Nobody likes to feel rejected, but life isn’t always fair, and sometimes things and people don’t behave the way we want them to. Sometimes a partner decides they want to go their separate way, or a potential employer finds a better fit for a role. Whatever the circumstances, rejection can be deeply uncomfortable. However, it doesn’t have to be. You can learn to take rejection in your stride and even use it to your advantage.
If you want to develop this invaluable life skill, read on. Throughout this article, we’ll explore why rejection can hurt so much and what makes some of us more sensitive to it than others. Later we’ll give you some practical, invaluable tips and advice to help you make the best of those instances of rejection in your life and use your experience in a healthy way to understand how to deal with rejection.
Why does rejection hurt?
If you’ve ever experienced rejection (who hasn’t?), then you know how much it can hurt. But why does rejection hurt so much? According to psychologist Ethan Kross and his colleagues in a study published in PNAS, the emotional pain we experience the following rejection stems from the same areas of the brain that get activated by physical pain.
One possible reason why the brain responds to physical and emotional pain similarly dates back to our early ancestors. Human beings are hardwired to live in communities. These days we don’t need to be as physically close to others as we once did to survive, yet we still strive for connection in person and digitally today, hence the profound popularity of social media and technological communication.
Our early ancestors relied on each other and their close-knit communities for survival. Being accepted and appreciated in a tribe served a survival purpose because it meant you got a share of the resources and benefited from protection from danger. If one member of the tribe was cast out, rejected, pushed away, then their chances of survival were significantly reduced.
The brain is wired to be averse to physical pain for obvious reasons. Physical pain indicates that something is hurting us and is dangerous. To be able to respond to physical pain quickly through pain receptors and chemical messengers in the brain, we increase our chance of survival against whatever is hurting us.
Similarly, the pain response associated with emotional pain signals that we need to make a change, to heal our pain, or avoid having to face it all together, which for our ancestors meant staying connected with the tribe.
Why are some of us more sensitive to rejection than others?
Why is it that two people can experience rejection but have completely different responses? One person bounces back relatively quickly, while the other person might take weeks to recover from the same thing.
Research suggests that those who possess high levels of self-compassion have a reduced level of rejection sensitivity compared to those who are less self-compassionate. Interestingly, rejection sensitivity was found to be higher in those who experience higher levels of self-judgment, identification with the rejection, and isolation.
How to deal with rejection – practical tips
When we’ve experienced rejection, it’s very easy to jump to the conclusion that we are unworthy of that from which we were rejected. A breakup or getting turned down by a potential partner might make us feel like we’re unworthy of love. Getting fired or not getting called back after an interview might make us doubt our skills and abilities.
A simple tip, but one that requires consistent practice, is not to identify with that rejection – to understand that another person’s decision does not define us.
There are many potential reasons why a person or a company might not think they are a good fit for them, and much of their decision may not have anything to do with us at all.
“The most frequent reasons we get turned down as romantic prospects (or as job applicants) are because of a lack of general chemistry because we don’t match the person’s or company’s specific needs at that time, or because we don’t fit the narrow definition of who they’re looking for—not because of any critical missteps we might have made nor because we have any fatal character flaws.” – Guy Winch.
Breaking the habit of identification can be challenging when our inner critic is strong. Also known as our inner voice, this is the inner narrative we experience daily, that which speaks loudest when we fail at something or get rejected.
The inner critic is an extension of our ego, and as such, it can cause much suffering. At times of rejection, we’re more vulnerable than usual and tend to think negatively of ourselves. This is when the inner critic wakes up, latches onto our self-doubts and insecurities, and relentlessly confirms them.
Reflect on the lesson
One of the most valuable life skills a person can develop, and one which has profound healing properties in the face of the pain of rejection, is to be able to shift one’s perception in any situation. For example, if you get rejected by a partner or an employer, you are given a choice in how you see and assess the situation.
Learn and grow
You can choose to ruminate and wallow, to allow your inner critic to run loose, and to blame yourself and your flaws for what went wrong. Alternatively, you can choose to see your experience as an opportunity to learn and grow. You can assess what happened and consider, with love and self-compassion, how you could do things differently the next time around.
You could also choose to take this opportunity to gain insight into your deeper emotions. You can reflect on your sense of pain and rejection and explore its roots to bolster your personal growth and development.
