, she said.
Feeling left out is painful, and it can trigger a variety of feelings. Which is totally and completely normal. As Mort said, “everybody feels this way. The feeling of rejection is not a feeling that is linked to [you] failing in some way. It is hard-wired into [you].”
And the great news is that there are plenty of healthy ways to navigate your pain—and reconnect to others, and to yourself.