Shun, Exclude, Expel, Ostracize, Exile—The Power of Silence and Separation—And Staying Engaged

Being excluded activates the same brain pathways as physical pain.

A few days after Thanksgiving 2022 a sad little article flitted across my newsfeed. After a group of friends removed a 13-year-old Italian girl from their group chat (as a joke, they would later say) she killed herself.  The story was haunting—the senseless bullying, the senseless tragedy, the familiar pattern of cruelty inflamed and enabled by social media.  The girl’s reaction was extreme. Young teens tend to think in absolutes, and emotions can swing wildly. The present moment can feel eternal. But a young teen’s anguish at being excluded is something that we all experience in shades.

Why shunning can feel unbearable. We humans are social animals, instinctively forming identity groups that bind us together based on kinship, geographic proximity, religious beliefs, physical appearance, and other much more arbitrary allegiances like fandom or club membership.  We depend on each other for the very basics of wellbeing: food, shelter, knowledge, and protection from predators and other humans.  In our ancestral environment, being banished from the tribe or kin group was often a literal death sentence unless the banished person was taken in by another group. (Many other social animals also die when they are driven off by their group.)  So, we are wired to be hyper-reactive to shunning.

Psychologist Kipling Williams has dedicated much of his research career to studying ostracism and social rejection.  When he put experimental subjects in MRI machines and then had them engage in games where they were or were not excluded, he found that being excluded activates the same brain pathways as physical pain.  This relationship is so hardwired that exclusion amplifies the experience of physical pain, and the psychological pain of exclusion can be reduced by taking the medication acetaminophen.

An ancient form of social control. For thousands of years, polities and religions have taken advantage of this relationship between shunning and pain and have used shunning as a form of social control.  The word ostracism comes from an ancient Greek practice, voting to banish a person by writing their name on a shard of clay, an ostrakon.  Still today, Amish communities have a formal process for deciding whether a renegade should be shunned, and many other religious groups use shunning more informally. In the modern era, Islam may be unique in prescribing death for apostates, but social death sentences abound in Christianity.

One of my psychologist colleagues works with people who are leaving various kinds of Christian fundamentalism.  A person’s path out of fundamentalism is often a one-way street, because once you see the scientific and historical errors or moral and rational contradictions in your belief system, or once you see the human handprints on, say, the Bible and Christian history, it becomes impossible to un-see them. But the social transition can be really hard. One of my colleague’s clients retracted their doubts and returned to their religious community after they found the shunning by their friends and family and broader familiar community of co-religionists to be unbearable.

Social media’s infatuation with cut-offs.  Outside of traditional religions, most people today rarely use the word shunning, but that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped wielding silence and separation as social tools.  If anything, a growing number of us are deploying cut-offs of one kind or another when a relationship with a friend, family member or colleague feels problematic.  As political divides become deeper (and as they are increasingly framed as moral divides), we withdraw from relationships across the aisle as a way to express disapproval.

The internet is full of self-help memes and video clips encouraging us to cut toxic people out of our lives and praising the bravery and self-care of those who do. In the public arena, cancellation and social ostracism have become common expressions of outrage—not just for de-platforming neo-Nazis but for dealing with internal disagreements in progressive nonprofits.  

It is in this context—recognizing the psychological power of shunning and recognizing its current popularity in both the personal and public spheres—, that I would like to examine the idea of toxic people and whether we should shun them. 

Toxic people?  Maybe, maybe not. Let me start with a disclaimer: There are times that another person is so harmful that we have no choice but to physically remove ourselves from them (or to remove them from contact with society more broadly). This world includes women who burn their children with cigarettes and men who beat them with belts.  It includes people who believe they speak for gods and people who simply have god-complexes.  It includes people who get pleasure out of psychologically toying with others. It includes people who are exploitative and parasitic or incessantly petulant, or worse. Sometimes people are so damaged and damaging that all we can do is cut them off or lock them up.

