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One adjective that’s haunted me my entire life is sensitive. While it’s sometimes a compliment, more often than not it’s a comment on how I handle rejection, exclusion, and any perceived failure.
Growing up, I was that kid who ruminated over not getting invited to birthday parties. I turned into that teen who cried in the girls’ bathroom after not being cast in the school musical. And, naturally, I turned into the kind of adult who had a difficult time moving on from an “I’m not ready to be in a relationship” text or a “We went with another candidate for this role” email.
If any of these examples give you visceral flashbacks to your own humiliating, painful moments of rejection—first of all, I’m sorry. Second of all, there’s a reason these memories sting. Turns out, even thinking about instances of social rejection (seeing a photo of someone who broke your heart, for example) can activate the same part of your brain that responds to physical pain, according to one study published in PNAS. Feeling rejected hurts. Literally.
From an evolutionary perspective, rejection’s harsh impact makes sense: The desire to be accepted is a survival instinct. The individuals with the highest survival rates “were the ones who were most attuned to behaving in ways that prevented other people from rejecting them,” says Mark Leary, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.
Unfortunately, rejection—in all its shapes and forms—is an unavoidable part of modern life too. “People personalize it and think it’s about them, when rejection really is just part of everybody’s experience,” says Gary Lewandowski, Jr., PhD, a professor of psychology at Monmouth University.
Meet the experts: Mark Leary, PhD, is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. Gary Lewandowski, Jr., PhD, is a professor of psychology at Monmouth University. Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD, is a psychologist and the author of Bouncing Back From Rejection.
And there’s no good way to make it hurt less when someone ghosts you after a promising second date or when you’re passed over for a promotion. Your response to rejection “is sort of like stepping on a sharp object with your bare feet,” says Leary. It’s painful, but the pain is actually a sign that you’re an evolved human being who doesn’t want to get hurt.
That said, there are ways you can shift your mindset to not let yourself ruminate over rejection (after that one joke that didn’t land, or that one photo of your friends grabbing drinks without you). Having coping tools in your arsenal can help your overall mood and mental health, too, says psychologist Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD, author of Bouncing Back From Rejection: “You’ll feel more positively about yourself, and you’ll be more persevering and resilient.” Ready to rethink rejection? Read on.
1. Spot the difference between being rejected and *feeling* rejected.
Experiencing a familiar sense of shame and sadness after a new mom friend said she wasn’t free for a playdate with the kids this week? First, try to look at what happened—really look at it—and ask yourself if it’s possible that you’re just feeling sensitive. “Neutral reactions from other people are often perceived as rejection because the neutrality indicates this person doesn’t particularly value the relationship,” says Leary. “Many of the times we feel rejected, technically we weren’t.” In other words, anything other than enthusiasm can be perceived as a dismissal.
Play detective and ask yourself a few questions to get to the bottom of it: Am I interpreting this situation properly? Is it possible this person was simply distracted or dealing with other things in their life? Maybe we communicate in different ways? Am I really getting turned down, or am I just not receiving the response I’d like?
2. Train your brain to see the positive side of every encounter.
Rejection can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, says Lewandowski—if you’re looking for it, you’ll see small rejections everywhere, whether it’s your office pal offering unsolicited outfit advice or your partner taking several hours to respond to a text. On the flip side, if you look for signs that you’re valued and appreciated, you’ll likely start noticing those too. One example: “That same person who didn’t text you back quickly enough did text you back,” Lewandowski points out.
Practice taking note of when you’re accepted and included, and eventually you’ll “train yourself” to be better at noticing the positives and giving them the same weight as those negative observations.
3. Spend time with people who make you feel loved and accepted.
Sometimes, a situation might leave you feeling rejected—and you won’t even recognize it in the moment, says Becker-Phelps. Maybe you always have a great time with your workout buddies, but afterward, you notice you feel down on yourself. “Take a moment, step back, and ask, ‘Do I feel good about myself when I’m with these individuals?’” says Becker-Phelps.
If a person makes you feel less than, try talking it out—it’s possible they don’t realize how they’re impacting you. Beyond that, focus your energy on people who appreciate you. “Those who handle rejection well tend to have a stronger relationship network,” Leary says. This is also part of the reason people can become less sensitive with age—friendships and community feel more stable as you grow older, which causes “outside” rejections to hurt less.
4. Expand your world—and your identity.
Three scenarios for you: You just received constructive criticism at work. You got dumped by someone you were dating. You devoted years to writing and editing a novel or memoir, but it took an agent or editor just minutes to say they didn’t love it. (Not to rejection-brag or anything, but I’ve experienced all three.) It feels as if the world just ended—maybe because that job, relationship, or creative project was your whole world.
Another example is “someone who’s all-in on being a med student,” says Lewandowski. “Their identity is so wrapped up in [their career] that when they get a bad test grade, they’re devastated.” For someone else who has a ton of relationships and other interests, though, that same grade might still sting… but not feel like a threat to their identity.
If any of this sounds relatable, make an effort to place more emphasis on other factors that matter to you—or even just recognize the different ways you define yourself, says Lewandowski. Then, when you experience a rejection, “you have plenty of other things going on” and feel a little more balanced.
5. Think about, write down, and repeat what you love about yourself.
You might’ve heard that positive affirmations can elevate your self-worth. But instead of just repeating that you’re a good, worthy person in the hope you’ll believe it someday, dig deeper and find words specific to you: What unique traits make you you?
“You might notice that you perk up a little when you think about them,” Becker-Phelps says. Repeat these affirmations daily; you’ll start to feel more resilient and confident.
In that spirit of self-love, I’ve come to realize my sensitivity isn’t a bad thing—it’s human, and it makes me a more empathetic and thoughtful person. And while I’m okay with being attuned to the pain of rejection, what I’m ready to change is how I react to it. Because, cheesy as it sounds, I now know that every rejection has led me somewhere better.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Women's Health.
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