The experience of rejection has so many guises that it has become a very common emotional experience. Throughout our lives we experience rejections in many forms: being picked last for a team game at school, not being invited to a classmate’s birthday party, being knocked back for a promotion, rebuffed through internet dating, being excluded from a social gathering with friends, rejection of partner’s intimate advances and what can be the most painful for some, the break-up of an intimate relationship.
Experiencing rejection can provoke diverse emotional responses.
It may make us feel sad, alone, unwanted, humiliated, angry, disappointed, shock, and betrayed, to name a few. It is healthy to see these reactions as normal responses to a potentially injurious event. In fact, rejection is suggested to inflict four “psychological wounds”, and the extent of the injury will depend on a number of factors such as our psychological health at the time of the rejection, the type of rejection, and our resilience, or ability to bounce back from the rejection.
Four psychological wounds of Rejection
1. Emotional Pain
Even small, seemingly insignificant rejections can result in us feeling emotional pain. The answer to this is in our evolution. Millions of years ago, if we were rejected from our tribe, our ability to survive was threatened. As a result, our brains developed in an early warning system by triggering a sharp pain to tell us when there is a risk of social rejection. So, experiencing rejection can be physically painful.
2. Anger and Aggression
Rejection can provoke angry or aggressive urges or even outbursts. Sometimes even innocent bystanders or walls/ doors (!) pay the price of our anger. Rejection stirs up powerful emotional responses which are important to acknowledge and express appropriately. If this wound is not treated effectively, it can lead to more serious consequences for ourselves, our mental health and our relationship with others.
3. Damaged Self-Esteem
A widely recognised effect of rejection is the effect it can have on our self-esteem. This damage can be more than temporary if we do not attend to our negative self-talk. By listening and believing these negative thoughts, we are “kicking ourselves when we are already down”. We may experience common thinking errors where we overly personalise the rejection: “this always happens to me”, “I will never be happy”, or the critical voice reminding us all of our failings and what we should have done differently. These thoughts should be recognised and challenged in order to re-build our self-esteem.
4. Our Need to Belong is Threatened
We cannot escape the fact that as humans we are social beings, and we crave the need to be accepted by others. Not fulfilling this need in the long-term can have a serious effect on our physical and psychological well-being. It is important that we try and find our place where we feel we belong, so we can thrive and grow.
(Unhelpful) Coping mechanisms for Rejection
It is also useful to identify our ways of coping with rejection in our own thinking and behaviour in order to deal with rejections in a healthier manner. There are three unhelpful main ways we choose to cope with feeling rejected:
In the short-term these ways of coping may provide us with some relief from the painful emotions we may feel. However, in the longer-term these ways of coping may cause us more problems as we are not confronting the rejection and moving forward in a helpful way. The fear of being rejected is still there, lurking in the dark, defining our next move, and making us act based on fear and stress and not on trust.
We hear the time old cliché of: “it’s not you, it’s me”, but actually how helpful is this to allow us to accept and move on from the rejection? I would propose it is not helpful, and it may increase our negative emotions and reinforce our negative thinking patterns. It does not help to answer any questions about what has happened. It doesn't help to just shift the responsibility to ourselves, but without actually seeing that this "tactic" hurts and harms us equally.
The important part is recognising that we may need some help and taking action in order to sooth the pain of rejection, re-build our self-esteem and self-worth, and start to believe and love ourselves again. By doing this we can (re)build our resilience and experience personal growth. Isn't it worth the effort?
Resource used for this blog:
Winch, G. (2013 ). Emotional First Aid. Exisle Publishing: Australia.
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Written by Helena Virk, M.Sc.
Psychologist - Psychotherapist at AntiLoneliness
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