So, you’ve been back to Uni for a week. Classes have started and you’ve probably met a lot of people that you’ve never met before. If you’re someone like me, you’re probably too shy to introduce yourself to the sea of strangers in your classes, and would probably prefer to stick to people that you already know. But what about when you don’t know anyone in the class? Or what about when you sit down next to a group of people who all know each other and are having a great time chatting away?
It’s a strange and awkward feeling, isn’t it? It might even cause some to feel a little nervous or anxious. But why?
Social relationships are essential to us because they provide us with support, happiness, and feelings of social acceptance. We all have this fundamental need to belong, and this need may be stronger for some than others. Either way, social non-acceptance or rejection are very unpleasant experiences to endure, especially in a new and unfamiliar environment. In fact, there’s evidence that shows that the areas of your brain that are associated with physical pain are active when you experience social rejection.
Psychologists have suggested that our self-esteem is closely tied to other people and our social groups, so the primary purpose of our self-esteem is to function as a signal that tells us how well we are fitting in with others. Our state self-esteem is what monitors our current relational value — the degree to which others view their relationship with you as one that is of importance and value.
When our state self-esteem is high, it tells us that people around us are reacting to and perceiving us in a positive manner. However, when our state self-esteem is low, it tells us that people around us are not reacting positively, which suggests that we should make some changes about ourselves because there is the possibility of social exclusion or rejection occurring.
Now, individualism and uniqueness are things that are constantly being promoted to us, but most of us still conform to the social norms around us—why? The psychological concept of the need to belong has important implications on our proclivity to conform. When we are feeling lowered state self-esteem, it motivates us to pursue social inclusion.
Studies have shown that after experiencing rejection, we are more likely to conform to a new group’s opinion, even when we know that opinion is incorrect. We’ll start forming judgements that align more with the social group, become more aware and vigilant of the social environment, and mimic others around us non-consciously to ensure that we are like our social group. This need to belong drives us to think and behave in certain ways that will boost our relational value, and avoid rejection in our social groups.
What this means for us, is that when we feel like we are being excluded or rejected from a social group, we may feel the need to work harder and prove ourselves as being worthy inclusion and acceptance. We may put more effort into doing a task if that task provides us the opportunity to gain social acceptance, and this may mean agreeing to do things that you normally wouldn’t do, or giving into pressures that usually wouldn’t affect you.
But of course, there is the other side of rejection. We don’t always go out of our way to please others when we’ve been rejected—sometimes we derogate others when we feel bad about ourselves. Researchers have found that feelings of exclusion are linked to greater aggression and antisocial behaviours towards the excluder. However, these reactions oppose the potentially positive motivations to be included again, and may lead to further rejection or isolation.
So, how do we strike a balance between the two? It’s difficult to overcome the painful feelings of rejection and exclusion when it occurs because we have such an innate tendency to want to belong. However, it’s important to know where your boundaries are. You don’t have to conform to everything your social group believes and does, and I know that sounds like a very obvious statement, but when you find yourself in certain situations, your ability to reason well falls apart.
Similarly, we may feel an urge to be petty or passive aggressive (or even just out-right aggressive) towards people who reject or exclude us, but it’s important to keep in mind that such reactions may only lead to further negative situations for us.
Do something outside of your comfort-zone that challenges conformity to social norms. See how you feel and think about what you were motivated to do—the more aware you are, the easier it will be for you to make the changes you want.