This weekend, I decided to dig through more idea files for this blog that have been filed away in the hallway closet for the last five years. Research notes on the subject of ostracism caught my eye and produced a flood of memories. In light of recent events, reading through that file, caused me to reflect upon the impact of early childhood experiences….
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been an optimal target for bullies. In fact, as the “girl with the cooties”, bullying has always been a constant issue: from kindergarten at St. Agnes up through high school graduation. Admittedly, the bullies changed from year to year, but they all saw me the same way. I was the perfect target: I am highly sensitive and don’t fight back….
For those who have never been bullied, you’d be surprised to learn that the actual bullying isn’t the worst of it. The collateral damage it sustains upon your social life is devastating. You see, when you get picked on often enough at school people start to notice and a reputation develops. Now a “loser”, you’re essentially walking around with a scarlet letter tattooed to your forehead. Hapless bystanders, silently observe the altercations but do nothing. Instead they pretend not to notice. Fearing for their own well-being and hoping to retain their status within the social hierarchy, you’re now a social leper. A “dork-by-association” rule starts to govern all social interactions with you. Should someone dare say “hi” or strike up a conversation, they’ll hear about it later: “what the hell are you doing hanging out with that wierdo?!?!”
After my best friend moved away in sixth grade, school became a scary place. No one was in my corner. Classmates avoided me and adults were oblivious to my problems. The only attention my existence garnered from this point forward were the bullies at school. As a resulted I started thinking being ignored was better than being made fun of. I choose to make myself as invisible as possible. During lunch I rarely ate and retreated to my favorite hiding spot, (the girls gym lockers in high school). In class I sat in back, far away from everyone. Finally, I learned avoided all eye contact and never spoke to anybody. In time everybody did ignore me. It worked like a charm…
“I’m 40 years old now; it’s been something like 30 years since that sort of thing last happened. Still, the experience has not left me, it sucked so much. I don’t think about it much these days, but I know that having lived through those experiences has shaped me as an adult, and not for the better (Dombeck, 2007).”
I’ve tried my best to overcome the effects of this prolonged isolation, however it hasn’t been easy. There is a piece missing that can’t be refilled. Radical acceptance has been essential in coming to terms with what I can’t change. I will always be an introvert. I might always struggle with social anxiety. However, I can also try and reach out. I am taking chances and opening up to others. Hopefully in time I can begin to establish a few meaningful friendships…
A nice group of ladies at work meets regularly on their days off for lunch. They take turns picking a favorite restaurant and get together to chat. These experiences are rare treats for me. I cherish opportunities for friendship and inclusion, since I never experienced this as a child. Over the course of our conversations they’ve been nice enough to provide some useful feedback that mirrors this distant history. I can be difficult to approach and am often act closed off from others. I have also been slow to trust and open up. Not surprisingly, these research notes on ostracism put things into perspective. Before I discuss the subject of ostracism, it’s important to first consider the long-term effects of bullying. The bullying explains not only why I was ostracized but how I adapted to it through a self-imposed isolation. With this in mind I want to mention briefly an online article by psychologist, Mark Dombeck (2007). It summarizes effectively the long term effects of bullying. Since his article resonates with my own experiences, here are a few relevant points about the long-term effects of bullying:
Shame & Self-Loathing
As a form of emotional abuse, Dombeck (2007), notes that bullying is an attempt to instill shame and self-loathing within the vicious realm of social politics at your typical American school. “The primary wound that bullying victims suffer…is damage to their self-concepts; to their identities” (Dombeck, 2007). The DSM-5 describes identity as an “experience of oneself as unique, with clear boundaries between self and others (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 823)”. In a recent blog post, I discuss the nature of identity and my own “go-it-alone-mentality”. Attempting to understand the mindset of the crowd-follower, I learned about identity motives as: “pressures toward certain identity states and away from others” (Vignoles, et al, 2006, p. 309)”. In other words, our identity is influenced by wanted and unwanted potential identities. We try to magnify positive characteristics and minimize the negatives. While research in this post describes a diversity of identity motives, my own development was centered around a need to belong.
