The Adult Brain of a Bullied Kid

by Amy on October 6, 2016


We were on a bus, heading into Portland for a field trip. It was going to be a great day. We were going to try sushi for the first time and see China town.

I was in seventh grade.

Sitting on the bus, the girl next to me was leaning up against the window talking across the bus to some friends a few seats back. These were all girls I knew. Girls I sat with at lunch, the same ones who came to my birthday party.

“She thinks she’s so great because she lives in a pink house,” the girl sneered.

“A pink house? How dumb!” one of the girls in the back yelled as a group of other ones laughed.

“What a snob!”

“Total snob.” They all agreed.

I knew they were making fun of me, on purpose, right in front of my face. A wave of shock and then dread and then nausea washed over me and settled into the pit of my stomach as it hit me. I wanted to escape, but it was a long ride to Portland. So I curled up into myself trying to disappear inside the wall of the bus. I crouched there in terror, curled up like a ball, my gaze fixed out the window as I listened to the laughter of my so-called friends — me sitting among them, them acting like I wasn’t there.

Why Does it Hurt?

It wasn’t the first time I had been bullied. Once in third grade I was nearly knocked off my bike by a couple of big boys. They got in my face and wouldn’t let me pass. It was scary, but an isolated incident. Earlier in junior high, back when I was still wearing monogrammed sweaters, an eighth grade girl and her sidekick (how cliche) decided to make me their target. They’d push me around, make fun of me when they saw me and generally made my first few months of junior high school miserable. But somehow, even though it was awful, thinking back to these experiences doesn’t make me sick to my stomach. Probably because I never started out trusting the big boys or the eighth-grade girl. I had never celebrated my birthday with them.

The field trip to Portland was the beginning. It would be weeks before I could use the girls bathroom at Neil Armstrong Middle School. The girls bathroom —it was the center of our social life. Each day, we’d sit in the hall outside of the bathroom when we didn’t have class, to meet and chat and joke around.

The “Gift” of Ostracism

14484642_10100629669205081_3752152605518574148_nA few weeks in, I got tired of having to use an isolated bathroom on the other side of school. I decided it was my right to use whatever bathroom I wanted to use. And, truthfully, I didn’t give a fuck any more. So, snob or not, I held my head high and I marched into the girls bathroom, ignoring the dirty looks, guffaws and wide eyed, open mouthed “who does she think she is” stares.

I surprised myself that day. I learned that I could do hard things — that I could stand up for myself even when nobody else was on my side. I could march right into a crowd of haters and piss with smug indifference.   Up until that moment, I had no idea of my own strength, courage and dignity. From that day on I used the girls bathroom and grew more aware of my own power each time I took a piss. This was the hidden gift of being shunned.

Bullying without Physical Contact is Still Bullying

Ostracism is a kind of bullying, usually without physical contact. It happens with people you know, often trust. It’s exclusion — straight up rejection — as a form of punishment. Being frozen out, given the silent treatment or cold shoulder, being shunned, feeling like a pariah —it’s all ostracism. Even though there’s no physical contact, the pain is real — rejection lights up the same part of the brain that registers physical pain. But unlike being punched in the stomach, the pain of this kind of bullying doesn’t go away. You can’t actually feel physical pain when you remember it. But the memory of being shunned causes the same sickening pain to come rushing back, over and over again.

Ostracism is Everywhere

As an adult I didn’t get why the memory of my experience at Neil Armstrong Middle School caused me so much pain. I thought ostracism only happened to Mormans and criminals. I didn’t realize it can happen to children. Social exclusion as a form of punishment by people we trust happens on the playground, it happens in schools, it happens in families, it happens in the workplace, it happens at church, it happens in politics. It’s everywhere. It happens because it works. People will do almost anything to avoid rejection, they’ll say things they don’t mean, buy shit they don’t need, say yes to things they don’t want to do, they’ll obey authorities even when it means someone innocent might get hurt. This is because human beings rely on other people to survive, we need them to form a sense of self, to get our primal needs for safety and belonging met. When we are shunned by our community, the psychological consequences are devastating.

The 3 Stages of Ostracism

Ostracism changes the brain. Three things happen. First, it hurts really bad. Social pain from ostracism lights up the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the same part of the brain that registers physical pain. Pain, any kind of pain —physical or social —tries to keep us from doing the thing that caused the pain in the first place. Which leads to “coping,” the second stage of ostracism. This is where an approval addict is born. The rejected person will do anything it takes, they’ll mimic, obey, comply, bend over backwards their way into the good graces of the people around them. And if it works, it will morph into a lifelong pattern of approval seeking that leaves the person unrecognizable to themselves years later. (I am writing an entire book about the things I did to get people to approve of me.)

