On being cast out

Deep within so many of us is a terrible fear of being cast out. I see this play out again and again with my patients, and particularly within the therapy groups that I run. This fear of being cast out – exiled, ostracized, isolated – often runs close to the core of what motivates our behavior in relation to other individuals and, particularly, to groups, whether at work, within our families, or within our social spheres.

The fear of being cast out is woven tightly with the fear of humiliation, an often trauma-inducing experience that we all have suffered. I see again and again how so many of us carry the burden of this fear of humiliation into many of our encounters, whether at a dinner party or within our most intimate relationships. This fear often runs so deep that it might even be described as a basic terror. And from an evolutionary point of view, this makes sense: we need each other desperately; to be deemed unworthy of membership and to be cast out of the group, to be rendered all alone, has for most of our species’ existence been a literal death sentence.

Ironically this fear of being cast out often induces behavior that makes truly safe connection all but impossible. As is so often the case, the defenses we (typically unconsciously) construct to protect our most tender areas are counterproductive and render what we actually want (belonging, connection, love) all but impossible to achieve. The non-productive ways of defending against this fear of being rejected are many: we might become withdrawn and silent, escaping into a dissociated internal world where “no one can hurt us”; we might become dominant and take up all the space in the room, forcing others into a disempowered position of having to react to us (“the best defense is a good offense”); or we might construct what D.W. Winnicott referred to as “the false self”: an identity and mode of behavior constructed to please others and ensure our continued permission to be in their network.

The deployment of a kind of “false self” is a particularly pernicious and common defense. I encounter many people who have a long list of friends and a successful professional network, and yet long have felt so deeply lonely. Therapy work for such people often uncovers a deeply held fear of rejection that has led them to skillfully and rather unconsciously project an identity of someone far less vulnerable than the authentic, “true self” beneath. So though they may often find themselves at the head of a crowded table, the true self remains largely unseen and unmet.

A fear of rejection and humiliation in and of itself is not a problem. At issue is what we do with it. If our fear drives us to any number of protective behaviors that keep our true self removed and untouchable, we will likely find ourselves toiling away within a deeply dissatisfied life. If the fear can be recognized, tolerated, even (when safe to do so) shared with others, we might still move into the alive spaces of connection and intimacy that form the basis of a life well-lived.