Few things feel as painful as rejection. Regardless what form it takes—not being invited to a friend’s party, not being offered a position after an interview, having your actions criticized, or failure when you’re trying to sell your idea—every “no” indicates a door closed to us. Of course, the extent of the impact largely depends on the position of the individual receiving the rejection and the one doling it out, but most people struggle with finding the best way to regroup and recover.
Research tells us that not only does rejection give us a mental pause; it can also produce physical pain. Study findings published in Science magazine by researchers from Purdue University and the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2003 demonstrated that being socially shunned or turned down by others activates the same regions in our brains—the dorsal anterior cingulate and the anterior insula—that are associated with experiencing physical pain. Numerous successive studies have corroborated the similarities between rejection and physical pain. For example, a 2011 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science demonstrated how pain experienced from hot coffee spilled on one's forearm is similar to the “pain” that they would experience from seeing a photograph of a former partner after an unwanted relationship breakup.
In short, it hurts.
Pain is not the only negative consequence of rejection; it can also lead us to feel more insecure in ourselves, our decisions, and our choices. Security is one of the most basic human needs, and when it is not fulfilled or is jeopardized by rejection, we start to doubt ourselves. Other aspects of rejection can include flagging concentration; increased levels of stress, irritability and aggression; inability to sleep and control one’s emotions; and gradual withdrawal from society, among others.
Not everyone copes with rejection in the same way: Studies show that people with a higher sense of self-worth, as well as individuals with more social power, handle rejection better than those with lower self-esteem and less social influence. There are salespeople who actually love cold-calling and think that every “no” just leads them closer to the next "yes."
People who highly value a sense of individuality also experience rejection less painfully than those whose need for being a part of the group is much stronger.
Similarly, self-confident people are able to use rejection to improve themselves, get more creative, and validate their beliefs.
Rejection is going to happen. It’s a fact of life that not all relationships and situations will work out well. With distance, we can often see that a rejection was a good thing for us but at the time, it doesn’t feel good. Developing more effective responses to rejection is an important life skill. If you find yourself unable to deal with rejection, you may need to work on building your self-confidence and your self-esteem and strengthening your social ties before addressing the anxiety, anger, and other issues that arise from being rejected.
Of course you know that self-confidence is important, but knowing it’s important and having it are two different things. Many people have grown up in environments where they were told they were worthless or useless. These messages often carry over into adulthood and other relationships. If your self-confidence is flagging, start small to build it back. Make a list every day with at least two or three things you have done well, contributions you have made, or positive things you have done. Write these down and review them before you go to bed each night and again when you get up the next morning. Fill your nighttime and early morning brain with something positive about yourself.
Rejection will enhance whatever negative things you say to yourself, so practice different self-talk. Notice what you say to yourself; thoughts like “It’s all my fault” or “What is wrong with me?” are not useful and only bring you down. Rejection happens to everyone; even the most successful and confident people don’t always get what they want, but most of those people acknowledge the rejection as outside of them and don’t start telling themselves how terrible they really are. Notice what you say to yourself and choose to build yourself up, not tear yourself down.
Remind yourself of this whenever you feel down. No, you are not worthless and you are not a failure: This is a point in time. Don’t let one disappointing experience diminish the worth of everything else that you have achieved. Give yourself credit for your skills and accomplishments, and remind yourself of all those experiences when you made good progress, solved a problem or helped someone. No one is defined by one experience.
Take a deep breath, step back from the situation, and just breathe for a few minutes. Many times a situation seems worse because you react and then “frame it” as a negative about you. Instead, physically step back and begin deep breathing. Choose to reframe it. Instead of thinking, “No one will ever love me, I’m unlovable,” you could reframe by thinking, “Relationships are hard for everyone; I’m no different. This was hard for me but I can learn something from it. Let me focus on what I can learn.”
It’s okay to feel upset about rejection. After all, you are human and you have emotional responses. Let yourself feel the pain, cry or pound a pillow, but then put a limit on how long you will mourn the rejection. Literally set a time frame: “I can mourn this until next Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. and then I will let go of it.” Let the emotions roll through you, but don’t let them park and become long-term visitors.