But only cartoon characters are two dimensional. Even the worst among us spend much of their time behaving in ways that are constructive and prosocial.  Conversely, even the most helpful, compassionate, kind-hearted or inspiring of us do harm sometimes, either intentionally or not. Most relationships mix good and bad, aspects that nurture and support wellbeing and aspects that can wear people down. That is why videos, memes, books and other discourse about “toxic people” often fall short of reality; they are too simplistic to reflect the complicated nature of human beings and our relationships with each other. The “toxic people” conversation is stunted and, consequently, can be stunting.

Shunning means stuck. Most of the time it would better—more fair-minded, more accurate, and less dualistic—for us to talk about toxic interactions or toxic dynamics or toxic behavior patterns or even toxic traits. When we frame things in terms of toxic people and proclaim the need to excise them as if they were cysts or tumors, we embrace a form of fatalism.  We are saying that neither they nor we are capable of growing in ways that would allow us to obtain whatever potential goodness might be desired in that relationship. Sometimes that is true. But sometimes it is just giving ourselves an out.

Using the cut-off as an easy out is at odds with both the best of conservative thinking, with its emphasis on forgiveness, and progressive thinking, which emphasizes restorative justice.  Earnest people, whether they are conservative or liberal, embrace compassion and the value of fresh starts and second chances—often even for those who have committed murder. They recognize that, mercifully, we all are more than a compilation of our worst moments or worst characteristics, and this opens up possibilities that can—often but not always—function as alternatives to shunning. 

Internal vs external boundaries. When a person comes to therapy to sort out relationship problems, a good therapist (unlike many internet memes and advice videos) doesn’t start from the assumption that the client should get out of the relationship.  Nor do they start from the assumption that the client should stay. The therapist’s job—by listening deeply, asking hard questions, and bringing to bear the experiences of other people—is to help the client listen to both their emotions and rational self, open up options, reduce internal and external obstacles, and clarify possible outcomes from different courses of action. When this process works well, people are freed up to live more in alignment with their values and goals. 

Sometimes a client is able to prepare for courageous conversations that lead to another person seeing and changing noxious behavior. Sometimes a client is able to strengthen their own sense of self so that the other person’s behavior, even if unchanged, doesn’t get inside them in the same way.  Either one of these can allow the client to get whatever goodness is available in that relationship without having to take in so much of the bad. When these two options fail or a person is simply too worn out to try them—or when the bad outweighs the good regardless—then, yes, the only course left may be to sever the relationship. But even then, after weighing the pros and cons of a tough marriage, for example, or a disrespectful boss, a person may decide to stay in a mixed-bag relationship for a short or long while for reasons that actually make sense.  

Internet self-help advice often skips this whole process of inquiry and jumps straight to amputation, which is then celebrated.  That can work to end whatever felt toxic, and it can feel like a triumph of healthy self-care.  Sometimes it is.  But because we ourselves and the people we banish are all social animals, as I said earlier, a cut-off comes at a cost that may be unnecessarily high when something less drastic might have worked. 

 Self-help or silent bullying. Another dimension of self-reflection that gets skipped when we look to the internet for advice—is the sometime-humbling exploration of our own motives and the awareness that we ourselves are capable of doing damage. Shunning does psychological harm, even to people who are powerful, even when we tell ourselves that we are punching up or that they deserve it.  Remember, shunning is one of humanity’s most powerful tools for social control and punishment. It activates physical pain pathways. And we humans like inflicting pain as an act of vengeance. Revenge feels satisfying and righteous (even when it isn’t). So, it is worth asking ourselves: Would cutting off this person be an act of self-care or an act of getting-even or both?  Am I engaged in a proportional response or an escalation? Am I actually taking the high ground or is this really just tit for tat? 

Many of us, when we are centered in our better selves, are trying to reduce—not escalate—toxic behavior. We are trying to be the change we want to see, and that means ripple effects matter.  What do I want for the other person and for my world? How do I balance that with self-care? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to questions like these, which is why memes and tweets and video clips or religious and social pat answers often offer little insight if what you are after is health and growth. 