Connect with others
Rejection can make us feel incredibly lonely, so it’s important to reach out and connect with others when rejection has got you down. As mentioned earlier, humans are hardwired to connect. We thrive off of social bonds and closeness with others.
When rejection is followed by sadness and loneliness, having people close to you whom you love, and trust can make all the difference. It’s well known that loneliness is detrimental to our mental health – research proves that it’s associated with higher rates of anxiety and depression.
Equally, strong social connections have the opposite effect. Research proves that those who enjoy close, intimate social bonds have much lower rates of anxiety and depression than those who are lacking.
You don’t even need to talk…
So, reach out to trusted friends and family members for support when you’re feeling down. Understandably you might not be in the most talkative or social mood following an instance of rejection. But simply being around those you love and those that love you back can go a long way in making you feel better, stronger, more hopeful, and overall more emotionally resilient.
Focus on the future
So you got rejected. You’ll need to give yourself some time to process the pain of that rejection and let yourself heal. Still, be mindful of how much time you spend berating and criticizing yourself. It’s important to reflect on what went wrong and examine the role you played in the rejection, but you don’t need to lose sleep over it.
Spend time working on yourself
Instead, once you’ve given yourself some time to heal (which varies in length for different people), try to turn your attention to the future. A potential path was closed, but don’t forget about others that are open. Spend time recalibrating your approach and taking an honest look at all of the options in front of you.
Understand what has been triggered
Rejection can hurt no matter who you are, but some of us are more sensitive to that pain than others. If you find yourself feeling deeply hurt and upset following an instance of rejection, consider looking within to see if the feeling echoes something from your past.
Did you get rejected by a partner or an employer when you were younger that you never fully got over? Were you led to believe by someone in your childhood that you were inherently flawed or not good enough? If so, you’re not alone.
Many of us grow up with distorted core beliefs that stem from our childhood experiences. Perhaps a parent or sibling always made us think that we weren’t good enough or that we were only worthy of love if we were successful.
No matter what you were told…
Like everyone here on the planet, you hold inherent self-worth, no matter what others may lead you to believe. It is important to understand that the more insight and awareness we can bring to unhealed past emotional pain, the greater chance we have of eventually overcoming and becoming more emotionally resilient when rejection happens today.
So, how do we practice self-compassion? Psychologist and author Kristin Neff, pioneer of the self-compassion movement, suggests that we treat ourselves as our own best friends. We’re often kind and compassionate to others but far less often treat ourselves that way.
Neff explains that we are our own best friend. We need to shift our inner dialogue and narrative from over-criticism and judgment and toward compassion and kindness.
Be your own best friend
For example, if a friend came to you for support following a breakup or a job loss, how would you treat them? You probably wouldn’t add salt to their wound by telling them they’re unworthy, unlovable, or not good enough.
Instead, you help you view the situation objectively, explore potential reasons for the rejection that have nothing to do with them, and encourage them to be kind to themselves and focus on the future.
Neff writes that self-compassion can offer greater benefits for our emotional well-being than self-esteem. Of course, self-esteem is important, but it can also be fragile, especially when things don’t go our way.
Rejection can knock our self-esteem and, in its place, cultivate a lot of unhelpful, unhealthy, and negative self-talk. Self-compassion encompasses and accepts all the emotions one can possibly feel. It doesn’t feel the need to make criticism, negative thoughts, and harsh self-talk out of the negative emotions; it simply lets them be.
Reach out for support
You’re the only person who knows what it’s like to be you. Sure, everybody gets rejected sometimes, but if this time around you’re feeling particularly low or unworthy, that’s okay. Rejection stings no matter what the circumstance, but there are times when that pain is stronger than usual.
Perhaps there was a job you had wanted or a potential for whom you feel head over heels. Whatever it was, understand that there’s nothing wrong with feeling deeply upset. Still, try your best to be mindful of how you act and behave after rejection or any other moment of disappointment.
“Failure is so common a human experience that what distinguishes us from one another is not that we fail but rather how we respond when we do.” – Guy Winch, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries.
As mentioned, self-compassion and focusing on the future are wise ways to respond to rejection. There are other ways, too, like connecting with friends and family and people you love.
What’s most important is that you find healthy ways to deal with the negative feelings that typically follow rejection. You can’t control who and what will accept you in life, but you can control how you respond.