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Rejected How to Deal with It and How to Deal It Out

Why does it hurt so much to get jilted or rebuffed? The science behind rejection — and strategies for moving forward, as well as some thoughts on how to reject kindly

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

When your boss says, “we’re downsizing,” or the shadchan reports, “He says you’re a great girl, but…” the pain you feel is genuine. People don’t always consider emotional pain as “real” as physical pain, but whether you stub your toe or were snubbed by your best friend, it hurts — and it activates the same area of the brain. “Heartache and emotional pain is more than just a metaphor,” says University of Michigan psychology professor Dr. Ethan Kross. It’s not coincidence that cultures around the world use the same language — words like “hurt” and “pain” — for both physical pain and the pain of social rejection. “The brain doesn’t distinguish between physical pain and severe emotional pain,” says Dr. Kross. In fact, a study in Molecular Psychiatry showed that the brain releases the same opioids (pain-dulling chemicals) in response to social rejection as it does for physical pain. Furthermore, reports the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Tylenol blunts emotional pain as well as it dulls physical pain.” Rejection can hurt even more than physical pain, and for longer. Remembering a severe backache won’t make your back hurt, but recalling that time nobody wanted you on their team will cause substantial emotional pain. What’s more, points out psychologist Dr. Guy Winch, “emotional pain echoes in ways physical pain does not.” If you were eating a chocolate Danish when you found out about the September 11 attacks, you may have lost your taste for chocolate Danishes for several years. Yet if you sprained your ankle while dancing, you’re likely to go back to dance class as soon as your ankle heals. “Physical pain usually leaves few echoes, while emotional pain leaves numerous reminders, associations, and triggers that reactivate our pain when we encounter them,” says Dr. Winch. That’s why emotional pain damages us in ways physical pain can’t. “Physical pain has to be quite extreme to affect our personalities and damage our mental health…. [But] bullying in school can make us shy and introverted as adults, and a critical boss can damage our self-esteem for years to come,” Dr. Winch says. This sets off a downward spiral. “We may cause ourselves 50 percent of the pain of rejection,” says Dr. Winch. “We start with this high volume of negative self-talk and criticism that takes the rejection to another level.” Those sensitive to social rejection tend to expect it and overreact. They see rejection even in the neutral behaviors of others. “It’s common to respond to rejections by searching for your faults, bemoaning your inadequacies, kicking yourself when you’re already down, and smacking your self-esteem into a pulp,” says Dr. Winch. “You might respond to rejections from an employer by focusing on all the skill sets you lack, and you might respond to rejections from your friends by questioning whether you’re interesting enough or fun enough for them… any of these things will only make you feel worse.” Emotional First Aid When you’re drowning in the misery of rejection, how can you pull yourself up out of the gloom? Grieving is fine, for a while. Take time off to treat yourself. You’ll process the rejection and then get your mind off it. Don’t sit around wishing you could turn back time — then you’ll just experience the rejection all over again. And don’t go right back to working on whatever was rejected; work on a different idea, or do something you enjoy. Talking to a friend can help you see where you went wrong (if you did), and realize that the rejection wasn’t a personal attack. A friend can reassure you of your worth (“The boss was rejecting your proposal, not you personally”) and help you reframe the rejection (“That school has different standards from your family — it wouldn’t have been a good fit”). Just don’t drone on and bore your friends — that sets you up for more rejection. If you need more support than a friend can provide, consider talking with a therapist instead. Decide whether to improve your product, or quit. These are both ways to move past rejection. Are you going to ask for feedback on your rejected manuscript, so you can pull it up to the next level? Or would you rather try writing a short story? One of the hidden blessings of rejection is that it forces you to clarify what you really want. If you let rejection be your motivator, not your undertaker, it may move you out of your comfort zone into a more rewarding place. “Every time I thought I was being rejected from something good, I was actually being redirected to something better,” says behavioral scientist Steve Maraboli. The temporary pain of rejection might spare us the lifelong pain of regretting that we didn’t try something new. List your relevant positive attributes. If you didn’t get the job, remind yourself — in writing — that you are hardworking, punctual, a team player, and that you have secondary skills an employer would value, like a working knowledge of graphics programs. This offers immediate relief and makes you more resilient in the face of future rejections. Don’t examine all your inadequacies. Self-bashing is tempting, but pointless. But do use rejection to burn off any arrogance; people will like you better if you’re humble.


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