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Rejection - why it hurts and how to deal with it?

Today I would share some tips on how to deal with the wounds rejection causes in our everyday lives. In this article, I am not talking about the deep wounds rejection can cause when f.ex. children are abandoned by their parents and this results in psychiatric pathologies for which I would recommend seeking professional help.


Now, how do we define "rejection" and what are these rejections we experience daily? The Cambridge dictionary defines "rejection" as, "the act of refusing to accept, use, or believe someone or something" and "the act of not giving someone the love and attention they want and expect".

This definition makes it clear that there are many reasons for rejection. We can experience rejection in the workplace (e.g. getting passed over for a promotion, not being given recognition from a manager, ideas or opinions being rejected in team meetings, receiving a negative response to a job application...), in our circle of friends (e.g. friends meet up without us, they develop new interests and do not include us anymore), rejection from a romantic partner (e.g. break-ups, not showing up for a 2nd date, ...) or rejection from the family (e.g. family does not accept a way of life, sexual orientation, the future spouse, other life choices,...).

What all of these rejections have in common is that they have the potential to hurt our self-esteem, create self-doubt. Interestingly, they all cause suffering that has an almost physical dimension. I often heard expressions that f.ex. romantic rejections causes people to feel like someone "broke their heart", or that the break-up or getting laid off by a company was like a "punch in the guts" etc. The physical dimension of rejection-inflicted pain was confirmed by a study conducted by the UCLA, where they found that giving people Tylenol (a pain killer) could lessen the pain experienced by rejections, because the part of the brain where we experience rejection is close to the part that processes physical pain. Isn´t that remarkable?

I would not recommend that we just drug ourselves whenever we experience rejection but stipulate to take seriously and accept the pain it causes. As a consequence, we should "treat" ourselves and others with the same care and kindness we would normally use when f.ex. we fell off the bike and have a bleeding knee and not brush it off with comments like "Ah, never mind, it´s gonna work out with your next date!" The reason for rejection being such a big source of pain is linked to our evolution. The human race has - in my view - always been an "ultra-social animal", relying on living and organising in groups to secure safety, access to food, water, a gene pool for reproduction etc. Being accepted by social peer groups meant increased chances of continued survival and hence why, being rejected could have severe consequences.


Now what can you do to overcome the pain rejection causes?


1. Reframe the self-doubt

One of the most effective ways to deal with the harmful inner dialogue after a rejection ("I am not good/beautiful/qualified/experienced/muscled/blonde/slim ...enough" or versions of it) is to find counterarguments for the rejection. This is what good friends do naturally and one of the best ways (based on research conducted in the field of cognitive behaviourial therapy and listed in Guy Winch´s book "Emotional First Aid" ) is to formulate counterarguments on a piece of paper. Counterarguments could be things like

  • the timing of meeting your dream partner was just not right: he/she was looking for a bit of fun knowing that they might move away, while you wanted to have something more permanent

  • the promotion you did not get was always meant to go to a certain candidate but the hiring manager had to follow recruitment policy and interview other candidates as well

  • your boss` unconscious bias was working against you

  • an artificial intelligence scanned your CV and it did not have the key words the algorithm was programmed to look for, so your application was never looked at by a human being - yet you receive a seemingly personalised rejection letter (also sent by a machine)

  • you were the victim of your potential romantic partner´s own projections and unresolved issues ("she/he is too good for me, not good enough for me, might never be accepted by my family")

  • and many more...

List all self-harming thoughts you have on one side of a paper and then all the counter- arguments on the other side. Whenever a negative dialogue starts in your head, you can recite all the arguments listed to counter your perception.

Let´s keep in mind that some rejections can also be a ground for learning: e.g if your CV gets rejected all the time for similar jobs you know you are qualified for, why not pick up the phone and ask for feedback and possibly change the wording you use to be more in line with the key words in the job descriptions?


2. Back-fill your self-esteem

A great way of doing that is by listing all the qualities you or some few trusted others appreciate about you. When I worked as a therapist with a group of people suffering from schizophrenia in a psychiatric clinic we played a game, where we had to list at least one positive quality about each person in the room on a post-it and attach it to people´s backs. We then read out loud what others had to say and the reactions we got were extremely positive and surprising things came out. This by the way, also works in a business context with managers or leaders. Another method that has worked well for me is writing CARDs

  • listing the context of an achievement

  • the actions you took to make this a success

  • the results you got and what that

  • demonstrates about you as a person or professional.


3. Find new or more suitable social connections

Sometimes, when we feel an environment is poisonous for us for whatever reason, we get painfully rejected continuously and above-mentioned strategies do not work in the long run, give yourself the permission to consider leaving such a system behind. Often it is not about you as a person, but more about the dynamics in a team (f.ex. bonus systems favouring elbow mentality or a "me-first attitude"), the culture in an organisation (f.ex where bullying is accepted, where racism or harassment is tolerated, where a manager is "managing up") that can result in the decision to leave such situations behind as being the most useful to protect your self-esteem and avoid getting hurt unnecessarily which in the long run can cause psychological pathologies which may in extreme cases even result in suicide. Under these circumstances it is advisable to reconnect with social groups like your circles of friends, neighbours or family to help you deal with your grievance and feelings of loss by just being there for you. Should you not be able to meet in person due to the current Covid-related restrictions, you may at least connect via video phones or video conferences.


I would love to hear from you... what are strategies you consciously or habitually apply when dealing with a rejection? Maybe your ideas can inspire others?





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