Beyond the binary.  Family systems therapists call cut-offs “rupture” and in general, because the cost of rupture can be so high in the long run (not only for the person who is cut off but also for the person doing the cutting), they typically work with clients to explore other possibilities.  “I’ve rarely just signed off on rupture,” says Seattle psychologist and author Laura Kastner. Kastner reminds clients there are alternatives to all-or-nothing relationships.  She talks about concentric circles of closeness based on trust and warmth and mutual benefit.  A young progressive might have an old Trump-loving second cousin in circle 15, choosing to see them only once or twice/year—and yet still feel like that connection is worth maintaining. One trick is learning to navigate the landmines, says Kastner.  Which parts of the other person are you drawing out—those that let you connect in your common ground or the hot buttons that ignite the worst of your conflict? What do you do when they bait you? When might you need zipper lips? Not everything you think and feel has to be said for a relationship to be valid and worthwhile.

Diplomats and conflict negotiators know that to find shared interests they have to stay away from certain topics. Our most intimate relationships, built on love and trust and mutual enjoyment are particularly precious.  They are our inner circle.  But by maintaining relationships with people in those outer circles, relationships with healthy internal and external boundaries, we build “social capital” and resilience in ourselves, the people around us, and our communities.  

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com. 

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in Musings & Rants: Life, Parenting, Relationships and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Shun, Exclude, Expel, Ostracize, Exile—The Power of Silence and Separation—And Staying Engaged

  1. BOOKS: Sexual Assault, Loss says:

    Your article reminds me of the era when women pregnant out of wedlock were shunned by society. Most were hidden away so that families could avoid embarrassment and shunning. Children were labeled as illegitimate and “bastards” and were also shunned or made to feel “less than.” This has been labeled as the “baby scoop era” when infertile couples “saved” the babies by adopting. Shunning illegitimate pregnancy was heavily ingrained in society and had many causes. Religion was one, giving nuns and social workers the opportunity to “do good” by rescuing babies in the name of God and goodness. As with many causes, money was a driving force — far less babies and mothers dependent on government money. This, too, was an era when women could not get a credit card and were fired when employers learned of a single woman’s pregnancy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike Current says:

    Enjoyed your article very much, Valerie! So insightful and pragmatic! Wish more of the world could be made aware of your thinking!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brent Thompson says:

    “Sometimes a client is able to prepare for courageous conversations that lead to another person seeing and changing noxious behavior. Sometimes a client is able to strengthen their own sense of self so that the other person’s behavior, even if unchanged, doesn’t get inside them in the same way. Either one of these can allow the client to get whatever goodness is available in that relationship without having to take in so much of the bad. When these two options fail or a person is simply too worn out to try them—or when the bad outweighs the good regardless—then, yes, the only course left may be to sever the relationship. But even then, after weighing the pros and cons of a tough marriage, for example, or a disrespectful boss, a person may decide to stay in a mixed-bag relationship for a short or long while for reasons that actually make sense.”

    This was such a succinct and useful paragraph, I’ve copied it word for word into my journal. The implications of it are illuminating to me. And encouraging, too. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Chris Charbonneau says:

    Fabulous article Valerie. Both an history lesson and a valuable set of observations of what is playing out today. Shunning, or cutting, or rupture, or cancelling seems, in itself, to be a kind of toxic behavior which is often poorly thought through, in this meme driven age.

    Like

  5. Ferdi Businger made this comment but his account isn’t working: This is such a powerful topic. Shunning, excluding, bullying are so damaging that even fear of this outcome leads to self harm and suicide. This is the central issue for LGBTQ kids struggling with the decision to come out. Aside from the toxic people in our lives such as the bullies many LGBTQ kids have to endure even before they have come out as LGBTQ, is the broader toxic social environment that we raise kids in. This is amplified in conservative religious communities, but pervasive throughout our society to the point where virtually no gay kid feels safe growing up.

    Like

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