Director’s Statement

For many years, I heard my father speak of “the shame response to rejection.” It was his phrase for the idea that experiencing interpersonal and social rejection could cause someone to feel actual, physical pain and could be a precursor to intense anger or even violence. My father was a psychiatrist, and he heard his patients speak of this phenomenon throughout his career. He also witnessed it first hand during his 30 years serving as a consultant to a maximum-security prison. He wrote: “Learning the elements of rejection and understanding its consequence to the body allows us to see how rejection manifests itself in human relations.”

When my own children were in preschool, we parents were asked to read early childhood educator Vivian Paley’s book, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, and the first page stopped me in my tracks. To my great surprise, she was also talking about rejection, with her focus was on early childhood. It turns out that understanding and addressing acceptance and rejection is of crucial importance throughout our lives and across all social circumstances, from the play yard to the prison yard.

When the idea struck to make a documentary on the theme of rejection, I discovered a group of dedicated scientific researchers studying the brain science behind social rejection. One well-known study finds that our brains look like they are processing physical pain when subjected to an experiment that mimics an experience of social exclusion.

Another shows that in just four minutes of feeling ostracized, people feel a loss of control, a lowering of self-esteem, a diminished sense of belonging and even an altered sense of meaningful existence. In fact, no matter how they test it, researchers find that experiencing rejection affects us deeply and has long-term impact on our lives. It seems that our response to ostracism, exclusion and rejection is hard-wired. And it is only in the ways that we cope and respond to these situations that vary among people.

My goal in making REJECT is to provoke an informed discussion about the serious and sometimes lethal consequences of interpersonal rejection, which comes in the guise of bullying, parental neglect and abuse, racial bias, and other forms, across all age groups. My hope is that an exploration of the science of social rejection and an introduction to possible solutions can encourage educators, public agencies and others to institute policies and programs that promote behaviors of acceptance, tolerance and inclusion. These include improving child health and welfare in schools by adding social and emotional learning to common-core curricula and de-stigmatizing mental health problems. Scientific breakthroughs continue to reveal our fundamentally social nature, and show us we all have a profound human need to belong.

Ruth Thomas Suh