Rejection Sensitivity

At the same time, people who have been ostracized develop “rejection sensitivity.” It’s a tendency to expect and obsessively seek to avoid rejection — a kind of rejection paranoia which ironically causes the person to act in ways that actually cause more rejection. Me, as case in point.

Probably one of the most embarrassing examples of this was when I was visiting my in-laws one summer over the Fourth of July. Me and my husband and kids were staying outside the house in an RV. I was in there looking at some pictures from the trip that I had posted to Facebook. As I clicked through all the pictures, I noticed that my mother-in-law had liked or commented on every photo except the one of just me. In my mind, I was certain I knew exactly why: She didn’t love me. She loved my kids and of course she loved my husband (her son) but she didn’t love me.

So what did I do? (This is the part where I show you how rejection sensitivity causes us to act in ways that actually cause more rejection.)  I confronted her, of course. Angry, I marched inside the house where she was talking to my husband. I interrupted their conversation to show her the photos I posted and to ask her why she hadn’t liked or commented on my photo. My husband watched in disbelief as my poor mother-in-law tried to respond. She didn’t quite know how to respond to this crazed daughter in law. “I did comment on your photo, honey.”

Skeptical, I went back to my Facebook page and noticed that I had made that photo of me into a profile picture, causing a duplicate to be made of the picture. I had been looking for comments underneath the duplicate photo. When I went to look at the original photo, there it was — a sweet comment from my mother in law. Luckily my mother in law is a forgiving person. But I have always had to battle a part of me that jumps to assume any social slight — a shake of the head, a strange look, a certain tone of voice — is a sign that I am being rejected.

The Final Stage

The final stage of ostracism is “resignation.” This happens when the rejected person loses hope of ever being accepted back into their social group. So they give up. They get depressed. They stop worrying about being liked and start behaving in ways to get noticed. Approval seeking didn’t work so they become the anti-people pleaser (a “hater” as I call it in The Approval Quiz). An ostracized individual who feels out of control and has given up all hope is dangerous, indeed. They are pissed off, hopeless, isolated, self-loathing and by now, they just need someone, anyone, to notice they exist. In an analysis of 15 school shooting cases between 1995 and 2001, the contributing factor 87 percent of the time was bullying, social isolation and “paranoia” ( I can only imagine the kind of paranoia that extreme cases of ostracism would bring about given the paranoia I’ve had all my life from my own reaction sensitivity.)


It ended just as quickly as it started.  One day at PE, we were tossing a basketball around in a circle. Somebody threw it to me and hit me in the head. The class erupted in laughter. After class, I was changing out of my gym clothes from an isolated corner of the locker room when I overheard a disagreement taking place. Some of the girls didn’t like seeing me get hit in the head with a basketball. The other ones thought I deserved it. Apparently the anti “hit her with a basketball” faction prevailed because after gym class — just like that —I  was no longer an untouchable. Everything at school went back to normal, as if nothing ever happened. I was relieved not to see my “friends” sneering at me or avoiding me or glancing at me sideways. On the outside, I was Amy again. Laughing, dancing and using a lot of hairspray. But on the inside I would never be the same.

October is National Bullying Prevention month. Click here for more information about ways you can get involved.

Have you ever been ostracized? Telling your story can heal. Feel free to post a comment below.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Roe October 7, 2016 at 4:02 am

I appreciated you sharing your story and your explanation of the stages. I can appreciate your bullying experience. Here is my story in this nine minute video. While the bullying story is important, the mental health treatment is what I choose to focus on now to help others.


Amy October 7, 2016 at 1:11 pm

Steve! This is so very moving. Thank you thank you thank you for sharing it here. Are you in Portland? I’d love to meet you and learn more about your work and talk about your experience with your treatment.


Louise October 7, 2016 at 12:26 pm

Thank you for writing this Amy.


Amy October 7, 2016 at 1:09 pm

Thank you for reading Louise!


Iris July 31, 2017 at 11:03 pm

I appreciate that you shared the moment with your mother-in-law. I react just like you do except I don’t have the courage to ever confront them–unless it’s my boyfriend. And when I do confront him, he’s baffled at my reaction, and I end up regretting it and, and I turn into a recluse (as you mentioned in the last step). Your candid honesty gives me the courage to confront the pain I have been suppressing for decades!


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