I couldn’t go to my stepdaughter’s graduation, and I’ll admit it, it hurt.
I pictured the school auditorium filled with happy parents and the 7th grade band playing Pomp and Circumstance to a line of excited 8th graders marching to the stage. I missed it because the students were only allowed two tickets to the auditorium per family so at 10:00 AM I was sitting in my office while my stepdaughter’s bio-mom and dad were at the graduation festivities at her middle school.
The fact is, there will likely be times when you will be left out…when you’ll be the third wheel, the bad witch, or the odd one out. And it will probably hurt.
Your boyfriend’s sister may be getting married but he’s shied away from bringing you as his plus-one because his divorce is not final yet (or he’s only separated but hasn’t even filed for divorce) and he worries that your presence may raise eyebrows with the family and guests.
Or his daughter is having a picnic birthday, hosted by his ex, and his ex threatens him with retribution if you show your face.
Or, as in this instance with my stepdaughter’s graduation, there just isn’t any room for you at the table.
Whatever the reason may be, chances are, it’s going to happen some time or another and it’s going to sting.
It’s going to sting because being left out is a painful reminder of your “situation,” that you’re the other and not part of the original pack. It’s like being picked last (or not at all) for the dodge ball team, except you’re not in high school anymore. You’re playing with adults in real life.
“Humans have a fundamental need to belong. Just as we have needs for food and water, we also have needs for positive and lasting relationships,” says C. Nathan DeWall, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky in the APA’s article on The Pain of Social Rejection http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/rejection.aspx. “This need is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history and has all sorts of consequences for modern psychological processes.”
In other words, the pain of rejection is a very primal reaction. As modern and advanced as we humans are, we have evolved to live in cooperative societies and subsequently rely on social groups for survival.
And that ache you feel in your heart when you’re told that you’re basically excluded is a very real pain. Researchers from Purdue University and UCLA, using an fMRI scanner, studied volunteers who were playing a game of Cyberball, which is an online game of catch with two other players. Eventually the two other plays began throwing the ball only to each other and excluded the other player.
Compared to the players who continued to be included in the game of catch, those who were rejected showed an increase in brain activity in the region of the brain that typically shows activity when the body is experiencing physical pain.
As far as your brain is concerned, a broken heart is not that different from a broken arm.
When my husband was doubled over in pain from a ruptured appendix earlier this year (which, at the time, we thought was food poisoning…until he developed a fever), I drove him to the emergency room right away. Pain is the body’s way of alerting us to take action to protect our survival.
So if you can’t go to the party, what action can you take to protect yourself from the sting of rejection?
First, Here’s What NOT to Do
- Don’t Blame Him, Is Ex, Family, Kids, or Even Yourself
You may be tempted to lash out, if even emotionally. Your man might even be at fault for having weak boundaries and letting his ex manipulate him. But, as the saying goes, nobody can hurt you without your permission.
If you felt the sting, it’s because you let it sting you. But that’s not to say that you should just turn your feelings off and not feel angry when you’re angry or sad when you’re sad.
It means being aware of the true source of our pain: our thoughts.
- Don’t Manipulate the Kids to Your Favor
The thought may cross your mind to get the kids to help you in the door…by subtly guilt tripping them, pitting them against their parents or say something disparaging about your man, their mom or how whack the whole system is within clear earshot of their impressionable and gullible young minds.
This is actually really bad for a number of reasons.
One, it takes advantage of a child’s position in the situation and puts undue responsibility on them that can really hurt them emotionally because they are caught in a loyalty bind. I would even go as far to say that it’s abusive.
Two, it will likely backfire on you. Suppose you get your way. Children may appear absent-minded or easily swayed, but they will remember what you said.
They’re like sponges. They soak it all in. They’re listening, even when you think they’re not. And they can sense an ulterior motive probably better than any adult, even if they don’t know how to articulate the conflict from their current vocabulary or frame of reference.
But once they do realize what happened, your ploy won’t likely stay a secret. Staying in integrity even when you’re feelings are hurt will make you more resilient in the long run.
- Don’t Call Sour Grapes and Detach
It’s also tempting to want to give the whole situation the finger and detach.
But wallowing in resentment is actually very toxic and will only end up making you feel worse. The way that resentment works is it digs you into a deeper, darker, hole of victimization and pain.
Our mind is like a magnifying glass and whatever we focus on expands. So when we hold and focus on the grudge, the grudge will only feel bigger and heavier.
Resentment actually comes at a high cost in time and energy because we expend emotional energy feeding and holding on to that resentment. And it makes us feel worse because we keep telling ourselves that we’re afflicted and subsequently give too much power to the people whom we resent.
The key is to let the resentment go.
How to Let It Go
- Know That It’s Not about You
In other words, don’t take it personally.
The auditorium for my stepdaughter’s graduation had limited seating. I get that. It’s nothing personal.
But what if it is – kind of – about you?
What if you’re not invited to the festivities because his divorce is not final yet and your presence is going to upset mutual friends and family of your boyfriend and his ex?
What if you’re the reason your man’s ex is flipping out and not letting you attend his daughter’s birthday party or being unreasonable and threatening your boyfriend?
Even if it looks like it’s about you, it’s not ACTUALLY about you.
His ex may be responding that way because she’s jealous, or feels threatened, or maybe she hates your guts.
At the end of the day, what she thinks and how she reacts is her problem.
Or the party guests’ unease about you being there is based on their own values and thoughts about what’s proper. They also might feel at odds about how to respond to you because they may feel conflicting familial loyalties between your boyfriend and his ex. This may affect their feelings about whether to invite you to the festivities.
But what’s important to know is that their rejecting you doesn’t mean you’re an unlikeable person or you’re doing something wrong.
Again, don’t take rejection personally.
- Make Healthy, Positive Connections with Other Friends and Family
The pain of rejection and being left out actually triggers a kind of emergency response in our bodies.
From an evolutionary standpoint, social isolation means death.
Your strong emotional response rejection is really your body’s survival warning system.
But that doesn’t mean that you should dismiss it as mere biology. It’s a natural response. And it’s important to acknowledge anger, sadness, even resentment, as part of your human experience.
The key thing is to not let it derail you emotionally where you’re spending lots of time obsessing about it and soon it’s bringing down your whole day.
The antidote to the pain of rejection is to seek and cultivate positive social interactions through other avenues.
I couldn’t go to the graduation – which was bummer. But there were other things I did to celebrate with her like give her a handwritten card to let her know how proud I was of her accomplishment and I attended the graduation reception at her mom’s house.
- Write down Your Pain and Resentments
Holding a grudge is not that different from physically carrying a heavy backpack around with you everywhere you go.
Actively inhibiting thoughts and feelings about things that bother you requires mental and emotional effort and those negative thoughts and feelings act as a cumulative stressor on the body.
Confronting the issue through writing about it and acknowledging the difficult emotions has been shown in studies to help reduce stress. And translating painful emotions into words – cognitive processing – has been shown to deepen our understanding of difficult events so that they affect us with less intensity.
The important thing I realized is that we can choose how we feel.
We are always at choice, even when someone else is at fault and we find ourselves left out in the cold.
There is always a way to let go.