Social Pain

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on August 27, 2020 # Lifestyle

When you reach a certain age in America, disabled or not, your mailbox starts filling up with medical newsletters from every big medical school/hospital center out there. Some of these are pretty thin gruel – endless repetitions of common-sense solutions for “a happier, healthier life,” i.e., eat right, exercise, sleep well, get a dog, etc. It’s all well-meaning, of course, and probably worth repeating, but maybe not at the cost of $39 for twelve monthly issues. These newsletters are great promotional devices, but I also suspect burgeoning income streams. Like every other on-line enterprise on earth, they undoubtedly sell their subscriber lists.

The best of the lot, in my estimation, comes to us via the UCLA Medical Center and is called “Healthy Years.” The articles are meaty, engaging, and backed by the cutting edge health research that is done at UCLA. The August 2020 issue is a case in point. The lead article is about “social pain,” the emotional fallout we all occasionally feel when being socially excluded, rejected, avoided, or ignored. People with disabilities like paralysis are constantly being ignored to the point of being invisible to the non-disabled world. Outright rejection is a little harder to read and is usually the byproduct of fear and/or ignorance. You may be rejected for a job or a date because you make someone feel uneasy in your presence. To state that more accurately, they make themselves feel uneasy. You have nothing to do with it.handicap parking spot

The big take-away from this article is that “the brain processes emotional and physical pain in similar ways,” activating the exact same neural regions. We tend to know this intuitively. We constantly use physical correlatives to describe social pain. Being rejected by a potential love interest is like being “punched in the gut.” Loneliness, often the outcome of social pain, is, to quote one author, “like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.” The hurt that comes with social rejection isn’t just in your head, as anyone who has had the experience knows. It includes real, somatic pain and distress. You can get anything from a headache to a perforated ulcer.

Let’s face it. The world is not going to magically wake up and include and acknowledge people with disabilities overnight. Not after thousands of years of casting us out. We are all going to face being left out from time to time. Many of the studies quoted in “Healthy Years” actually offer a way out. You can’t control how others act toward you, only how you respond to how they act toward you. The answer:

Take two Tylenol and practice the fine art of forgiveness.

Seriously. According to Dr. George Slavich, director of the UCLA Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research, and I quote, “it appears as though acetaminophen (Tylenol) acts synergistically with people’s ability to forgive or alleviate the feelings of social pain that are commonly associated with rejection or exclusion.”

This is a long-term treatment, mind you, not a quick fix. Too much Tylenol can damage your kidneys, to start with. And forgiveness, certainly self-forgiveness, is a practice, not a mental trick. The resentment or pain you feel towards another, or the loathing or disappointment you feel toward yourself must be released before you are free to move forward. Don’t ask me what the Tylenol does, but my guess is that it somehow alters the physical/social pain centers enough to let forgiveness in the door. It’s up to you to help it bloom.

My own experience tells me that if you are disabled, you are going to feel periods of isolation and exclusion simply by being, much of the time, the only disabled person in the room. Others may not consciously exclude you, nor you may not consciously feel excluded, but you are different, whether you like it or not, and that difference sets you apart. In a perfect world, the social consequences of disability would be no greater than the social consequences of hat size. I hate to break it to you, but this is not a perfect world, and disability continues to be considered not-normal and problematic. The stigma lives on.

Following the advice of the good doctors at UCLA, forgiveness is the salve, with or without the acetaminophen. Forgive others who ignore or avoid you. It will change the interpersonal dynamic and help alleviate both the ignorance and the fear of contact. Forgive yourself for ruminating or obsessing about feeling ignored or avoided. It could take time, but so be it. As the article points out, successful forgiveness is like “dropping hot coal that’s been burning your own hands.”

Now take two Tylenol and call me in the morning.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.