The importance of an inclusive society is not just an idealistic notion. While the image of all the peoples of the Earth gathered ‘round one enormous global campfire, singing a collective version of Kumbaya may be heartwarming, there’s actually a whole lot more to why belonging is vital to individual wellbeing and a healthy society.
Social Exclusion Anxiety
I recently wrote a post on how “depression” has become somewhat of a catchall term to describe a whole range of experiences of emotional suffering. The same can be said for the term “anxiety”: it’s become a highly medicalized word that accounts for a variety of emotional responses, including worry, fear, vigilance, nervousness, and many others. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t account for the diverse contexts people may be responding to when the word “anxiety” is used.
One such context, which has been a point of focus for research communities since the early 1990’s, is social exclusion. The concept of social exclusion anxiety can be understood as a response to the very real possibility of being alienated by the social groups we belong to. It is the fear of being labeled deficient or possessing characteristics that are deemed undesirable by the larger social units we affiliate with. Most people can identify with the notion that it’s undesirable to be alienated, marginalized, left out, or not considered. It happens every day, and a lot of people experience great distress because of it.
Exclusion comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, from dismissal, to judgment, to persecution, to non-acknowledgement, and beyond. It happens on both small and wide interactional scales. Social responses that serve exclusionary purposes, or that folks are more likely to feel “othered” by can be both overt and/or subtle. Overt exclusionary actions can include direct putdowns and verbally abusive statements, or intentionally leaving someone out of a larger social group. They can also consist of labels that separate the individual from their community. More nuanced examples could be facial expressions, tones of voice, or a failure to acknowledge key aspects of someone's identity in alienating ways.
Responses to Social Exclusion
People’s responses to exclusion vary according to the unique contexts in which they experience it. Some might withdraw socially to avoid the possibility of it happening, some might strive for acceptance in contextually relevant ways (like taking steps to “fit in”), and others might seek out or create communities in which they find inclusion and acceptance with others. Responses to exclusion are as diverse as the contexts in which people experience it, and often very creative.
The world of psychotherapy, in which I’m honoured to find opportunities to be helpful, has an unfortunate history of labeling people’s fears, worries, and anxieties as problematic or irrational. These ways of looking at people's responses to adversity can also serve to divide and exclude. However, based on my own experience, I can’t recall a single conversation I’ve had with a client whose accounts of anxiety did not make sense within the context they described it.
This is especially clear in times in which people have come up against prejudices, like racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia. Prejudice is inherently exclusionary, and people who care about being accepted may understandably feel anxious about the possibility of being positioned on the outside. They might also feel disheartened or discouraged that this is a social reality…their social reality.
Some other responses to the fear of exclusion are more socially problematic and damaging. Researchers in Denmark have done a nice job of illustrating how bullying behaviour is often a response to social exclusion anxiety. They describe how children subject their peers to mistreatment as a way of protecting themselves from the same fate.
For example, most of us with high school educations learned at some point that through the lens of homophobia, it’s undesirable (and therefore socially unsafe) to be queer. If this was not the case, the notion of “coming out of the closet” would not exist – people wouldn’t need a safe place, like a closet, if it was simply safe to be “out”. It follows that some people (children and youth, in this case) who are aware of the social perils of queerness in a homophobic society might subject other, “weaker” peers to abuse and humiliation as a way of keeping the spotlight (or “normative gaze”) off themselves.
To me, whether positive or harmful, these responses speak volumes about people’s values and preferences. At the end of the day, we all largely appreciate kind, accepting, supportive responses from other people and the communities we live in.
A Real Life Example
A friend of mine recently dealt with his own experience of social exclusion anxiety, and the results were life changing.
I’ve known Levi for at least 10 years. The two of us grew up in Regina, SK, and both played in punk rock bands at the same time. At present, Levi lives in Vancouver, BC, works as a mental health outreach worker for street entrenched drug users and mentally ill folks in the Downtown Eastside, and plays music with friends (and is the drummer of a great band called Things Change, along with two of my dearest friends).
A few weeks ago (before I had to take a hiatus to take a trip to Aotearoa/New Zealand), I was really struck by a post Levi made on social media, which I thought exemplified the notion of social exclusion anxiety very clearly. Here’s what he said:
I have struggled my entire life with severe depression and anxiety.
One morning I was walking up the drive having an especially depressive day when I noticed the chalk sign at Cafe Deux Soleil.
"The Sexuality Salon, tonight @8pm"
Woah. That sounds amazing. I love sexuality. I'll go to anything gender or sexuality related.
I looked up the event on Facebook and the topic of the night was "Queer sexuality and gender"
Woah! Two things I have struggled with my entire life as a queer person. And having so few queer friends or a community of people open to in depth conversation around sexuality; I knew this was gonna be good. Real good.
I showed up midway through the night and was immediately drawn into the dialogue. A panel of people sat on the stage. All representing a different queer identity; a bisexual man, a lesbian woman, a gay man, a non-binary pansexual person and another gay man.
One of the big pieces that came up and was so incredibly poignant for me was that all of these people at some point or another, or at that present moment in their lives, felt like they were not queer enough for queer communities.
Because to most, I present as a straight white man, I often have felt uncomfortable and unwelcome in queer spaces. And I understand why. But it has been absolutely detrimental to my mental health and happiness.
Being at that event I felt like I found home. I felt like I found MY people. But in less dramatic terms I would say that I felt like I found a PIECE of home and SOME of my people.
And that evening catapulted my life into an extremely beautiful and transformative journey. For the first time in my entire life I feel like I am truly happy. All of the things about me that I have felt ashamed of, and been shamed for, were finally acknowledged, appreciated and NEEDED in this new community. I now feel like I can be comfortable in my own skin and exist in the world with confidence and direction.
The sexuality salon saved my life.
When I read Levi’s post, I was struck by the contrast between the time before he discovered this community and the days since. He acknowledged feeling depressed and anxious for a long time before the experience of attending the Sexuality Salon, and then described feeling confident and comfortable afterward. From my perspective, this is a beautiful example of how “depression” or “anxiety” don’t necessarily live in the vacuums of our minds and bodies – but are instead responses to things going on in our lives. This isn’t always clear to us when we’re experiencing them, but it’s almost always true.
I was also intrigued to read about the difference belonging and inclusion made to Levi. He felt unhappy and ill at ease with the notion that there was no place in which he fit. After discovering the Sexuality Salon, he felt as though he found a piece of home and some of his people. To me, this illustrates how our emotions can be indicative of our longings, and the importance of inclusion for our dignity and wellbeing.
If inclusion, acceptance, and being understood are important to someone, then anxiety is an understandable response to the possibility (or actual occurrence) of exclusion, judgment, alienation, or non-acknowledgement. If someone feels as though they don’t have a place – as though they lack community – it makes a lot of sense to feel despair. For those of us experiencing anxiety or unhappiness in response to social exclusion, I invite some thought into noting the people and places in which we already experience a sense of kinship.
Here are some questions to help with the process:
- With whom do you feel most at ease and able to “be yourself”?
- When do you feel like you can just be you without worry of receiving a negative response from others?
- What communities or groups do you feel most “at home” in?
- If you haven’t found such a community yet, what would it look like if it were to exist
- How would you know once you found it? How would you be feeling?
- Who else, as far as you know, also feels uneasy about exclusion?
- How do you respond to one another knowing of the shared sense of importance inclusion holds?
- Is there a piece or collection of music that you feel “sums you up” really well?
- How does listening to it help you feel more understood?
Have you had experiences of social exclusion, or worry about it happening?
If you'd like someone to talk with,