Rejection: What Is It & How to Deal With Being Rejected
What is rejection and why is it so hard to deal with? Learn more about what social rejection is, why some of us feel so rejected, and how to cope with it.
What Is Rejection? (A Definition)
Rejection involves being excluded from a social relationship or interaction. It can be active—for example in acts of bullying or teasing. Or it can be passive—for example in the acts of giving the silent treatment or ignoring someone (DeWall & Bushman, 2011). We might respond to rejection with feelings of hostility, dejection, withdrawal, and even jealousy (Downey & Feldman, 1996).
The opposite of rejection
The opposite of social rejection is social acceptance. Social acceptance occurs when others want to include us in their groups or be in a relationship with us (DeWall & Bushman, 2011). Social acceptance and rejection exist on a continuum with acceptance on one end and rejection on the other. So, we may feel relatively accepted by someone one minute and relatively rejected by them later. Or, we can feel somewhere in the middle.
When do we feel rejected?
Although rejection is often deliberate—that is, the rejector does it on purpose—it doesn’t have to be. We actually differ in the extent to which we are sensitive to rejection and may think that someone is rejecting us when they are not. For example, the lack of a smile or laughter at our jokes may be perceived as rejection even though the person is not intending to reject us.
In general, women may experience rejection more strongly than men (Stroud, Salovey, & Epel, 2002). This may be because women are often more socially inclined and prioritize social relationships more than men. As a result, rejection in relationships may be more intense for women.
Why Exactly Is Social Rejection?
Human beings have a fundamental need to belong. Some believe that this is because humans lack claws and fangs and were therefore relatively vulnerable to predators—being part of a group helped us survive. So, those of us who were more group oriented tended to survive. This resulted in modern humans all being very group oriented (DeWall & Bushman, 2011).
Whether or not this evolutionary explanation is correct, we do know that a sense of belonging, social connection, and relationship involvement is key to our health, happiness, and even survival. Social connection may in fact be the number one most beneficial thing for our health and well-being (Holt-Lunstad, Robles, & Sbarra, 2017).
Our sense of belonging has two parts:
In addition to a sense of belonging, being part of a group offers us a sense of self-worth and validation of our core beliefs (Knowles & Gardner, 2008). All in all, this makes social acceptance extremely important to us and leads us to experience intense pain in response to rejection.
What Does Rejection Feel Like?
Some fascinating research shows that social rejection actually feels similar to physical pain. It activates regions of the brain involved in both the sensory components of pain and the emotional components of pain. The more intense the rejection, the more intense the pain response. Specifically, thinking about a recent romantic relationship breakup elicited both emotional and physical pain responses in the brain (Kross et al., 2011). So, when people say social rejection is painful, they really mean it!
How Do We Respond to Rejection?
Given that rejection severs social connections and makes us feel numerous negative emotions, it can lead to some pretty unpleasant outcomes.
Examples of Rejection
In addition to the classic example of rejection from bullying, there are many other rejection experiences that are commonplace in modern adult life. Here are some examples of social rejection:
Examples of rejection at work
Examples of rejection with family
Examples of rejection in relationships
These are just a few examples of what rejection could look like in different areas of your life.
What Is Rejection Sensitivity?
As noted above, we differ in the extent to which we perceive and react to rejection. While some of us might perceive our friend’s failure to invite us to lunch as a rejection, others may rationalize that they forgot or didn’t realize we would want to come. And the truth of what our friend intended may be something entirely different.
Those of us who tend to notice when we are rejected in even the smallest ways—or even perceive that we are being rejected when we are not—are said to be rejection sensitive. Therefore, rejection sensitivity is defined as the tendency to “anxiously expect, readily perceive, and overreact to rejection” (Downey & Feldman, 1996).
Where does rejection sensitivity come from?
Many theorists suggest that people develop rejection sensitivity as a result of repeated rejections in childhood, often from a parental figure. If parents (or other people) were punitive, disapproving, or rejecting to us in childhood, we then come to expect that this is how interpersonal relationships are, and we come to expect that this is how present or future relationships will be too. We may develop anxieties specifically about desertion, humiliation, and betrayal (Downey & Feldman, 1996) that lead us to perceive rejection where there is none or notice rejection where others may not.
How does rejection sensitivity affect relationships?
