Insert knife. Twist gently to the left. Judith Sills, PhD, examines the painful business of being excluded and leaves nothing out.
Last New Year's Eve my friends planned to gather for a couples pajama party. The richest member of our circle had just bought a really swell beach house—completely winterized—so everyone would be down and comfy amidst all the material splendor that four bedrooms, three fireplaces, and a full frontal display of the bay can provide. It was to be a grand party, and its only shortcoming was that I was not invited.
Ah, just like me to take that omission too personally, as a girlfriend of mine pointed out. Actually, neither my husband nor I was invited, so it's not as if I were singled out. I felt singled out, however—singled out, left out, and knifed in the back.
My husband found this a remarkably passionate reaction to a missed pajama party, even one involving three fireplaces and "Auld Lang Syne." But he is socially tone-deaf and I am a Geiger counter.
For a while I dripped my furiously hurt feelings onto the shoulders of some of the lucky invitees, people I thought of as close friends. Seeing me in pain, they unanimously distanced themselves. They were powerless, they explained. Not in charge of the guest list. Felt bad themselves, but these things happen. We can't all be invited everywhere, now can we? Take it like a grown-up.
But being left out is not an inherently grown-up phenomenon. It is a grade-school agony that recurs throughout life. Being left out is an emotional drama that unfolds in three acts: discovery, distress, and, if you can get there, detachment. These psychological rhythms prevail whether you are reeling from the whispers of a group of girls at recess or excluded from a bridge game in your assisted-living home. Being left out is the dark side of friendship, and most of us have been both victims and perpetrators.
In my most recent experience as a victim, I moved beyond my ineffective initial outcry to the common fallback—retreat. I withdrew to brood and waited to see which of my friends would care enough to inquire further about my feelings. Several did, which launched our entire friendship group into the emotionally absorbing business of speculating on motive.
I cannot say for sure how many phone calls were required to establish cause; as the victim, I missed the juiciest speculations as to how I had given offense. Eventually, the group consensus was reported to me. I had likely insulted the party host, went the theory. I had been a confidante of his wife during a time of their marital upheaval, and she had probably reported my criticisms of him. When the now reconciled host and hostess conferred on the guest list, my omission was one of the new things on which they could agree.
Never mind that I had no memory of any such criticisms and that we had all been confidantes of the wife, whose misery at the time was very public. The group was comfortable with this explanation and so it became fact. If I disputed giving offense, I appeared defensive; if I acknowledged the possibility, I appeared to deserve my punishment.
It is this vulnerability before the social lash that makes being left out so bitter. Yes, you are missing the party, but that is usually the least of your losses. What cuts is that you have been wounded and your friends stand by observing the assault, discussing what you might have done to provoke it. Even if they agree that you were innocent, they are unlikely to defend you. It is, they imply, not their business and, most of all, not their problem. It is, after all, only a pajama party.
Perfectly, indisputably true—which is why neither you nor I would press a friend to intervene in so small a matter. Yet this absence of loyalty was so unattractive that good friends felt compelled to explain to me why they had chosen it, citing social obligations, marital conflict, or business relationships as their reasons for participating with a smile. I outwardly agreed with their decisions, all the while feeling callously abandoned.
Exclusion hurts so much because it forces us to face the firm boundaries of self-interest that lurk beneath the surface of even the warmest friendship. If home is where, when you go there, "they have to take you in," then friendship is where, when you can't go there, your friend might cheerfully go without you. That realization of being excluded can leave scars—but they don't have to be permanent.
It's best they not be because inclusion and exclusion, sharing attention with others in your social circle, and respecting boundaries are issues in the strongest friendships. Part of what some people experience as exclusion is really only the normal balancing of attention that
multiple friendships require. Extremely sensitive (or especially controlling) people, who suffer whenever they are not a part of every party, hold their friends hostage to their hurt feelings. ("We have to ask Jane to lunch, too. You know how she'll carry on if she hears about it.") In the long run, though, these demanding souls cost themselves friendships.
By adulthood, most of us develop a fairly high tolerance for sharing the affection and attention of our friends. We only feel left out when we are excluded in a pointed way. And even that sharp psychic jab does not have to cause permanent damage to your friendship network, though it certainly can test it for a time.
Exclusion is a part of life in any group. Human beings are pack animals, and it is in the nature of the pack to create cohesiveness by establishing a common enemy. That's why countries pull together during wartime and why little girls spend so many hours at a sleepover ripping apart the classmate who didn't get invited. In the politics of my friendship group, it was simply my turn.
I also considered the fact that, over the course of a lifetime, it has been my turn to be temporarily banished more than once, while some people never seem to sit one out. Groups may tend to draw closer together by excluding someone, but some of us are more likely than others to be chosen as that someone. I needed to consider my part in creating my sporadic social exile.
It didn't take much reflection. The thing is, if you're looking for someone who occasionally offends, well, that would be me. I can get an I-refuse-to-look-the-other-way smugness that has sometimes caused those who exercise social power to kick me right back—maybe even deservedly so.
It's possible I did wince too openly in the presence of my friend's angry marriage. I broke the very common agreement among friends to never publicly react to someone else's marriage. Once I could see my part in things, it was easier to begin to detach from the drama. This mending was hastened one day by a whiff of my self-righteousness. I noticed that there was something weirdly gratifying about being left out. I was hurt, done to. That came with a social power of its own. People who wished to maintain a relationship with me needed to attend to my feelings. There was maneuvering and inquiring on my behalf. One day I found that I was enjoying my role as the injured one. That's when I caught on to myself and knew I had to let the whole thing go.
You may be surprised to learn that the most healing thing I did was to apologize. Some weeks after the party I phoned the host and said I was sorry for anything I may have done that was harmful to his marriage. I did that because I was tired of "poor me, I got left out." My apology was met with many denials on his part and the assurance that what happened on New Year's Eve was merely a matter of limited space. Still, I felt marvelously free of my victim status the instant the phone call was complete.
Fortunately, I had other social circles and other invitations for New Year's Eve. That is the resource open to adults that weeping fifth graders do not have. When the cool crowd won't make room for you at the lunch table, you are left to sit alone. When the cool crowd leaves you out of a pajama party 30 years later, you can find a welcome in other cool crowds. It may take you some time, but they are out there.
I was fortunate that my husband is so socially independent that he needed a detailed explanation before he could appreciate the slight. To him a pajama party is just a pajama party, not a vote on his self-worth. I can't tell you that his obliviousness to being left out changed my emotional truth, but it was an occasional relief to try it on for size.
Time passed and that always helps. Other dinners, parties, and phone calls were exchanged. I frequently cross paths with the couple who excluded us. We are always cordial. My husband and I are busy planning a fall football blowout and their names are on the list. I believe in detachment, I believe in repairing rips in the social fabric, and I am certain that I have moved on. But I have to admit I am having just a little trouble actually mailing them an invitation.