The Pain of Rejection
The theory underpinning our approach to behaviour management is that we behave to survive and when we are successful at fulfilling all of our needs we are in a state of homeostatic equilibrium, that is we are calm and secure. This feeling of comfort is felt at a physical, social and an intellectual level. Our brain has evolved to deal with the demands of these three levels with the emergence of three distinct parts:
- The Brain stem/Mid Brain – this deals with our physical needs
- The limbic System – this is the part of the brain that controls our social and emotional care
- The Cerebral Cortex – this is where our intellectual needs are supported
When we experience either a threat to our safety or a deficit to our needs our brain triggers a sense of stress which in turn will activate a behaviour that is designed to either protect our self or seek to acquire something from our environment to return us to equilibrium. This stress is a physical expression of our drive to survive (see Newsletter 105 – Drives and Needs - 11 November 2019).
Our opening line, that behaviour is driven to survive is predominantly true. It is the foundation of most models of behaviour and the common reply if you ask what is the fundamental purpose of behaviour. However, this is not true; people commit suicide, they deliberately end their survival and, apart from some forms of euthanasia it is invariably the result of rejection, either from an intimate partner or a group! The thing is belonging to our immediate group of people is directly linked to survival.
So, to survive we have to have our physical needs as well as our social needs satisfied because they are directly related to survival and a threat will result in stress but more importantly a failure to protect will result in pain. The link between an injury and the experience of pain is straightforward and accepted. If I put my hand on a hot stove-top I will experience pain. In a recent New Scientist (19 November 2022) the process of pain is discussed in the feature article and the process of that experience in the brain.
In the example mentioned above, when the hand hits the hot stove-top three particular parts of the brain are activated. These are:
- The thalamus – this is the relay station where all the information from our senses (except smell) pass through to be distributed across the brain.
- The anterior cingulate cortex – this is the core component of the pain network and is activated when the subject receives a painful stimulus.
- The insula – the cortical region linked to the detection of a situation that will impact on our ‘self’. This allows us to actually perceive the pain.
Of course, these descriptions are necessarily simplified for what these areas of the brain are responsible for but their activities are relevant for discussing pain.
The thing is the same mechanism is activated when we are subjected to the sting of rejection, it leads to the same experience of pain. There is no physical cause but being left-out can produce that same fear response.
In 2015 Choong Wan Woo of the University of Colorado coupled the level of pain experienced with the mental state of the individual. In an experiment he controlled an application of heat on the arms of volunteers during a brain scan. As the temperature increased so did the pain. However, if the subjects were told to think about blistering heat their experience of a level of pain was elevated compared to others who were directed to think about a warm blanket.
This is an important characteristic when you are considering those children who have experienced a history of abuse and neglect. They have an expectation to be rejected because of what they believe that is what they deserve (see Newsletter 14 – Toxic Shame - 3 July 2017 and Newsletter 135 – Toxic Shame 31 August 2020). These kids are conditioned to expect rejection just as those participants in the experiment who imagined blistering heat expected high levels of pain.
What is the significance of this information? It is critical when a teacher is managing behaviour in a classroom using time out, the removal of a student and it validates the critical importance of developing a healthy relationship with all students.
In the first instance, if time out is used as a punishment of the child, not the behaviour then this is personal rejection and will have the same painful consequences as capital punishment did, when applying the cane, physically hitting a child was allowed. It is critical that the child understands it is their behaviour that is being rejected never the student (see Newsletter 16 – Time Out 17 July 2017). Teachers who just throw the child out might as well cane them. Physical punishment never works and neither does psychological punishment!
There are laws that protect children form being physically attacked; there are no specific laws that shelter them from psychological assault. Is this because we can’t see the damage? I think that is the case but I also believe that this type of information is absent from teacher training at any level. Too many teachers are unaware of the damage they could potentially do!