Being ostracised is one of the most insidious forms of childhood abuse. As a child, you don’t know how to make sense of someone who is family giving you the silent treatment. It is a passive-aggressive form of emotional abuse in which displeasure, disapproval, and contempt are exhibited through nonverbal gestures while maintaining verbal silence.
Since no words are uttered you cannot understand why someone is not talking to you. Why are they ignoring what you are saying? Not bothering to acknowledging your presence. Pretending they are not home when you ring the bell. It is literally actions speak louder than words but you cannot comprehend, WHY?
What did I do that makes them treat me like this. The questions just eat away your soul. Your reality gets warped. Did I do something wrong? The silent rejection is too painful to express because there are denial and pretense. However, the message is loud and clear. You are a nuisance, unwanted, garbage, I don’t want to be bothered with you.
Being ignored and excluded by people close to us threatens our psychological belief system (belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful existence). It affects our emotional well-being and perceptions about ourselves.
Ostracism is painful. Despite the absence of verbal derogation and physical assault, the silent treatment is hurtful. Kipling D. Williams, a Purdue professor of psychological sciences, studies how ostracism hurts individuals as much or even more than a physical injury. When a person is ostracized, the brain’s dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which registers physical pain, also feels this social injury,
Silence Is Confusing
My maternal grandmother was an expert in “Silent Treatment.’ It was devastating to me – for an 11-year-old who had just lost her mother. As long as my mother was alive we did not constantly inhabit my grandmother house. We’d be flitting in and out at regular intervals but not long enough to get on someone’s nerves.
That changed with my mother’s death. And it was a real shocker.
To escape our abusive father who turned full on violent, my brother and I would retreat to grandmother’s house. I don’t actually remember when I became aware that she was not happy to see us. Gradually, it became more and more apparent that our presence was a bother and she disliked us being there.
I remember her taking longer to open the door, and when she opened the door her lips were compressed into a grimace. Being highly sensitive, I’d cringe at her look. It made me feel unworthy. I hated her for being so cold.
The worse part was she was able to switch the blow hot and cold button depending on who was around. At least if she had been consistent in her behavior, it would not have affected me so badly.
Till today I am always scanning people for any signs of coldness and rejection.
Cognitive Dissonance of Being Ostracised
Not knowing why someone is acting cold is a kind of cognitive dissonance. There is nothing subtle about a physical or verbal lashing, but an accusation of the silent treatment, ‘Are you ignoring me?’ can easily be denied.
It leaves you in a state of anxious confusion and a desire to reduce the resultant overwhelm and warped perception. One just shuts down or else becomes the people pleaser. You doubt your feelings, you become zombie-like just moving through life unable to cope with the unsaid covert rejection.
According to Williams, The process of ostracism includes three stages: the initial acts of being ignored or excluded, coping and resignation. That was the beginning of my life-long depression.
Healing And Growing Up
Looking back I realize my grandmother must have been tired after having taken care of 8 children. My mother’s death meant being responsible for 2 motherless kids. A responsibility she did not want. It was just too much for her. She may not have been intentional. And that was the only way she could take care of her needs. But her silent treatment damaged me.
It has taken a long time to come to an acceptance that nothing was wrong with me. I remember the second agreement of Don Miguel’s The Four Agreements Nothing someone does is because of you. What someone says and does is a projection of their own reality. If they treat you badly it is because they are relieving themselves of their own pain and you just happen to be a convenient receptacle for their rage.
I know it is wrong to ignore and reject people close to you.
Slowly, I am learning to express what I feel It is one of the most important skills for living a happy and healthy life. Further, it is very wrong to ostracize someone without discussing the real issues. We need to develop the courage of expressing our needs, wants, likes and dislikes without resorting to tactics that diminish and destroy another human being.