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Getting rejected

Rejection is when we are refused belonging and taking part in a desired social situation. This social situation may be relationships, family, friends, work or company.

How to be rejected and do the rejection. 

Rejection in relationships and work can be in many ways but in any case, life will face you with many rejections so we must learn to handle them. Sometimes we will be in the place to do the rejection so we must also learn how to reject someone in ways that maintain their and our own sense of self. 

Reading Time: 45 minutes

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

is when a person feels intense emotional pain related to rejection. The word “dysphoria” comes from an ancient Greek word that describes a strong — if not overwhelming — feeling of pain or discomfort

Foreword: Have you felt the nagging questioning of self-worth after being rejected by the person you fancied? Perhaps you felt the gruelling anxiety just thinking about having to tell someone their application did not go through. You may even be the key person making a decision on whether a prospective hire should join your company, so how do you politely decline in a way where they still feel empowered and keep your company in high regard? The feeling of rejection has a massive body of research in psychology because it is so ubiquitous and felt so intensely, so even though this article is quite long it may just scratch the surface on the extent to all the ways we feel and can manage rejection.

What is rejection and why does it hurt so much?

Rejection is when we are refused belonging and taking part in a desired social situation. This social situation may be relationships, family, friends, work or company. It can be acute as when we are the ones asking to take part such as asking out your crush and in this moment you are denied the social situation of being a couple. It can also be active and continuous such as in the case of bullying where we are denied to retain our identity and fit in with a social group. It can be passive and continuous such as our presence being ignored and disregarded, which also leads to being withheld access to a social group. Rejection can occur deliberately or non-deliberately and can be incurred by both parties. We may at times not recognize that we are unintentionally rejecting someone else. Perhaps we got to invite them to a party. Perhaps we simply swiped on their message and forgot to reply. Rejection can sometimes be a complex and delicate subject.

Cross et al. 2011 found that when people recalled being recently rejected, the brain regions associated with physical pain were also activated when studied with MRI. In other words, being rejected can hurt just as much as being in physical pain. Scientists believe that our strong response to rejection was an evolutionary mechanism to remain within our groups since being part of a group meant protection from predators and sharing of resources such as food, knowledge and shelter. It was vital to our survival to belong, hence, a fear of rejection would promote behaviours that were more social. However, it is to recognize that the pain of rejection is felt beyond the instance it happens and a lot of the pain is actually self-administered as we question our self-worth and ruminate on what we could have done differently.

Fear of Rejection and Psychological Basis over the Years

We understand that there are many noteworthy patterns of rejection. Firstly, of course the intensity of the pain we experience is proportional to the severity of the rejection. Secondly, some people may be more prone to perceive and react to rejection. Thirdly, repeated or intense feelings of rejection may lead people to be more defensive and fearful of rejection.

The second and third point are closely related, sometimes psychologists term this as rejection sensitivity where the person “anxiously expects, readily perceives, and overreacts to rejection” (Downey & Feldman, 1996). Parents and caretakers are often the first perpetrators as we rely on them physically and emotionally in the early years. If a parent is rejecting our needs, distant or abandoning, we are more likely to be sensitised to such treatment.

Later childhood and early teenage years we have a greater propensity to branch out to find our “friend group” and discover ourselves. This stage is distinct from the previous as even though our self-identity - the understanding of who we are, who we want to be, our morals and values, have not been fully developed, the cognitive ability to question ourselves has been. A child rejected by its parent is likely to have little recollection of why they felt this way, little cognitive control to change their situation and little understanding why this may occur. Hence, it will be a nagging and unexplored feeling that becomes like a subconscious “undertone” in later life. When we are older we may be able to verbalise and conceptualise the rejection we feel, we may say “My friends have been hanging out without me lately”. We then may question our own identity which is still under construction “Maybe I am not pretty enough for people to like me”. Our explanations of these events may be met with shallow solutions as we may not yet be experienced: “If I buy this expensive product maybe they will notice me and let me be part of their group”. Here rejection hurts because not only do we question ourselves but we also lack the tools to understand or absolve ourselves of the feelings rejection. This strong propensity to be included and fear of rejection usually manifests itself as many young teenagers “acting the same” or having “hive mind” as their individualistic characters have not developed as the capacity to understand oneself has been mostly defined by what group they belong to.

