After my release from prison, I was unprepared for the societal backlash that followed. The world, I soon discovered, didn’t really accept someone like me: a convicted felon.
On a daily basis, I was shunned, ignored and treated like a second-class citizen. But my insecurities really hit home the day I overheard two acquaintances talking about me at work. “Don’t you know who she is?” one hissed to the other. “She’s a felon.”
The way he spat out the “F” word was like a punch to the gut; I’d never been more humiliated to be in my own skin. I felt like I didn’t belong out here in the “free world” anymore, and a big part of me wanted to crawl into bed and hide for the rest of 2014.
Being rejected really hurt, and for several months, I isolated myself from the public and struggled with low self-esteem.
The Pain of Rejection
Like felons, addicts face a similar kind of public rejection. The ostracism can be dangerous to the recovery process and just as psychologically devastating.
Ostracism causes real pain – often deeper and longer-lasting than a physical injury, according to Kipling D. Williams, a professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University. This is because it’s connected to our most fundamental need to be recognized and accepted. When this need is thwarted, then, it activates the brain’s dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the region which registers physical pain.
How we cope with this pain varies from person to person, but the stress of that pain can push us to develop behaviors like mimicking or complying. It can also lead to risky behaviors, like increased alcohol consumption, according to one recent study.
If the exclusion goes on for a long period of time, depression and feelings of helplessness can result, which can prompt a relapse down the road.
Left Out in the Cold
So, no matter who you are, ostracism hurts. But there are ways to reduce the sting if you find yourself in this type of situation. Here are a few tips to help:
- First, tap into other support. If you feel excluded from one group, move onto another where you feel accepted. The key is to make sure you have different groups of friends.
- Secondly, focus on all you have to offer. Whether this is jotting down all your strengths in a journal or voicing your talents aloud in the mirror, maintaining feelings of self-worth is crucial in battling social rejection.
- Finally, lead by example. If you have kids, don’t ostracize them. Doling out the silent treatment when you’re angry can irreparably damage your relationship. Instead, explain to them that exclusion is just another form of bullying that can cause just as much, if not more, pain to others.
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