The Brain Science of Not Having People on Your Side


When our coaching clients feel excluded, or not part of the “in” group, the same region of their brain is activated as when they experience physical pain.

So whether your client bumps her shin into the corner of a coffee table or bumps her ego, the same part of her neocortex—the dorsal anterior cingulate—will light up. So says professor of social neuroscience John T. Cacioppo in his book Loneliness.

That means that when your client doesn’t make the interview short list for her dream job or her boss quietly omits her when it comes to asking for ideas and opinions from the team, your client’s brain will light up with signals that say “I am in real pain.”

What else happens when we experience that feeling of not being accepted? Cacioppo’s research reveals some sobering impacts:

  •    Our cognitive capacity diminishes (more so for strategic thinking than for memorization of rote information).
  •    Our emotions take a dip (or crash).
  •    Our behavior reflects less concern for the future consequences of our actions, and is more interested in immediate gratification.
  •    And all of these things actually change the way our DNA is expressed, such that it impacts our immunity and our heart health.

In other studies by sociologist Robert Weiss and social psychologist Roy Baumeister, research participants who were purposefully manipulated to feel disconnected and excluded were:

  •    Less willing to donate money to a student fund,
  •    Less willing to offer to help a stranger following a mishap staged as part of the experiment,
  •    More inclined to take irrational, self-defeating risks,
  •    More prone to procrastinate, indulging themselves with pleasurable tasks when they needed to be studying for upcoming tests
  •    More apt to over-eat (in a study by Cacioppo, it was discovered that the calories of fat consumed increased by 2.56 percent for each standard deviation increase in loneliness as measured by the UCLA Loneliness Scale

What’s a coach to do? Consider the following:

  •    Be that person to your client—be on their side (yet with radical candor); believe in them!
  •    Share some of the biochemistry science with your client behind what happens when we don’t have people on our side
  •    Explore who the client’s “bone marrow buddies” might be … or how to cultivate them
  •    Collaborate on self-compassion exercises the client can use to avoid self-sabotage!


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