pensive woman looking out the window in a cafe

How to Cope When You’re Feeling Excluded

By Stacey Feintuch
May 09, 2024

This article is part of a series on how to cope with common feelings that can be tough to experience. Here, experts provide simple strategies for acknowledging and managing exclusion.

You walk into your daughter’s soccer game, happily waving to your fellow soccer moms. But something is different today. You hear a group of moms discussing their recent fun night of dinner, drinks, and dancing—an outing to which you weren’t invited. They’re enjoying reliving the girls’ night out, but suddenly you feel like you’ve been transported back to middle school.

If you’ve had to turn down an invitation, it may be natural to feel pangs of regret at missing out. But not even being invited can feel like a slap in the face and send you into a spiral of replaying every past interaction to determine what you may have done wrong to put you on the outs.

Why Feeling Excluded Hurts So Much

“We’re designed to be deeply connected with others,” says Pauline Peck, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Santa Barbara, California. “That attachment is a deep biological need—to belong. So, our system is actually designed to go into panic when it perceives a threat to our sense of connection and community.”

Being left out may make us feel hurt, sad, insecure, angry, or confused, says Peck. “We might find our brains scrambling to investigate and understand why in an effort to find comfort and gain control,” she says. “When there is no reason, we might resort to blaming ourselves and making negative statements about ourselves and about our worth and lovability.”

In fact, one study suggests that social rejection may be interpreted by the same areas of the brain where physical pain is processed. “Most of my patients describe it as feeling an ache in their whole body and specifically pain in their stomach,” says Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist in Telluride, Colorado.

Unfortunately, some acts of exclusion can be etched in your memory for a long time. “The hurt of being excluded lasts so long because being part of a community is critically important to our physical and mental health,” Hokemeyer says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, loneliness can lead to a host of negative health outcomes, such as increased risk of stroke and heart disease, a compromised immune system, obesity, cognitive decline, depression, and anxiety. “The pain lasts long because the stakes to our well‑being are high,” Hokemeyer says.

Ways to Cope with Exclusion

You can take measures to alleviate the pain of feeling excluded. Here are three ways to cope.

Don’t Go to the Worst Place

Rejection is tough. Refrain from thinking “I’m a loser” or jumping to worst-case conclusions that are illogical. “When we’re overwhelmed by our feelings, our thinking becomes distorted,” Hokemeyer says. Remember, although you can’t control others’ actions, you can control your thoughts.

Instead of assuming that you did something wrong, remind yourself that being left out may have been a legitimate mistake—or if it wasn't, that it’s their loss. “When you find yourself going deep into the abyss, stop, count to 100 three times, and take four deep breaths,” Hokemeyer says. “You’ll reground yourself and quell the riot raging in your mind and heart.”

Find Ways to Validate and Process Your Feelings

Think about what you’re feeling and don’t hold back. “Accept that you, like everyone else, experience some level of distress when excluded,” Hokemeyer says. “Acknowledging and accepting that you’re part of that humanity will go far in calming you.”

Hokemeyer suggests physically processing your feelings. Walk through the grass barefoot. Do 100 jumping jacks. Shake your wrists. “Move from your thoughts and negative emotions into feeling the experience in your body,” he says.

Or purge your feelings on paper, says Hokemeyer. “Science shows that the act of writing, by hand as opposed to on a computer, can help you connect with your feelings on a deeper level and get a more rational and objective view on what’s causing you distress.”

Think It Through

Use this occurrence as a learning experience. It’s a chance to ponder what you value in a relationship. Decide whether your friends embody what’s important to you. If not, it may be time to create new friendships.

When to Seek Help

If you feel like you’re being left out often or your emotions are interfering with your day-to-day functioning, consider speaking to a healthcare professional. If you’re feeling hopeless or worthless, it can be helpful to discuss your feelings and healthy ways to cope when these situations arise.

“Working with someone or even engaging in structured and secure group activities can help you rewrite the narrative in a more positive way and help you build the skills to make more connections,” Peck says.

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