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I was left out of a dinner with mom friends. The surprising reason why being excluded hurts

The pain we feel when we're left out isn't because we haven't recovered from middle school, according to an expert.
Image of group of four friends clinking wine glasses with one woman cut out
According to a researcher, our high sensitivity towards being excluded comes from ancient times,Kelsea Petersen / TODAY Illustration
/ Source: TODAY

Recently, I was invited to a dinner with a small group of women. I knew a few of them, but not all. At the end of the meal, they pulled out their phones to schedule another get together. I had my calendar out too, tentative girls night I typed. Time: TBD. 

Before heading to our cars, we hugged and exchanged "see you soons!"

So imagine my surprise when I was scrolling through Instagram and there they were, piled into a restaurant booth and beaming — without me. My heart sank through the floor.

When I woke up my husband and showed him the screenshots, he yawned and rolled back over. 

“Are these even people you hang out with?” he asked. “I don’t recognize most of them.”

“That’s the not the point,” I replied, irritably. Being excluded is a one-way ticket back to middle school.

My half-asleep husband sat up squeezed my hand. 

“You need to let this one go," he said.

I did the opposite. I spent hours — no, days — obsessing over why I was excluded. Did I try too hard? Had I accidentally offended someone? Did they chat ahead of time about whether or not to invite me? And if they did — is that worse than them not even considering me? Did anyone stop to think about how it would make me feel when I saw the photos?

And note that I’m a hypocrite because I’ve done the same exact thing countless times. Look at me! I’m having fun with my friends! I’m popular! I have a great life! Don't you wish you were here?

It's not lost on me that all the women at the dinner I attended — myself included — are moms. We spend so much time worrying about when are kids are old enough to use social media and stumble across pictures from parties they weren't invited to. And yet we do it to each other.

Christiane Büttner, a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Basel, Switzerland, studies exclusion, specifically the psychological effects of social media ostracism. I reached out to get her perspective, I was also hoping she'd have an easy fix.

“Why does being excluded hurt so badly?” I asked.

According to Büttner, there are two main reasons — and both of them surprised me. I figured it had to do with childhood trauma, like, "You never recovered from not being invited to Abby's sleepover party."

But that's not it.

“There’s an evolutionary theory that our high sensitivity towards being excluded comes from ancient times, where if you were not part of a group, and did not have access to the hunters and the gatherers, you would die,” she explained. “That’s why people are so sensitive in detecting exclusion. It assured survival.” 

Büttner said the other theory is a neurological theory that examines how social and physical pain overlap.

“If you put someone in a brain scanner, and make them feel excluded, and you look at their brain, the same area lights up that lights up when people feel physical pain,” Büttner shared. “If you give them pain medication, and then make them feel excluded, that area will light up to a lesser extent.” 

Research has found that people relive social pain over and over again, Büttner said. 

“When you told about not being included in that dinner, it hurt again — right? But if I ask you to tell me about the greatest tooth pain you’ve ever experienced, it’s not going to hurt again,” she said. “Social pain is enduring.”

It now makes sense to me why at age 44, I can vividly recall how I felt when kids came to school dressed in hot pink T-shirts from a bat mitzvah I wasn’t invited to attend. I always thought there was something wrong with me and that I was flawed for my inability to let it go three decades later.

After I was excluded from that dinner, I spoke to a friend who once confessed to me that she felt bad when I posted photos of a beach weekend with some of our shared friends. She was heavily pregnant at the time, and we thought she wouldn’t care. She cared, a lot.

“I never forgot that,” she said. “I’m not mad about it anymore, I just never forgot.”

“I know,” I said.

“That bottom line is that it always hurts,” Büttner said.

However, there are things you can do to alleviate the pain. Büttner points to cognitive reappraisal, which involves changing how one thinks about a certain given situation. For instance, instead of going to the worst place — I'm a loser! — when I wasn't invited to the dinner, I could have thought to myself, "Their loss!" or "It could have just been an oversight."

"You can't control what others do, but you can try to control your thoughts," Büttner said.

I can also control my own actions.

I've decided that going forward I am going to ask myself two questions before posting a picture on social media. 1) Will this hurt anyone? 2) Why do I want to share it?

Büttner agreed it's not a bad idea.

"If everyone would be as mindful about what they do online as they are in real life, that would be a great step forward," Büttner said.