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.

If you’re feeling stuck in your sex life and you want some help to figure it out, I’d be happy to talk with you. I offer a free Get Acquainted call and I work with individuals, couples, and poly groups over video or in my Seattle location. Send me a message and let’s see what we can do to help you make sex easy.