Depressed, angry & bitter…
Over time, victims of prolonged bullying internalize the messsages they receive (Dombeck, 2007). This results in a wounded self-concept where meaning in one’s existence is difficult to find. A deep depression sets in as you realize your situation is inescapable. However, another insidious reaction to bullying can also emerge and eat you alive:
“Inevitably, it is the sensitive kids who get singled out for teasing; the kids who cry easily; the easy targets. Targeted as they are, many sensitive kids learn to think of their sensitivity as a bad thing and to avoid it, and/or channel it into revenge fantasy and anger” (Dombeck, 2007).
Dombeck, (2007) states when forced to repeatedly encounter a lack of control in the midst of a traumatic event, a state of learned helplessness can emerge. It is common as a response to prolonged bullying and ostracism (Dombeck, 2007; Twenge, et al, 2003; Williams, 2007). This was a huge issue for me. Romantic relationships reflect the relationship we have with ourselves: we attract what we are. With this in mind, learned helplessness set me up for that traumatic relationship in college. I also associate these early experiences of bullying and ostracism with the emergence of dissociation as a coping tool. However I’m probably getting ahead of myself….We’ll get to that later…
Dombeck, (2007) states that bully-victims in adulthood cam display an “Anxious avoidance of settings in which bullying may occur”. A childhood filled with painful peer-relations left me with an anxious avoidant attachment style. Currently, these anxieties are limited to situations in which I see potential for new friendships emerging. It is a monkey wrench in my attempts to establish friendships. Overcoming this has taken quite a bit of effort as I’ve learned to let go of those old traumas and open up to others.
Against a backdrop of bullying in elementary school, I grew into a depressed, angry, insecure & bitter teenager filled with self-loathing. Internalizing the shame-laden messages of my bullies, I honestly felt there was something wrong with me. I felt completely helpless. In my small hometown my options were limited to the classmates who loathed me. My sister continually pointed out my ineptness. My parents told me to “ignore them and be myself”. The school counselor verified my worst fears, and told me to just “ride it out”. After all, high school is only four years. Yup. These are the precipitating events which led to the social isolation which followed.
Social ostracism defined…
Ostracism is defined as an act ignoring or excluding an individual without any clear explanation for one’s own social benefit and/or self protection (Williams, 2097). In contrast, rejection is an explicit declaration that you do not wish to keep company of someone. Finally, isolation involves a self-imposed state of aloneness, where you avoid opportunities to socialize with others.
What is uniquely painful about ostracism, is that it’s not of your choosing and you don’t get to know why it’s happening (Leary, 2001). This ambiguity begins with subtle cues such avoiding of eye contact or excluding you from conversations. It culminates in bewilderment due to an absence of explanations. One resource I found describes a unique form of ostracism that pertains to my own experiences:
“role-prescribed ostracism is a socially-sanctioned form of ostracism, occurring when individuals are not expected to acknowledge the presence of others” (Leary, 2001, p. 29).
In this form of ostracism, the act is reflective of implicit social rules that individuals were required to respect. In my school there was a very clique-defined social order. The social politics were very nasty and terrifying. With no one to back me up, the ostracism was painful, simply as an ongoing reinforcement of my role as the “girl with cooties”…
Impact of ostracism…
In a recent blog post I examine my own propensity for social isolation. At the end of this post I note that: “Group identification is beneficial because it helps us adapt to the social world (Greenway, et al, 2015). As a result we feel more in control of our lives”. I continue by commenting that many motivators exist in the construction of our identity. Finally, I also mention that “belonging [in research] only indirectly influences our future predicted selves (Vignoles, et al, 2008; Vignoles, et al, 2006).” (((This piqued my interest, since based on my experience the primary identity motivator was a desire to belong.)))
Ostracism significantly threatens our fundamental need to belong (Williams, 2007). As it pertains to identity development, belonging can be thought of as a drive to feel accepted and validated by others, (Vignoles, et al, 2006). In the event that belonging is threatened we are “motivated to attend more carefully to social cues” (Williams, 2007, p. 431). Social anxiety takes over and self-esteem becomes a a “gauge for relational valuation” (Williams, 2007 p. 431). The mind becomes adept at noting signs of a potential threat. However, over time the anxiety builds. Your ability to accurately interpret others’ motives becomes impaired:
“Ostracism can cause such a strong desire to belong, to be liked by someone…[an] individual’s ability to discriminate good from bad may be impaired…they become attracted to any[one] that will have them” (Williams, 2007, p. 431).
