Mental distress and social exclusion

Her: I usually feel excluded at work; with colleagues, meetings, or in conversations. I’m invisible: I don’t matter.f
Him: One of my best friends recently started dating somebody. I’m happy for her, but she has no time to chat or hang out. I feel like I don’t matter.
Them: My partner has a new job. Everything is about their work. I feel like I don’t matter.

Humans are “herd animals.” We all want to feel included. As much as we will hear “don’t care about what other people think,” “do your own thing,” that’s not how we’re built.

Belonging and ‘fitting in’ are core needs. Long-term social exclusion can lead to emotional distress and a host of mental health problems. One study even found that social exclusion can lead to impaired self-regulation, meaning that people may struggle to make healthy decisions for themselves when they are being socially excluded. For example, if you are feeling alone, you might eat that quart of ice cream or finish that bottle of wine. In contrast, people who are in close, caring, and secure relationships and friendships show elevated levels of oxytocin, which is the love/bonding hormone that keeps us ‘on course’, even at the cellular/neural level.

So it’s completely normal and understandable that you might feel rejected if you feel left out of plans or your friend group or people you care about are having fun without you.

If you feel left out regularly, there are some things you can do to deal with these feelings. We all get left out and ignored sometimes (no one can be liked by everyone), but we can learn to surround ourselves with people who truly want us around. In addition, we can learn to manage our feelings better, so we don’t feel as bad in the times we will be left out.

Accept your emotions
A lot of our hurt comes from trying to deny, suppress, or run away from our feelings. Giving space for our feelings can paradoxically make them more manageable. Accepting your emotions doesn’t mean that you have to love your current situation as it. You can still try to change and improve the things that are bothering you in life.

What does accepting emotions look like in practice? Let’s say you’re feeling left out of family gatherings or friends who are spending time together. Accepting your feelings means saying to yourself: “right now, I’m feeling rejected, and that’s tough. There is nothing wrong with how I feel. I can be still be kind to myself.” Self-compassion is not static; you may have a wave of hurt that takes you by surprise. Contrary to popular belief, self-actualization or Nirvana are not phases that are permanent; you have to soothe yourself as the feelings come.

Make sure you haven’t misread the situation
Sometimes we assume that we have been purposefully left out or rejected, but that isn’t always the case. It’s worth examining the situation and how we feel about it. Note that examining your emotions doesn’t mean shaming yourself for them. Your hurt feelings are still valid even if you misread the situation. Shaming yourself isn’t going to help.

Let’s say that you hear of two friends hanging out together on a day you were free. You may feel hurt and sad because they didn’t ask if you want to join them. Feelings of envy, jealousy, inadequacy, and shame may creep up. Thoughts like, “I guess we’re not so close after all” may fill your mind.

Ensure that you’re making yourself available
How do you deal with the feeling of being left out? Some people share their feelings, while others may pull away in an attempt to protect themselves.

It may come out of a fear of “burdening others” with your needs or presence. Or perhaps it’s a deep fear of abandonment or rejection.

Some people “test” their friends by not responding to their texts for a while. They wait to see if their friends check up on them and “prove that they care.”

The worst communication is tit for tat: they did not respond to me, so I’m not going to text them. They did not invite me so I’m not going to invite them. They don’t care about my feelings, so I’m going to show them I don’t care.

Bottom line is that you do care. You can learn how to make your overall communication appear more friendly and approachable. Just reply to messages and calls. Let people know you appreciate them. Give and receive compliments with grace. These actions send the message that you’re available for new connections.

Check if your expectations are realistic
People have different expectations from friendships and romantic relationships. Some people need a lot of time together, while others want to have a lot of alone time. While some people prefer to have two or three close friends they do most things with, others prefer to have many friends, contacts, followers, and acquaintances.

As we get older, our friendships change as well. As people become parents, they spend more time with their children and expanded families. When they meet up, they cannot be as spontaneous as their friends with no kids. They have to be back home by a certain time to say goodnight to the kids or send the babysitter away. Sometimes they’ll need to bring their children with them and prefer to go to kid-friendly places. This also relates to people who have companion animals who require attention. If they are rushing home to take care of their furry companion, it’s a responsibility that needs to be respected.

We also tend to get busier as we get older. Obligations such as work, juggling work, family both young and old, self-care, and keeping up the house take more of our time. Our interests change as well. You may have had friends you bonded with over late nights, meaning of life conversations, and barhopping, who may no longer have those interests or ability.

In some of these cases, friendships can adapt and grow. You may not see a friend for several months as they adjust to a new job, relationship, or parenthood, and you may hear from them again when things have settled down. Another friend may have moved away but reconnects. With virtual communication and travel, distance is not what it used to be.

Enjoy time spent alone
You’ll feel left out more if you’re not enjoying the time you spend by yourself. Learn how to be. Eat the delicious food, drink the delicious libations, watch your favorite show, read the book that you’ve been saving, light your favorite candle. Just as you nurture people you love, spoil the one who is with you the most.

Remind yourself of your amazing qualities
When we feel left out, we might come up with all sorts of stories about ourselves. You might start thinking: No one invites me because they don’t like me. I’m boring and needy. If I were fun to be around, I’d have more friends. Then, we start to believe ourselves. We feel that we don’t have anything to offer others, affecting how we interact with people, leading to a vicious cycle. Try to make a list of your positive qualities and remind yourself of them often. You can use daily affirmations or put post it notes on your laptop or mirror. Let yourself celebrate your successes, no matter how small. Give yourself a mental high five when you try something new, pay off a bill, or go for a run.

Meet new people
How do you know if you have flaky or toxic friends? If you find yourself extending yourself to others, with your time, energy, finances, and interest, and not receiving the same effort back, it may be time to make new friends.

A friendship that leaves you feeling consistently feeling left out and rejected may be doing more harm than good.

A good friendship should feel overall balanced and reciprocal. There are often periods in a long friendship where one person is busier than the other or needs more support. That’s normal and something you can work through together. But if you feel like you’re the only one giving in in your relationships, you may consider taking a step back.

Talk to a therapist
If you find yourself feeling left out frequently, there may be something deeper going on. It may be that you’re misreading situations and feel left out even around people who enjoy your company and want to include you.

Or you may be struggling to recognize when someone wants to be your friend, leading you to choose unhealthy friendships or put yourself in situations where you will be hurt.
In either case, you may benefit from working one-on-one with someone who can help you identify where you’re stuck. Together, you can come up with solutions on how to remove these blocks and make changes in your social interactions.

Honest communication; or how to express your needs. 
When bringing up sensitive topics, it’s always best to focus on “I” statements. Talk more about how you felt than what the other person did, so it does not come out as an attack. When people feel attacked, they are likely to respond defensively, and the conversation can turn into a conflict rather than coming up with solutions.

For example, if you want to share that you feel left out, avoid saying things like:
“You’ve been ignoring me.”
“I’m always calling you, but you never call me.”
“If you cared about me, you’d have made time for me.”

Be open and honest about your feelings, but don’t expect your friend or partner to “fix” them for you. Listen to what they have to say and try to come up with a solution together.
Takeaway: Being kind to ourselves sets the standard for what kind of behavior we accept from other people. This does not minimize normal human feelings of pain, loss, abandonment, jealousy, even anger.

All lost relationships hurt badly. The one you have with yourself is your constant.

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