Ignorance is…pain

In a class this semester, we’ve been learning about this thing called the Social Pain Overlap Theory. Basically, what it says is that social exclusion and being stigmatized register in the brain along the same neural pathways as physical pain. This fact blew my mind, but it makes sense. Recently, I got to see this theory in action. One of my roommates, lets call her Katie, recently moved out, and one of the many problems that led to this was that another one of my roommates, we’re calling her Tracy, refused to acknowledge Katie’s presence. Katie would say hi to Tracy, and Tracy wouldn’t respond. Tracy would invite our other roommate and I to go do something, but she wouldn’t mention anything to Katie. I watched Katie deal with a lot of hurt caused by this, and I understood entirely because I was ignored by my roommate freshman year, and it makes you feel like you aren’t really a person.

Many people experience this kind of exclusion at least once in their life, but there’s also the stigmatization aspect of the theory. If you’re part of a population that is stigmatized socially or even legally by the dominant group within society, like Muslims or trans folks for example, then not only will you feel this pain individually, but directed from society as well. It’s even worse for people who are parts of multiple stigmatized groups. It comes with the thoughts that not only are you not good enough, but you will never be good enough and there’s nothing that can be done about it. It’s no wonder stigmatization can lead to an increased chance of mental illness, and then mental illness is stigmatized and it becomes a cycle.

This is a dangerous cycle to be in, specifically for the people that get caught in it. It brings down self-esteem and with mental illness there is always an increased chance for a suicide attempt. Because of these extremely dangerous consequences, I think that the Social Pain Overlap Theory is an important thing for everyone to learn about. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,” is clearly not true. Words, or lack of words, can do serious harm, and it’s not just mental or emotional, there’s also a physical aspect to it because of the neural pathways it registers on. Even people who don’t really believe in mental or emotional pain can’t dismiss the pain, because it is physical. If people were to learn about this, maybe there could be not only less exclusion by individuals, but groups of people could be less stigmatized by our society as well.

I’m fortunate enough to not be a member of a stigmatized group, so I can’t even comprehend how much it could hurt to have so much hate coming from society directed at me, and feeling like there was nothing I could do about it. I do now what being excluded feels like though, so knowing that it, along with stigmatization, registers on the same neural pathways as pain, makes me want even more to do everything I can to prevent groups from being stigmatized.

Featured image credit: NICHD on Flickr, CC

3 thoughts on “Ignorance is…pain

  1. I love this! Social Pain Overlap Theory is one that I don’t think is represented in social situations as much as it should be; especially in terms of describing marginalized communities and intercultural development. The physical pain felt is then used in campaigns and mass communication, generally playing a role in social media overall. I’d like to see a follow up on this theory regarding communities and experiences you may have/identities you may hold/if you don’t feel comfortable that’s also valid, but I appreciate your development on this issue and perspective and how well this article was written!


    1. I love your point about how this would play a role in social media. I think it does play a serious role, and I’ve felt it myself on a personal level, just knowing I’m not being included in something a group of friends does. A member of a marginalized group, seeing that this identity isn’t included in mass media could potentially lead to them feeling that this identity is invalid to society.


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