Dealing with Rejection
We’re all fairly well versed in first aid for dealing with physical wounds, knocks and bumps, cuts and scratches. We know when to reach for the antiseptic and band aids and apply a liberal dose of sympathy and compassion. I’m guessing we’d probably never find ourselves telling someone with a broken leg or gash in their arm to “just get over it’, “snap out of it” or “go for a walk, get some fresh air, you’ll feel better”!
But when it comes to emotional wounds we can find ourselves falling back on those trite old comments. We’re often not equipped with a good emotional first aid kit.
Unfortunately one of the most common emotional wounds we sustain in life is a wound inflicted by rejection. Technically rejection is a part of everyday life. We make choices about what to wear, where to eat, what movie to go to, what route to take to work etc. In choosing one thing over another we automatically reject the others things we don’t choose. That’s all very well when dealing with practical and inanimate objects. However when we find ourselves on the end of the personal rejection stick why does it hurt so darn much and can we do anything to lessen the pain?
To recap a little of my last column (The Mix 21 May, 2016) back in the cave man days of our ancestors we relied on the protection of the tribe to ensure our safety, provision of food and protection for our young. To be rejected by or thrown out of the tribe meant death. These days, it may not be as dramatic as being thrown out of the tribe, but rejection still comes in all sorts of other shapes and sizes. As psychologist Guy Winch points out with electronic communication, social media, dating apps and instant communication, we can find ourselves connected to thousands of people, any of whom might ignore our posts, chats, texts, or dating profiles, and that can leave us feeling rejected. In the big scheme of things these may seem fairly minor but many of us will also face some of life’s more serious setbacks – being fired, having an unsuccessful job interview, the break up of a long term relationship, being rejected by friends, family or the wider community we live in for being different. Either way large or small, rejection can be paralyzing and it usually hurts more than we expect it should.
Functional MRIs (brain scans) have discovered the part of the brain that reacts to physical pain is triggered when we feel rejected.
That’s why even small rejections hurt more than we think they should, because they elicit literal (albeit, emotional) pain. It’s thought that the pain of rejection was a warning to make our ancestors change their behaviour to become more acceptable and be kept in the tribe.
We are still wired to hurt. There is a well recorded condition called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, first described in Japan in 1990. It is a weakening of the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber. It usually occurs as the result of severe emotional or physical stress, such as a sudden illness, the loss of a loved one, a serious accident, a natural disaster such as an earthquake or being dumped by a partner. That’s why the condition is also called stress-induced cardiomyopathy, or broken-heart syndrome. The main symptoms are chest pain and shortness of breath which mimics a heart attack. As well as the physical response to rejection we can find our mood and self-esteem taking a further dive and a roller coaster of emotions carrying us along as unwilling participants on the ride.
One of the most perplexing responses that can cause the greatest damage after having been rejected is our own ability to turn on ourselves, to show ourselves no self-compassion whatsoever. We call ourselves names, lament our shortcomings, and feel disgusted with ourselves. In other words, just when our self-esteem is at rock bottom and hurting most, we go and damage it even further. Doing so is fairly emotionally unhealthy and psychologically self-destructive yet every single one of us has done it at one time or another.
So is there a better way to handle rejection? Guy Winch suggests the following
Have Zero Tolerance for Self-Criticism
Tempting as it might be to list all your faults in the aftermath of a rejection, and natural as it might seem to chastise yourself for what you did “wrong” — don’t! By all means review what happened and consider what you could do differently in the future. Thinking, “I should probably avoid talking about my ex on my next first date,” is fine. Thinking, “I’m such a loser!” is not.
Avoid thinking a rejection is personal when it’s not. Most rejections, whether romantic, professional, and even social, are due to “fit” and circumstance. Going through an exhaustive search of your own deficiencies in an effort to understand why it didn’t “work out” is unnecessary.
Revive Your Self-Worth
When your self-esteem takes a hit it’s important to remind yourself of what you have to offer. The best way to boost feelings of self-worth after a rejection is to affirm aspects of yourself you know are valuable. Make a list of five qualities you have that are important or meaningful — things that make you a good relationship prospect (e.g., you are supportive or emotionally available), a good friend (e.g., you are loyal or a good listener), or a good employee (e.g., you are responsible or have a strong work ethic). Then choose one of them and write a quick paragraph or two (write, don’t just do it in your head) about why the quality matters to others, and how you would express it in the relevant situation. Applying emotional first aid in this way will boost your self-esteem, reduce your emotional pain and build your confidence going forward.
Boost Feelings of Social Connection
As social beings, we need to feel wanted and valued by the various groups with which we are affiliated. Rejection destabilizes our need to belong, leaving us feeling unsettled. Therefore, we need to remind ourselves that we’re appreciated and loved so we can feel more connected and grounded. If your work colleagues didn’t invite you to lunch, grab a drink with members of your football team instead. If your child gets rejected by a friend, make a plan for them to meet a different friend instead. If a first date doesn’t return your texts, call a friend. .
The emotional wounds of rejection can be as serious as any physical wounds we might encounter. Our natural response to being dumped by a partner or getting picked last for a team is not just to retreat to a corner and lick our wounds but to become intensely self-critical. Rejection is never easy but knowing how to limit the psychological damage it inflicts, and how to rebuild your self-esteem when it happens, will help you recover sooner and move on with confidence.