We’ve all experienced the pain of rejection – perhaps a job you didn’t get, being ghosted by a friend, or not being invited to a social event — and then seeing your friends post about it on social media.
What is rejection?
We feel rejected when we’re not included, accepted, or approved of. Rejection involves the loss of something we had or wanted. And rejection, like abandonment, leaves us feeling unwanted and not good enough.
Rejection is an inevitable part of life. We’ve all experienced it and since we can’t avoid it, we have to learn how to cope with it. We can learn to be more resilient and not take rejection so personally. However, before we delve into how to do this, it will be helpful to understand why rejection has been so painful for you and how you may be unknowingly making it worse.
Why is rejection so painful?
The rejections we experience in adulthood are certainly painful and often more present in our minds. But before trying to heal these more recent experiences, it’s important to acknowledge the rejections we experienced growing up as these inform how we continue to think about ourselves and our experiences. Often, painful experiences from our childhood are still hanging around and influencing the way we interpret things that are happening in the present.
Did you experience any of these common childhood or teenage rejections?
- Being bullied
- Trying out for a team, play, club, or group and not making the cut
- Having no one to sit with at lunch
- Being the last one chosen when you pick teams in gym class
- Not being asked to prom or invited to a party
- Not getting into the college you wanted
- Having a boy/girlfriend cheat on you or break up with you
- Having a friend abandon you or ditch you for another friend or friend group
Unfortunately, some children also experience rejection at home. This adds an added layer of pain.
Rejection from your parents or family can include:
- Constantly being criticized, told you’re not good enough, or called derogatory names
- Being physically abused or neglected
- Being physically abandoned
- Being placed for adoption (even though it’s done with love, it can feel like a rejection)
- Your parents consistently failing to show up for things that matter to you (dance performances, sporting events, award ceremonies, etc.)
- Being ignored
- Being told your feelings, ideas, or beliefs are wrong or don’t matter
- Your parents favoring your sibling
- Being sent away because you’re “difficult” or “troubled”
- Being told you’re not talented and should give up your goals and dreams
- Lack of support or disapproval of your sexual orientation or gender identity
Rejection leads to false beliefs
Generally, the greater the frequency and the younger you were when you were rejected, the more impactful it was. Young children are just developing their self-concept and self-worth, so they’re very susceptible to negative messages, such as being told they’re not important or a burden. Even if people didn’t overtly tell you that you’re inadequate or unlovable, you may have jumped to this conclusion when you were rejected because young children lack the reasoning skills and life experiences to fully understand all the possible reason for being rejected.
So, being repeatedly rejected as a child can lead to a belief that you’re inadequate. And you’ve probably unconsciously internalized this belief by repeatedly telling yourself there’s something wrong with you and you’re the cause of all the rejections you’ve experienced.
These false beliefs about yourself add to the pain of being rejected and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Rejection leads to putting up emotional walls
Because rejection is so painful (especially when we’re interpreting it as validation of our inferiority), we naturally want to protect ourselves from future rejection. We do this by putting up emotional walls.
When we put up emotional walls, we won’t let people get close to us – we don’t share vulnerable things, things we feel insecure or self-conscious about, we don’t share our struggles and mistakes, our hopes and dreams. We (falsely) believe that this will take the sting out of rejection – as if holding people at a distance will keep us from getting attached or falling in love, or that the rejection won’t be as painful because the other person didn’t really know us.
The other thing that happens is we start to anticipate rejection. We think rejection is inevitable, so we jump the gun and reject the other person before they can reject us. Again, we think this will spare us the pain of losing someone we care about or wanted to get to know better. Rejecting others can give us a sense of being in control, having the power position, but it doesn’t make the loss hurt any less.
The bottom line is that putting up emotional walls and prematurely rejecting others doesn’t help us create fulfilling relationships and it doesn’t protect us from the pain of rejection. Below, you’ll find some healthier ways to cope with rejection.
How to cope with rejection
Acknowledge the pain and grieve the loss
Rejection is the loss of something or someone you had or hoped to have. Often, we feel ashamed or embarrassed when we’re rejected and just want to put it behind us as quickly as possible. Sometimes, this results in suppressing our feelings, denying that we’re in pain, or doing things like drinking or eating too much to cope.
Grieving involves feeling your feelings, not denying, suppressing or numbing them. Everyone’s different, but crying, journaling, talking, therapy, exercising, being in nature, extra self-care, and creating your own goodbye rituals can help. Give yourself time to let your feelings exist and be processed. The duration and intensity of the grief will depend on what you’ve lost; it could last just an hour, or you may grieve a major rejection for months.
Don’t blame yourself or take it personally
It’s natural to want to know why you were rejected. However, in my experience, there aren’t always answers or clear reasons why you were rejected. And usually when we don’t have answers, we blame ourselves; we assume that we screwed up, we weren’t enough, we’re unlovable, difficult, stupid, etc. Remember that you may have been conditioned early on to believe that you’re inadequate and to blame yourself for being rejected. These are beliefs that you can now choose to discard. As an adult, you’re better equipped to consider alternative hypotheses – other reasons for a rejection.
There are so many possible reasons for you being rejected. The fact is that even the most attractive, smart, accomplished, and likable people get rejected. And while sometimes it can be useful to take a look at your behavior and how you present yourself, that doesn’t mean rejection is because you did something wrong. Sometimes you don’t get the job because the CEO decided to hire his niece, or a first date doesn’t call you back because he feels insecure. It’s not always about you – and it’s unfair to blame yourself or take responsibility for things that were out of your control or to assume you did something wrong.
Strengthen your resiliency
Resiliency is your ability to recover or bounce back from a setback. And psychologists believe it’s a quality that you can learn. Things like having an open mind, avoiding all-or-nothing thinking, focusing on solutions and what you can learn from the experience, seeking support, maintaining a sense of humor, remembering your strengths, seeing mistakes as necessary steps on the road to success, and practicing self-care contribute to resiliency.
Keep putting yourself out there
Writers and artists are notorious for persisting despite being rejected over and over again. Part of their ability to do this is their mindset – they accept that rejection is part of the process; it’s necessary in order to get published or launch a successful career. Because they see it as normal and necessary, they don’t take it personally.
This type of acceptance and repeatedly “putting yourself out there” can help to desensitize you to rejection. Basically, the premise behind desensitization is the more you’re rejected the less it will hurt. In some situations, this can work.
A few years ago, I heard an interesting segment on NPR about how one man went about eliminating his fear of rejection. Essentially, Jason Comely intentionally set out to get rejected every day with the hope that he would get used to rejection and instead of living his life in fear of rejection, he could face it head-on.
Desensitization, the basic tenant of exposure therapy, is often a good way to reduce or eliminate fears, but we’re never going to eliminate all of the sting of rejection in our personal relationships.
Ultimately, a combination of setting realistic expectations, accepting that rejection is a normal experience, and grieving the loss you feel when you’re rejected, will help you to cope more effectively with rejection.