Updated: Apr 27, 2022
Learn why some of us feel so rejected and how to cope with it.
Have you recently been rejected? Rejection involves being excluded from a social relationship or interaction. It can be active—for example in acts of bullying or teasing. Or it can be passive—for example in the acts of giving the silent treatment or ignoring someone (DeWall & Bushman, 2011). We might respond to rejection with feelings of hostility, dejection, withdrawal, and even jealousy (Downey & Feldman, 1996).
Although rejection is often deliberate—that is, the rejector does it on purpose—it doesn’t have to be. We actually differ in the extent to which we are sensitive to rejection and may think that someone is rejecting us when they are not. For example, the lack of a smile or laughter at our jokes may be perceived as rejection even though the person is not intending to reject us.
We feel rejection because human beings have a fundamental need to belong. Some believe that this is because in our history, being part of a group helped us survive. Those of us who were more group-oriented were more likely to survive. This may explain why modern humans are all very group-oriented (DeWall & Bushman, 2011) and why we try to avoid rejection whenever possible.
And rejection is indeed quite unpleasant. Some fascinating research shows that social rejection actually feels similar to physical pain. It activates regions of the brain involved in both the sensory components of pain and the emotional components of pain. The more intense the rejection, the more intense the pain response. Specifically, thinking about a recent romantic relationship breakup elicited both emotional and physical pain responses in the brain (Kross et al., 2011). So, when people say rejection is painful, they really mean it!
What Is Rejection Sensitivity?
It turns out that we differ in the extent to which we perceive and react to rejection. While some of us might perceive our friend’s failure to invite us to lunch as a rejection, others may rationalize that they forgot or didn’t realize we would want to come.
Those of us who tend to notice when we are rejected in even the smallest ways—or even perceive that we are being rejected when we are not—are said to be rejection sensitive. Therefore, rejection sensitivity is defined as the tendency to “anxiously expect, readily perceive, and overreact to rejection” (Downey & Feldman, 1996). This tendency to be rejection sensitive likely arose in childhood as a result of rejection from parents or others in our environment.
How to Deal With Rejection
Regardless of whether we are rejection sensitive or not, we can benefit from learning to deal with our rejection in healthier ways. This can help us decrease both the emotional and physical pain that accompanies rejection. We might use these strategies to handle job rejection, rejection in romantic relationships, and social rejection from friends or family. Here are some science-based tips:
Write about your rejected feelings. Research suggests that writing about your feelings and the potential implications following an experience of rejection may be an effective way to process those feelings more quickly and move past them (Rude, Mazzetti, Pal, & Stauble, 2011).
Practice accepting rejection. Accepting rejection (versus evaluating it or describing it) may help decrease negative emotional responses more quickly (Rude, Mazzetti, Pal, & Stauble, 2011). Acceptance does not mean being a “doormat” or tolerating an unhealthy situation. Acceptance simply means that you acknowledge and accept yourself, your thoughts, and your emotions. Then from a place of acceptance, you can take action if needed.
Focus on the positive. Although rejection can feel terrible, some evidence suggests that it can make positive emotions more accessible (DeWall et al., 2011). This may mean that trying to increase positive emotions—for example by doing an activity you enjoy—may be beneficial.
Try emotionally distancing yourself from the rejection. Emotional distancing involves imagining your rejection as if you were a fly on the wall or a stranger on the street. When you take a look at your situation from an outsider’s perspective, it can help the negative emotions dissipate more quickly (Ayduk & Kross, 2010).
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Rejection hurts and it can be unpreventable at times. Luckily, there are some things we can do to diminish the pain or reduce how long it lasts. Hopefully, the tips here will help you deal with rejection more easily.
Ayduk, Ö., & Kross, E. (2010). From a distance: Implications of spontaneous self-distancing for adaptive self-reflection. Journal of personality and social psychology, 98(5), 809.
DeWall, C. N., & Bushman, B. J. (2011). Social acceptance and rejection: The sweet and the bitter. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(4), 256-260.
DeWall, C. N., Twenge, J. M., Koole, S. L., Baumeister, R. F., Marquez, A., & Reid, M. W. (2011). Automatic emotion regulation after social exclusion: Tuning to positivity. Emotion, 11(3), 623.
Downey, G., & Feldman, S. I. (1996). Implications of rejection sensitivity for intimate relationships. Journal of personality and social psychology, 70(6), 1327.
Kross, E., Berman, M. G., Mischel, W., Smith, E. E., & Wager, T. D. (2011). Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(15), 6270-6275.
Rude, S. S., Mazzetti, F. A., Pal, H., & Stauble, M. R. (2011). Social rejection: How best to think about it?. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 35(3), 209-216.