What Brain Scans Reveal About Hurt Feelings

Almost every language in the world uses an expression similar to ‘hurt feelings’ to describe the emotional response we have to being rejected. The question is, why are rejections so painful?

Among the various kinds of psychological injuries we sustain in daily life (such as failure or guilt), rejections are by far the most common as well as the most painful. When a loved one breaks up with us, when our classmates bully us, or when our communities shun us, the emotional pain we feel can be excruciating. Even minor rejections such as when our friends ignore our posts on social media, or when our neighbors don’t invite us to their parties, can really sting.

But what happens in our brains when we get rejected? Scientists asked people who were recently rejected by their romantic partner to lie in an fMRI scanner while they gazed at photographs of their exes and thought about the intense rejection they experienced. They found that the same areas of the brain become activated when we experience rejection as get activated when we experience physical pain.

In other words, hurt feelings literally do hurt. In fact, our brain responds so similarly to rejection and physical pain that people who were given a pain reliever (Acetaminophen) and then put through a rigged rejection experience (which they believed to be real) reported significantly less emotional pain than those who were not given a pain reliever.

This of course raises another question — why did we evolve a response to rejection that is so similar to physical pain?

The answer lies in our evolutionary past. When we were hunter gatherers living in small nomadic groups, being ostracized from our tribe virtually guaranteed death, as we could not survive alone for long. We therefore developed an early warning system to alert us if we were at risk for ostracism — and the earliest sign of such a fate was rejection. Experiencing rejections as painful provided an evolutionary advantage as it allowed people to change their behavior, remain in the tribe, and live to pass along their genes.

Rejections are a fact of life but we can and should take steps to ‘treat’ the emotional injuries they inflict (and not by drowning our sorrows in food or alcohol). Specifically, we need to prevent negative self-talk or self-criticism, revive damaged feelings of self-worth, be aware of and take steps to mitigate any surges in anger and aggression, and take action to restore our deep sense of ‘belonging’.

Educating ourselves about the impact rejections have on our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, and talking steps to address these wounds will not only soothe our hurt feelings but it can accelerate our psychological healing and prevent long-term damage to our self-esteem and emotional well-being.


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Kross E, Berman MG, Mischel W, Smith EE, & Wager TD (2011). Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108 (15), 6270-5 PMID: 21444827

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Image via Kamira / Shutterstock.

Guy Winch, PhD

Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, keynote speaker, and author whose books have been translated into ten languages. His most recent book is Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013). He is a member of the American Psychological Association.
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