Healing the pain of rejection

No doubt about it, rejection HURTS.

It doesn’t seem to get any easier as we get older, either. Being rejected by people you like, admire, or want to be close to feels just as bad as an adult as it did when we were picked last on the primary school sports team.

Rejection can be a catalyst for negative effects on our emotions, thoughts, and even physical health, and in extreme cases, can trigger aggression and violence. In those who are particularly sensitive to it, it can lead to anxiety, depression, substance abuse, self-harm, and even suicide.

Rejection can also be self-perpetuating. People who have experienced a lot of rejection, particularly by caregivers in childhood, may come to expect it. If this leads to behaviour that is likely to isolate them further, such as defensiveness, aggression, or avoidance, it can become a difficult cycle to escape from.

Your brain on rejection

Twenty years ago, a group of neuroscientists conducted a study using an MRI scanner and a game called Cyberball, which simulated the experience of suddenly being excluded in a game of catch with two other players. Participants who were rejected showed increased neural activity in the same parts of the brain that light up during actual physical pain.

The same neuroscientists then gave another group of volunteers over-the-counter paracetamol for three weeks and quite incredibly, found that the paracetamol-takers experienced less hurt feelings on a daily basis than those who took placebos. The results were supported by another study using fMRI and Cyberball. Those who took paracetamol experienced less pain-related brain activity when rejected by the electronic catch-players.

Rejection, it seems, quite literally hurts.

There’s no way to avoid rejection entirely (unfortunately!) but there are thoughts and practices we can cultivate to lessen the sting and reduce the potential negative impact on our lives.

Things to remember

Everyone gets rejected. Even the most beautiful, talented, clever, charismatic people you know have been, and will continue to be, rejected. It’s a fairly unavoidable part of life, not specific to you, and does not indicate your unworthiness as a person.

You don’t love everyone you’ve ever met or want them all in your life. So it’s amusingly irrational that we want everyone to feel that way about us!

It’s impossible to be liked and appreciated by all the people, all the time. If you strive for this, you risk becoming a people pleaser. Acceptance of this is a huge step in a healthy direction.

The most important thing is that you are someone who meets YOUR OWN expectations and values. You are the only person you are committed to spending every day of the rest of your life with, and ultimately, the only person you need to accept you is you.

Check the stories you tell yourself

It’s important to allow yourself to feel loss, sadness, or grief, but watch out for the stories you attach to it. “I liked that person and I no longer have them in my life and it makes me sad” is a valid story and a feeling worth processing. “Here is evidence that I am unworthy of love, of course nobody will ever like me because I’m inherently flawed” is not such a helpful thought to invest in.

Ultimately, it’s not the rejection itself that causes our pain, but our perceptions and beliefs about it.

Check your inside voice

I’m a singer and particularly confident about my singing voice. If someone approached me and told me they didn’t enjoy my singing because I was out of tune, I’d laugh and feel bad for them and their obviously tone-deaf hearing. Because their opinion doesn’t match my inside beliefs, it bounces right off me.

Likewise, your inside beliefs about your worthiness as a person will probably affect how much rejection affects you. If you believe you’re a good person and worthy of love, you’re less likely to take other people’s rejection personally than if you see it as evidence of deeply held beliefs about your own inherent inferiority.

You can’t change other people’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviours, so why not start with building yourself up so they don’t affect you as much? Practicing self-love, self-compassion, and self-acceptance will help you get into your rejection-proof vest.

Getting support

If you’re stuck in unhelpful cycles of rejection or struggling to process it, you may wish to consider enlisting a supporter to help you process your feelings and fact-check your internal stories. Gestalt therapy is relational therapy, and holds that therapeutic change occurs through an authentic meeting with another. This makes it ideal for healing relational problems.

To talk to us about how we can help, get in touch today for a free consultation call.