The Pain of Rejection and Shame

I recently ran across a fascinating article: Why rejection hurts: A common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. According to the authors, physical pain and social pain (which happens when social relationships are threatened, damaged or lost) are both processed in the same part of the brain.


It seems that the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is activated when we experience pain in order to create a sense of distress. There’s a different part of the brain in charge of the actual sensation of pain. You can think of it as a partnership- one portion receives the message that some part of the body has been damaged, so it sends a signal to the ACC, which sets off the alarms so you know to do something about it. Sometimes, people in chronic pain have the ACC removed and while they can still feel pain, it no longer distresses them.

There’s quite a bit of research that shows that the ACC is also part of social distress. In animal studies, stimulating the ACC causes distress vocalizations while ablating it causes a decrease in affiliation behaviors, perhaps signaling a reduced need for social closeness to overcome the distress of isolation. In the one study of humans as of 2004, which is when this paper came out, exclusion during a computer game increased activity in this part of the brain and the magnitude of the activation correlated with self-reports of the degree of distress. And there’s even evidence that people with obsessive-compulsive disorder have more ACC activation that folks without OCD.

Want more evidence? Research shows that children who are in physical pain experience more intense and more frequent social pain when separated from their caregivers (something most parents can verify). And social support, which reduces social pain, reduces pain during cancer, from childbirth, and following heart surgery. Lastly, opiate-based drugs alleviate pain, while also lessening social pain.

Note: if you want to track the references for these claims down, they’re all in the article.


The belief that we can control people’s sexualities by shaming them is one of the more powerful tools of sex-negativity. And shame, when it comes down to it, is the emotion of rejection. A lot of people are mocked, belittled, attacked, and blamed for everything under the sun because they choose to explore their sexual desires and preferences. This happens, in part, because other folks are uncomfortable, so they try to control sex. The social pain that this often (although not always) causes is frequently written off.

It’s not too bad.

They didn’t really mean it.

They were just joking.

But it’s real, and it has real consequences.

This paper seems to offer evidence that overcoming shame helps people increase their resilience in other ways. If social rejection and shame make physical distress worse, then healing the emotional pain should make it easier to heal the inevitable physical pains that happen as we move through the world. I wrote a piece once on the connections between shame and public health, and now I see that there are connections between shame and the physical health of the individual. Of course, it’s not going to be enough on its own, but helping people heal from any sort of shame will help them become more resilient. This is why I talk so much about sex-positivity and sexual shame. It is inextricably linked to health and well-being. Not just emotional well-being, but the physical, too.


I don’t want to demonize shame- it’s one of our emotions and it has its uses. Similarly, physical pain can help us learn and grow. It’s what keeps us from burning our hands on the stove over and over, which is why people with congenital insensitivity to pain tend to get lots of injuries, especially as children. They simply don’t realize that they’re being damaged. Conversely, as Martha Stout points out in The Sociopath Next Door, sociopaths experience no shame, which is why they simply do what they want. Without any shame, they have no need to conform to social expectations or respect people. Interestingly, they also tend to have a reckless disregard for their own safety and people with anterior cingulate cortex epilepsy often display psychopathic or sociopathic behaviors.

For both physical and social pain, a little bit at the right time helps us learn and grow. Too much too often is traumatic, especially if it isn’t given room to heal. I’d noticed the similarities, and now I see part of why they exist- both types of pain are processed in the ACC, so they have similar mechanisms. We just need to be mindful in how we use them and how we respond to them.

Check out the article for a bit more info as well as this one about the links between social stress and inflammation response.

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5 Responses so far.

  1. Rick Umbaugh says:

    Great article Charlie, didn’t realize how close physical pain was to social shame. I experienced a great deal of shame as the odd kid out as I was growing up (one of the reasons I would demonize shame or maybe shaming, which it strikes me may be different from shame. I remember this shame as physical pain…when it rears its ugly head.

    Thanks,
    Rick

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  2. Charlie says:

    Thanks for the kind words. It’s a fantastic article, so it was easy to write something about it. :-)

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  3. Thanks fpr this great article and references to the original studies.

    As a dating coach, I have become fully aware of how painful it is for my coachees to overcome their initial, and oftentimes deeply rooted, fear of rejection. Exposure and desensitization do come at a cost but prvide them with enough resilience to live a fulfilling love life in which they can start a conversation with a person they find attractive.

    Thus in the light of your article, No pain no gain seems to be an adequate expression.    

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  4. Jonny says:

    Social rejection is a weird animal though isn’t it?  Isn’t it true that most of the time new acquaintances will reject each other based on the idea of you rather than the reality of you.  And doesn’t this often boil-down to psychological projection anyhow?

    Still, the irrational emotional mind reacts with distress despite logical arguments constructed by the tepid and conscious part of the mind.

    And I’m sure our dating coach friend above can agree that if an individual is experiencing some serious problems in their love-life it is actually a symptom of deep issues affecting all areas of life (not just one) especially since principles of dating apply in business and career as well.

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  5. Absolutely! I’d even go as far as saying that some people will reject you based on the idea you have of yourself which turns out to be reinforcing our initial belief.

    As for the principles being the same in different aspect of our lives, it is true as wel. I had never envisionned the domino effect that can happen when you tackle some of the issues limiting your dating success. Suddenly people are more assertive at work and dare to take chances not just in love but with life in general. What’s preventing us from doing so is usually the weight of habit and the incomfortable comfort of the strategies we put in place to minimize the risk of failure and rejection. Little do we know that in doing so we also deprive ourselves from a wealth of learning experiences that pave the road to sef-discovery and ultimately: success.  

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