Of all the reasons one may choose to grab a seat on a therapist’s couch, the need to be heard and understood is never absent. All humans, no matter how independent and self-assured, are inherently social creatures. We possess a desperate need to be seen for who we truly are and to be accepted for both the beautiful and the ugly parts. Just like water, being socially included is necessary for our physical survival. But what happens when we are not?
Researchers have found that the experience of social rejection dramatically increases our feelings of anger, anxiety, depression, jealousy and sadness. It can also impede our ability to perform on challenging intellectual tasks, contribute to acts of aggression, and promote impulsive behavior. The effects of social rejection can be seen in something as simple as a tear to something as devastating as a school shooting or suicide.
If you have ever felt rejected, either by a romantic partner, a group of friends, or even a job prospect, you know how profoundly painful it can be. In fact, most people rate the emotional pain of rejection even more unbearable than actual physical pain. Evolution and the brain are, of course, the culprits. The same brain circuits involved in physical pain are also the orchestrators of emotional pain. Instead of creating a separate system, the brain simply connected all types of pain through the same wiring. This may be why you experience physical sensations in your chest or stomach after a break-up or experience an emotional event in a physically uncomfortable way.
A recent study conducted by psychologists at Ohio State University suggests a remedy. When test subjects were asked to share a story of a recent emotionally painful experience, they were either met with responses that validated their experiences or minimized them. Those who felt that their experiences were validated by others, almost instantly gained relief from their feelings of anger and sadness. Those who received minimizing and lack of understanding from others actually grew in anger and sadness! So, the very reaction we receive from sharing our story has the power to either heal us or keep us in suffering.
Unfortunately, you may have noticed that the world doesn’t exactly have a surplus of empathy and compassion. It can be difficult to find the understanding you long for when you are suffering. Don’t take this personally. Many people feel overwhelmed by their own suffering, let alone trying to put themselves in the presence of another’s. But, if you are reading this, try to remember what it means for someone when you simply say the words “I understand.” If you could speak two words to give validation, acceptance, and healing to a fellow human, why wouldn’t you?
Written by: Aubrey Koel, LPC