Becoming rejection sensitive as a result of being rejected is a completely natural and understandable response. However, just because it makes sense doesn’t mean it’s healthy. In fact, rejection sensitivity can unintentionally evoke the very experiences we are looking to avoid—that is, rejection.
It can cause us to feel chronically insecure in our relationships and to overreact to perceived rejection by our partner. Our rejected feelings may lead us to act hostile, jealous, or controlling—all things which are difficult for relationships to withstand (Downey & Feldman, 1996). This is just one reason why learning how to shift our perceptions of rejection—and our responses to it—may be beneficial for developing healthy relationships.
What is rejection sensitive dysphoria?
Rejection sensitive dysphoria is an extreme type of rejection sensitivity that sometimes occurs with Attention Deficit Disorder or Autism. In these individuals, focusing attention and regulation of emotions may be especially difficult. Therefore, maintaining healthy responses to real or imagined rejection may also be more difficult.
How to Deal With Rejection
Regardless of whether we are rejection sensitive or not, we can always benefit from learning to deal with our rejection in healthier ways. This can help us decrease both the emotional and physical pain that accompanies rejection. We might use these strategies to handle job rejection, rejection in romantic relationships, and social rejection from friends or family. Here are some science-based ways to handle rejection:
Write about your rejected feelings
Research suggests that writing about your feelings and the potential implications following an experience of rejection may be an effective way to process those feelings more quickly and move past them (Rude, Mazzetti, Pal, & Stauble, 2011). If you need more tips for effective therapeutic writing, check out these articles on daily journaling and journaling ideas.
Practice accepting rejection
Accepting rejection (versus evaluating it or describing it) may help decrease negative emotional responses more quickly (Rude, Mazzetti, Pal, & Stauble, 2011). Of course, acceptance is not always easy. To practice acceptance effectively, it can be helpful to remember that acceptance is not the same as resignation. Acceptance does not mean being a “doormat” or tolerating an unhealthy situation. Acceptance simply means that you acknowledge and accept yourself, your thoughts, and your emotions. Then from a place of acceptance, you can take action if needed.
Focus on the positive
Although rejection can feel terrible, some evidence suggests that it can make positive emotions more accessible (DeWall et al., 2011). This may mean that using emotion regulation strategies that involve positive emotions may be more effective at this time.
Video: The Benefits of Rejection
Try emotionally distancing yourself from the rejection
Emotional distancing involves imagining your rejection as if you were a fly on the wall or a stranger on the street. When you take a look at your situation from an outsider’s perspective, it can help the negative emotions to dissipate more quickly (Ayduk & Kross, 2010).
Decrease rejection pain with Acetaminophen
A really interesting study showed that taking Acetaminophen (Tylenol) after experiencing rejection actually decreased hurt feelings. So if you’re feeling desperate to reduce rejection pain, a Tylenol could help (DeWall et al., 2010).
Video: Overcoming Rejection
100 Days of Rejection Challenge
In apparent contrast to the idea that we develop rejection sensitivity in response to rejection, Jia Jiang proposed that we might also decrease rejection sensitivity by enduring rejection. This idea has gained some steam in entrepreneurship circles. From a psychological point of view, it is also largely consistent with the process of exposure therapy—or exposing yourself safely and carefully to the very things you fear and avoid in an effort to reduce fear. Exposure therapy has compelling research behind it showing it can be an effective way to diminish a fear (Craske et al., 2014).
Despite a lack of direct evidence, Jiang’s 100 days of rejection challenge, which is essentially exposure therapy for those who fear rejection, may indeed be a useful process. It involves engaging in specific tasks that almost invariably will result in rejection. It is thought to help desensitize yourself to the pain of rejection while helping you to overcome fear of rejection. To try it out, you can check out the Rejection Therapy app here. To learn more, check out Jiang’s Ted Talk video below.
Video: What I Learned From 100 Days of Rejection | Jia Jiang
More Articles Related to Rejection
To keep reading about skills that can help you deal with feelings of rejection, check out the articles below:
Books for Dealing With Rejection
Want to keep learning about how to handle rejection? Here are some books to explore:
Final Thoughts on Rejection
Rejection is hard. It hurts and it’s unpreventable. Luckily, there are some things we can do to diminish the pain or reduce how long it lasts. Hopefully, the tips provided here will help you deal with rejection more effectively.