By Scott Halford

Did you ever wonder why it feels like a kick in the gut when you aren’t included in a meeting that you thought you should have been? How about the wrenching feeling of getting a bad performance review, or worse, losing a job or an important relationship? It literally hurts, and the pain of rejection can be worse than breaking a bone.

Neuroscientists Naomi Eisenberger, Matthew Lieberman and Kipling Williams* found that social rejection shows up much the same way in the brain that physical pain does – like breaking a finger. Their research showed that just the small act of being excluded from an activity that an individual believed they should be included in activated pain receptors in the brain. Even more compelling is that when researchers interviewed subjects a year after a social rejection and asked them to recall that rejection, like the kinds I mentioned above, the pain receptors activated again. However, when other subjects were interviewed a year after an accident that lead to physical pain, as in a broken bone, pain receptors in the brain did not ignite when they recalled the event. Social pain lasts.

This research suggests two things: First, we would be gracious to remember that rejecting someone in any form can be long lasting; and so tread thoughtfully when met with such unpleasant tasks. Try not to be surprised when someone acts strongly to being excluded from something that is important to them. Secondly, if you are feeling the sting of rejection, give yourself some time to process – be compassionate with yourself. The research says the pain is real. Find ways to move on from the rejection; whether it be talking to someone or reappraising the situation to get a different perspective. A word of caution though; rehashing it over and over again likely will switch on the pain all over again. Getting past the rejection is critical for moving on. If you’re having a hard time and find yourself ruminating a lot about the incident, find a professional that can help you get unstuck.


*Naomi I. Eisenberger, Matthew D. Lieberman, and Kipling D. Williams. “Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion.” Science 302, no. 5643 (2003): 290-292.