I recently wrote a post on how the idea of people being “normal” can actually serve to alienate folks who fit outside of its parameters – particularly those with mental health diagnoses. For many, the experience of exclusion amplifies or compounds the distress they were already feeling. This is clear in all sorts of literature: the quality of the social responses people receive when they’re struggling holds major implications for how they fair down the road.
Inclusive responses help people feel at home and at ease, while exclusion compromises our sense of safety and belonging in the world. For this reason, a lot of folks experience varying levels of anxiety in response to the possibility of social exclusion. It has therefore received the very straightforward label of “social exclusion anxiety” by the researchers who have taken interest in it.
Understanding Social Exclusion Anxiety
Social exclusion anxiety can be described as an emotional response to the anticipation of being left out of the social groups we belong to. It is the fear of being seen as less-than or possessing characteristics deemed undesirable by the larger social units we affiliate with. It is not a sign of deficiency or weakness to worry about such things, and in fact most people find it undesirable to be alienated, marginalized, left out, or not considered. It happens every day, in many different ways, and a lot of people experience great distress because of it.
Exclusion comes in many forms, from judgment, to dismissal, to non-acknowledgement, to persecution, and beyond. Social responses that serve exclusionary ends can be either overt or subtle. Really clear examples can include direct putdowns and verbally abusive statements, or intentionally leaving someone out of a larger social group. More subtle examples could be facial expressions, tones of voice, or a failure to acknowledge key things about someone’s identity.
How People Respond to Social Exclusion
People’s responses to exclusion have a lot to do with the unique contexts in which they experience it. Some might withdraw to avoid the possibility of it happening, some might strive for acceptance by taking steps to “fit in”, and others might seek out or create communities that they feel included and accepted in. Responses to exclusion are as diverse as the situations people experience it in, and are often very creative.
The world of psychotherapy, which is very well-meaning, has an unfortunate history of regarding people’s anxieties, worries, and fears as problematic or irrational. However, when we take a moment and really take a look at the context around our anxiety, it almost always makes sense in response to adversity. This can be especially clear when people are responding to prejudices, like racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia. Prejudice and stigma are alienating by nature, and people often understandably feel anxious about the possibility of being positioned as a deficient outsider.
Some other responses to social exclusion anxiety are more socially problematic and damaging. A group of Danish researchers have illustrated how bullying behaviour is often a response to the fear of social exclusion. They describe how some children bully others as a way of protecting themselves from the same happening to them.
For example, most of us with high school educations learned at some point that through the lens of homophobia, it’s undesirable (and therefore socially unsafe) to be queer. If this was not the case, the notion of “coming out of the closet” would not exist – people wouldn’t need a safe place, like a closet, if it was simply safe to be “out”. It follows that some people (children and youth, in this case) who are aware of the social perils of queerness in a homophobic society might subject other, “weaker” peers to abuse and humiliation as a way of keeping the spotlight (or “normative gaze”) off themselves.
Whether positive or harmful, these responses speak volumes about people’s values and preferences when it comes to how they’re received by others. At the end of the day, we all largely appreciate kind, accepting, supportive responses from other people and the communities we live in.
If inclusion, acceptance, and being understood are important to us, then anxiety is an understandable response to the possibility of exclusion, judgment, alienation, or non-acknowledgement. If someone feels as though they don’t have a place – as though they lack community – it makes a lot of sense to feel despair. For those of us experiencing anxiety or unhappiness in response to social exclusion, I invite some thought into noting the places in which we already experience a sense of belonging.
- With whom do you feel most at ease and able to “be yourself”?
- When do you feel like you can just be you without worry of receiving a negative response from others?
- What communities or groups do you feel most “at home” in?
- If you haven’t found such a community yet, what would it look like if it were to exist?
- How would you know once you found it? How would you be feeling?
- Who else, as far as you know, also feels uneasy about exclusion?
- How do you respond to one another knowing of the shared sense of importance inclusion holds?
- Is there a piece or collection of music that you feel “sums you up” really well?
- How does listening to it help you feel more understood?
About Will Bratt
Will Bratt is a counsellor in Victoria, BC, specializing in therapy for trauma and interpersonal violence. He is passionate about addressing stigma through depathologizing human suffering. In addition to writing for Healthy Minds Canada, he runs his own blog on his website, Will Bratt Counselling. You can connect with Will through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.