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Hooray! You took a risk and put yourself out there. But after all of that emotional effort, it didn’t go as planned, and now you’re feeling just a bit wounded. Everyone deals with rejection at one point or another, so it’s no secret–rejection hurts. Whatever business we start, serious relationship we pursue, or personal risk we take, the risk of a defeating “no” looms large over our actions. Fear of rejection is completely normal, and the good news is plenty of happy, successful people have faced rejection and come out better for it.
So, why does it seem like some people are better at dealing with it than others? Sometimes, it’s about how you frame the setback. “Rejection hurts, in part, because one of the most fundamental human fears is abandonment, ” say’s Matt Lundquist, psychotherapist and Founder and Clinical Director of Tribeca Therapy.
Likewise, we frequently misinterpret rejection and consider it an indicator of our self-worth, especially if it’s attached to a rejection we experienced early in life, says Elayne Savage, Ph.D., LMFT, and author of Don’t Take It Personally: The Art of Dealing with Rejection. “Rejection messages, direct or indirect, intentional or not, leave bruises on self-esteem and security in both our personal and workplace relationships.”
The sting of rejection can be painful enough to make us never want to take the risk again, especially when we’ve put our emotions on the line. But if we take rejection as the end-all-be-all, we miss out on so many of the wonderful and surprising opportunities life has to offer. Fortunately, there are a few tangible steps you can take to help change your frame of mind so that the burn doesn’t last. Here’s why rejection hurts so much and some expert-approved tips for moving forward and finding emotional strength.
1. Know there’s a reason that rejection hurts
The term ‘sting of rejection’ isn’t just an apt turn of phrase for hurt feelings. Your brain actually registers the pain of rejection as a physical wound, so don’t think of yourself as overly sensitive.
In a study published in Science, researchers used fMRI’s to determine that rejection activates many of the same brain regions involved in physical pain. Their theory as to why: Our social bonds help promote survival. “We are fundamentally social creatures,” says Lundquist. “This isn't merely a preference—we depend on one another to survive. On a primal level, being cast out of a family or group is synonymous with death.”
Evolution aside, our reaction to social rejection is also impacted by our attachment styles, or our unique way of relating to others in a relationship. Learning to attach and to confidently detach is something we develop in childhood, explains Lundquist. In healthy attachment styles, children learn to tolerate the unpleasantness of being separate from a parent and, eventually, from other love objects. So, rejection is a particularly unpleasant form of detachment.
2. Process your feelings
Now that you know the pain isn’t just in your head, it’s time to identify and process all of the feelings that come with it. Give yourself permission to feel the full scope of your emotions. It’s important to put any sense of loss in perspective, says Savage. Here are a couple of check-in questions and coping tools that she offers patients:
Ask yourself, ‘Am I taking this personally?’
Ask yourself, ‘What old messages might be impacting these feelings of rejection?’
Mindfully notice your feelings and reactions (mindfulness means without judgment!).
Give a voice to your feelings—speak your feelings out loud or write them down.
Each of these exercises can help untangle our present feelings. “It’s critical to recognize our early rejection messages from childhood, how we dealt with them, and how they have affected our current worldview,” Savage explains. If we recognize these feelings and reactions, we can choose to change them.
3. Understand where the rejection came from
Take a deep breath because it’s time to do the scary work of exploring our own role in the rejection (again, without judgment!). One major pitfall in relationships is that we sometimes don’t communicate what we want clearly. Ask yourself: Was I asking someone to read my mind, and do I feel disappointed? Savage notes that in our need to protect ourselves from rejection, we may leave blanks for someone else to fill in.
Similarly, our insecurities can also lead us to perceive something as rejection when it’s actually not. “If we don’t clarify meaning, it can often lead to hurt feelings, taking something personally, anger and resentment,” says Savage. This “clarifying,” can be internal or in conversation with the other party. For instance, you asked your boss for a promotion and they told you you aren’t quite ready. Instead of taking this personally and giving up on that hope for your future, think of it as an opportunity to find out what your boss needs from you to be ready.
A quick and easy check-in strategy you can try with interpersonal relationships, from Savage:
This is what I heard you say ___________.
Is it what you said?
Is it what you meant?
There are certainly times we shouldn’t delve further into the rejection conversation. But if the situation allows for it and it feels right, this strategy can work to fix communication breakdowns and save your unnecessary hurt.
4. Avoid unproductive rumination
At the same time, be kind to yourself in your reflection! We have a tendency to be our own worst critics. But ruminating for hours on everything you did wrong may overgeneralize the situation or discourage you from taking future risks—just because you didn’t get this job, doesn’t mean you’ll never get a job. “Some of the biggest challenges patients face when processing rejection are the tendency to self-blame and spend way too much energy on catastrophizing the situation,” Savage explains. Instead, try to take a more objective standpoint in your assessment and move on to what’s next.
5. Take stock of what you can learn
Allow yourself to frame the situation as an experience you can grow from. For example, you want to take a romantic relationship to a more serious level, but your partner does not. Sure, this can be related to your role in the relationship, but the other person may also have a hard time with commitment. “What can you learn about what didn't work in the relationship?” Lundquist asks. “Are there ways you need to grow as a person? If there is a history of attachment trauma or unhealthy attachment, say to unavailable people, you want to bring that to therapy.” Not only will this give you perspective, but it will also help you avoid pitfalls in the future.
6. Surround yourself with positivity
No matter the “size” of the rejection, whether it’s at work or home, it can still have a negative impact on our sense of self-worth. Mediate that response by reminding yourself of your strengths. Studies show that practicing affirmations can decrease stress, increase well-being, improve academic performance, and makes people more open to behavior change. It can also help bring an end to that troublesome rumination. If you need a list of affirmations to get your creative juices flowing, here are 40 examples from Kaiser Permanente.
You can also do activities that help boost your mood, affirm your self-worth, and do them with those who care about you. “It's important to get support from caring people when going through a hard time, and that also goes for rejection,” says Lundquist.
7. Redirect your thoughts on moving forward
You’ve faced rejection and survived it, now don’t let it hold you back from life! How will you apply what you learned to the future? What life advice did the situation give you? The best part of rejection is looking forward and learning not to be so hard on yourself in the future. “Moving on can mean finding the courage to try again, whether that’s going up for another promotion or asking someone out for coffee,” Savage says.
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