Initial physiological responses to ostracism include elevated blood pressure, increased cortisol levels, indicitive of a fight-or-flight response (Williams, 2007). Additionally, research participants report heightened distress after experiencing social ostracism (Williams, 2007). I liken this insight to the notion of a deer in headlights, or rabbits sitting motionless in the grass. As a bullied child, ostracism was a painful reminder of my social leper status. However, in my case it was the lesser of two evils: a painful price to pay for avoiding the potential attacks on my lousy self-image. Williams, (2007) notes that ostracized individuals can respond in a variety of ways. They can adapt and learn to conform, fight back, or give up. An individual’s level of rejection sensitivity determines how they choose to respond (Williams, 2007):
“Individuals who score high on rejection sensitivity tend to chronically expect rejection…lonely people may take longer to recover from ostracism and may [display] helplessness more” (Williams, 2007, p. 439).
When ostracism becomes chronic…
My bedroom was a private retreat where I could finally remove myself from the constant anxiety-filled bullshit at school. The emotional aftermath of that day’s events could slowly melt away. I was able to reflect upon what went down. The inevitable conclusion I always came to was that I was helpless. All I could do was “take it like a man”. In time my own favorite method of coping was the freeze response:
“Another reaction to stress is to freeze, as we commonly think a deer does when facing a headlight… a concussed or affectively numb response” (Williams, 2007, p. 431)
Several resources I’ve found mention a “freeze-response” (Williams, 2007) to prolonged ostracism. Twenge, et al, (2003), describe this freeze response as a “defensive state of cognitive deconstruction that avoids meaningful thought, emotion, and self-awareness, and is characterized by lethargy and altered time flow” (p. 409). When no solution is available, emotional numbness becomes the only alternative. Holding one’s feelings out of awareness is the only way to survive prolonged distress of this nature. Leary, (2001) adds that “with repeated long-term exposure to ostracism…a prolonged lack of belonging-ness may lead to a feeling that one does not belong anywhere” (p. 31). Williams, (2007) describes this state as similar to the flattened affect and detached state preceding a suicide attempt. Finally, it is worth noting that these descriptions reflect the DSM’s description of dissociative PTSD symptoms succinctly….
“Chronically excluded individuals will be hypersensitive to signals of social threat rather than attempting to fortify thwarted needs, they appear more likely to exhibit learned helplessness and alienation…rather than seeking belonging, they accepted alienation and isolation; rather than seeking self-enhancement, they accepted low self-worth; rather than seeking control, they expressed helplessness; and rather than provoking recognition by others of their existence, they became depressed and avoided further painful rejection….Ostracized individuals report a feeling of invisibility, that their existence is not even recognized” (Twenge, 2004, p. 421).
Now What??? (((A look forward)))
This post reflects an exercise in putting current issues I’m struggling with into a historical context. By applying insights from research to early childhood experiences, the blame is no longer placed squarely upon my shoulders. I can stop asking myself “what the hell is wrong with you Kathleen”. Instead constructive insight is available as a reminder that these social anxieties reflect old issues and not present realities….
American Psychiatric Association, (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Washington, DC: Author.
Dombeck, M. (2007, July, 24). The long term effects of bullying. Retrieved from: https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/the-long-term-effects-of-bullying/
Leary, M. R. (2001). Interpersonal rejection. New York: Oxford University Press (US).
Sommer, K. L., Williams, K. D., Ciarocco, N. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2001). When silence speaks louder than words: Explorations into the intrapsychic and interpersonal consequences of social ostracism. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 23(4), 225-243.
Twenge, J. M., Catanese, K. R., & Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Social exclusion and the deconstructed state: time perception, meaninglessness, lethargy, lack of emotion, and self-awareness. Journal of personality and social psychology, 85(3), 409-423.
Vignoles, V. L., Regalia, C., Manzi, C., Golledge, J., & Scabini, E. (2006). Beyond self-esteem: influence of multiple motives on identity construction. Journal of personality and social psychology, 90(2), 308-333.
Williams, K. D. (2007). Ostracism. Psychology, 58(1), 425-252.