Nobody is immune to rejection. Even the most beautiful and talented people have been rejected in one way or another. When you take risks in life, you face the possibility that you might be shut down or might not make the cut.
Different phases of life bring different opportunities and situations where we’ve got to put ourselves out there and be vulnerable. Dating, high school sports tryouts, college applications, and job interviews are a few prime examples.
There’s a reason you probably shudder at the thought of these experiences — they all come with a reasonable chance of rejection, and the odds are pretty good that you’ve experienced rejection already in one of these contexts.
As much as we’d like for everything to always go our way, that’s not the way the universe works. While rejection is pretty much inevitable in some capacity, it still hurts. It’s painful to get shut down for something you want, whether it’s a date with a crush or a job at your dream company. We all want to be loved, cherished, and accepted — be it by a romantic partner, friend group, or boss.
Rejection can cause us to feel a slew of emotions, ranging from confusion to sadness to rage. Oftentimes, people don’t understand exactly why they’ve been rejected, which can lead to a downward spiral of negative introspection and an overall sense of not feeling “good enough.”
Social and romantic rejection can be especially traumatic and negative for our self-esteem. “Humans are inherently social creatures. We crave connection and meaning to others. When faced with rejection, or lack of acceptance, it’s hard for us to not internalize negative thoughts about our own self-worth. Rejection brings up the existential crisis of ‘alone-ness,’ which is quite painful and hard to ignore,” Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, and Talkspace therapist, explains.
The Science of Rejection
On top of being hard to ignore, instances of rejection can also be pretty hard to forget.
Personally, I remember moments of rejection even as far back as elementary school. I had a huge crush on a girl in my class, and during lunchtime, I asked her who she thought was prettier, me or this other boy in class. She chose — you guessed it — the other boy. It hurt! I remember that day, and how it felt to hear those words, vividly. I’ve wondered, why are this memory and the feelings around it still so clear to me?
“Memories are complex processes that occur in the brain. Highly emotional experiences, like rejection, get stored in the brain and remain there thanks to the amygdala [a part of the brain] that attaches meaning to experience,” Caraballo says.
“If you’re someone who has struggled with rejection, and that gets reinforced in various scenarios so that it gains meaning and importance — even in small ways — that rejection turns into our pervading emotional story.”
Besides the fact that being rejected straight up sucks, there’s actually scientific data and evolutionary research that helps us better understand the pain of rejection, and why the pain is so distinct.
Studies using MRI brain scans have shown that the same region of the brain that is activated while experiencing physical pain is also activated while experiencing emotional pain, like rejection. However, there’s an interesting difference to be noted when it comes to re-living emotional pain.
Another study showed that re-living emotional pain is more unpleasant, and results in more brain activity, than re-living physical pain. The study also confirmed that it’s easier for us to recount details and feelings from occurrences of emotional pain than physical pain. This explains why it hurts more to reflect on the time you got dumped than to the time you broke your arm.
Continuing with the “broken arm” example, we get patched up and are typically as good as new in a few months. Emotional pain, however, can linger for decades if we don’t learn ways to heal its lasting wounds.
How to Recover from Rejection
So, how do you pick yourself back up after facing rejection? There are a few things you can do to make yourself feel better about the situation…and prepare yourself better for the next time you may face rejection.
Allow yourself to feel
Rather than suppressing all the emotions that come with rejection, allow yourself to feel and process them. Holding in your negative emotions and bottling up all the feelings is no good for you.
“I think that like many other experiences we often tell people that their feelings don’t matter and they should ‘just get over it.’ We could really stand to focus more on creating space for people to feel their feelings, even rejection, and find ways to feel it and cope rather than just ignoring the pain and making it all better,” Caraballo says.
Spend time with people who accept you
Surround yourself with people who love you and accept you. While it may be tempting to isolate yourself further when you’re feeling upset over rejection, it’s important to be at least a little social with loved ones.
Remember that you are loved and appreciated, and don’t let an act of rejection make you believe otherwise. You can’t always be accepted for every opportunity or by every person — and that’s okay! The people around you will remind you that you’re loved and valued.
Practice self-love and self-care
It’s so important to love and have a positive relationship with yourself. Doing so will help you be more resilient with future instances of rejection.
Make a list of the positive traits you have that you’re proud of, inside and out. Appreciate the parts of yourself that you love, and work on cultivating good self-esteem. You can also make a list of your accomplishments, both big and small.
Be sure to carve some time out for self care. You can journal or create art to express your emotions, take a hot bath to zone out, or head to a fitness class like kickboxing to burn off some anger.
Rejection is a Natural Part of Our Lives, Embrace it!
So, next time you’re facing rejection (which hopefully won’t be soon) remember that your feelings are totally valid, and it’s okay to feel sad when you’re going through it.
It’s a part of this crazy ride we call life, and if you want to live it to the fullest, you’ve gotta pick yourself back up when you get knocked down.