In adulthood, patterns of rejection usually involve intense feelings and disappointment in the things we made attachments to. As we grow older, our self-identity solidifies but we also may have incurred additional trauma and insecurities. We are now aware of what we think we may lack. When we confess our feelings to our potential partner or even when we admit to feelings to our current partner we may feel rejected. Our mind wanders to “Am I not good enough?”, “Could I have done anything different?” and “Can I show my true self to anybody?”. In love we subject ourselves to utmost vulnerability and scrutiny in hopes to be loved, appreciated and understood for what lies beneath the skin. It is in this state we have the greatest potential for love but also rejection. In love we see the people we want to be accepted by as such great and perfect beings that we place them on a pedestal, giving their judgement more weight than anyone else’s opinion. In this way, love becomes a great source of rejection.

We may also be rejected in our endeavours, a job or position we really wanted. An opportunity. What these have in common is that we may have prepared for a long time, studied for years at university and invested greatly for this opportunity. Being rejected at this stage may be perceived perhaps that our efforts were for naught. Additionally, we usually apply to positions we hold in high regard, so again you can see that a pattern of rejection comes from someone we desire love or respect from. Usually this means they stand above us in some sort of hierarchy so that we may respect their opinion out of status. So in both work and relationship, the measure of rejection is proportional to how much we value that relationship.

Dealing with rejection

The goal of dealing with rejection is building capacity to try again, retain a strong sense of self-identity and rejuvenate self-esteem. Being rejected many times does not build this capacity but being able to deal with it and come back stronger does. We must recognize that for normal people (non-sociopaths) dealing with rejection is something we must practise. That is why I think this project by Jia Jang (video) created a challenge to be rejected 100 times, known in practice as “rejection therapy” where we try to be rejected as many times as possible in 30 days. This is what he learned:

  • If you do not ask you will not receive
  • Rejection does not hurt as bad as we think
  • Being rejected once does not mean you may not have a chance in the future
  • Turning a “Yes” to a “No” starts with a why
  • The reasons of why you are rejected are often not what you think they are
  • Rejection can be turned by opportunities if you are willing to wait and adjust the offer

Additionally here is some more advice

Ask are they really rejecting you or do you just feel that way?

I believe that this question suits the contexts outside of relationships more. This is not for the case where some out directly declines your invitation or application. It is more so in the cases such as them not replying quickly or not acknowledging your advances. If you take the example of someone declining your internship request, there may be more explanations than simply that you are underqualified. It may be that they are looking for a cultural fit. It may even be that it just happened that a stand out candidate handed their application on top of the pile before they got to yours. I cannot give much advice in terms of how to get through to admissions or human resources but the point is that do not take it too personal.

Do I feel rejected because this is a field I am not confident in and this causes self-doubt?

This question is almost a continuation from the previous. If we imagine ourselves being rejected for all the reasons not explicitly stated, we are extending and catastrophizing the pain we feel from the rejection. You know when you get those little stray pieces of skin coming off next to your fingernail? Ruminating on all the reasons you get rejected is like picking on it until it gets so long and causes bleeding. One reason we allow ourselves to feel this way is because we may not be confident yet in the field that we just applied in. Do you think a recent graduate or a CEO moving between companies would feel their self-esteem drop more after a position at a company? Knowing your self-worth prevents it from diminishing at the slightest rejection.

Does the person that rejected me know me well? Is the rejection based on lack of knowledge?

When partners or caretakers reject us we tend to take it more personally than if a stranger were to do it.  Would you think there is something wrong if your boyfriend/girlfriend suddenly did not message you all day and turned down meeting you this week? Well If a recent acquaintance did not text you back, it would be a lot easier to just scratch that up to them being busy. Why can we not think this way about our partners? That is because we have shared experiences with them that made us not only emotionally dependent but also made us believe that they see a truer version of ourselves. It is the thoughts such as “do they finally see me as clingy?” or “oh no, have they gotten bored of me?”. Solving this is a whole other issue but approaching it from the more palatable side we would say that a stranger does not know you well enough so do not take their rejection to heart. A potential crush may just not know you well enough yet. You must give things the time, attention and room to grow.

Reconnect with people that already accept you

It can be hard to feel confident after a rejection. One thing that helps is to see people that hold you dearly and will lift you up. For example, I remember when I was in highschool I just started my first game. I was so nervous I would just pass the ball back to my teammate. It was not until the assistant coach pulled me aside and said “You are the best scorer on the field right now, show it”. In hindsight, that may not have been true but timely overenthusiastic support can really make wonders. So next time, when you are being too realistic or harsh with someone, know that a timely confidence boost is always an option.

Revive your self-worth

Other than finding support from friends and family, you may also look inward to build confidence. For example, doing something you enjoy and take pride in can help revive your sense of self-worth. It changes your mindset from “I am a failure” to “I am not good at this one thing” to “I am good at something else”. Your perception of self should rest on many legs; you are never just a student, never just someone’s child - you are so much more than that. So do not let a short setback in one domain affect the ecosystem of your many domains of talent.



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