Why do we feel so down when we get a whiff of rejection? We know in our hearts that we can’t like everyone who likes us – just as everyone we happen to like can’t like us.
Remember those agonising days as a school child – cross-legged on the asphalt playground – when you were the last to be picked for a team – or worse still not picked at all – and told by the teacher that you can be a “reserve”. Ha, pull the other one – that didn’t fool us or salve the flame of hurt. Or what if you were not asked to a classmate’s party? Or not part of the cool group?
If you were to track daily happenings that flatten people’s moods, says Professor Mark Leary, Psychologist at Duke University in Durham, rejection will be Suspect Number One at the core of any mood problems.
Rather than beat ourselves up for being over sensitive, its important to understand that nature designed us to be vigilant about rejection, says Prof Leary. Our evolutionary history has designed us to be dependent on small groups of people – and getting shut out was dangerous as it compromised survival.
Our radar of social esteem scans our environment for any hint of disapproval or exclusion. A sort of Minesweeper to ensure our continued existence.
So this internal barometer reacts to all rejections – a bit like the bleeping noise that some cars make when they reverse – warning us of an obstacle – whether large or small.
Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts, says it actually hurts to be rejected. The part of the brain activated in rejection is the same that generates the reaction to physical pain. So being ditched by your best friend is as threatening to your wellbeing as touching a hot stove.
If you find your spirits lifted when someone asks “would you like to join us for lunch?” and plummeting with any cut down – “I like you, as a friend” – then you are demonstrating and experiencing a normal reaction and dealing with the biochemical responses to daily slings and arrows – as set down by your DNA.
A word of caution however, say the observers of everyday psychological reaction. A contemporary wave of emotional fragility with sensitivity to rejection is becoming more pervasive.
New York Psychologist Robert Leahy explains: “Our fragmented mobile society has also decreased the number and the strength of our social bonds – even 200 years ago people were part of a small clan and lived their entire lives in one town. The sheer number of strangers with whom we interact creates many more opportunities for rejection – which triggers needless anxiety and groundless jealousy”.
Those at the high end of the sensitivity scale may pay a very steep price for wanting to belong. Overwrought reactions to perceived slights might bring the very reaction feared – which can cause withdrawal into the self – and therefore create still further over sensitivity to rejection.
“We are becoming a performance based culture and young people in particular can feel urgency to grab the spotlight instead of working to become a stable member of the group. This makes them more concerned about how others are evaluating them – and more sensitive to rejection”, says Leahy.
Of course being denied by a love interest is the most agonising of all rejections. An inexplicable longing is often set up and can lead to obsession with the unrequited love complete with compulsive actions to find a way to be accepted- with wild sweeps of risky behaviour.
If you are caught in this type of pattern and unable to get free, it’s a wise move to seek help. The triggers of inability to accept rejection can lie in unresolved issues from our past history – often our childhood. And it can be unendurably painful.
Overall, we need to be kind to ourselves and remember that reactions to rejection are hard wired in us. But if it is taking too much of a toll -and you will know this if you find yourself in a pattern of ruminating about the latest rebuff – then seek some professional help or have a chat with a trusted friend or family member.
Practical tips for dealing with rejection
• Some people won’t like you or want you. It is not a catastrophe.
• It’s untrue that popular people never get turned down – actually they do – but the difference is that they handle rebuffs and this distinguishes them from those who get hurt.
• It’s not necessarily about you. You may well just remind someone of somebody else – most explanations for others’ behaviour are quite benign.
• Shades of grey – don’t delude yourself that people should either accept you or not – it is normal for people to have some ambivalences. It is about them and not you.
• Watch for over thinking – or ruminating – don’t let these crushing snowballing thoughts remove your motivation to find concrete action to change your situation.
• Try and see that “No” can also be seen as being deferred – ‘no’ often means ‘just not now’. It’s about timing: the timing of love, of jobs, of invitations – and all come and go on the tide of life.
• Dealing with rejection can lead to finding ways to be stronger – a prompt to building resilience.
• Seek out some old trusted contacts. And remind yourself how much you are loved.
• Challenge your sense of being defined by a rejection.
• If the negative feelings persist, seek some help from someone you trust.A year or so ago I was in a meeting with some professionals I didn’t know very well – and whose work I admired. I knew they were going out for lunch together after the meeting.
At the end of the meeting, to my joy, one of them turned to me and said what I heard as “Would you like a coffee with us?” My mood rose and my pleasure was obvious “Oh yes,” I enthused gratefully, “that would be just wonderful.”
A split second later I realised the comment had actually been, “Would you like a copy of this?”
And then they all gathered their belongings and left for lunch together as a happy throng.
I took my copy and drove home.
C’est la vie for all of us.