Why Rejection Burns

... and how to soothe it fast.

Posted Aug 28, 2019

Launching and maintaining human relationships is one of the most vital undertakings of human development. In order for our brains to develop the necessary emotional and intellectual wiring, we need a secure attachment with a caregiver starting in infancy. Over time our nervous systems depend on steady others to feel better when upset, experience pleasure and joy, form an identity, and combat isolation and depression. When it comes to romance and dating, the stakes are high.

On a primal level, we know we need a healthy attachment to thrive. As a result of that knowledge dating often becomes a sorting game. People sort who they think they have a shot of being successfully partnered with from those they do not. How they sort and make this assessment varies widely and is incredibly idiosyncratic to a person’s particular attachment history.

When there is a mismatch between a person’s attachment history and the connection at hand, rejection strikes. And rejection brings pain and even heartbreak for the one who wanted to stay attached.

Here are four reasons rejection burns deeper than it needs to and how to soothe the burn promptly and effectively:

1. You are putting your ex on a pedestal. If you are suffering from the sting of rejection, ask yourself if you’re putting your dating partner on a pedestal. Are you making them better than you in your mind or superhuman-amazingly smart, athletic, attractive, or even perfect? When we feel rejected the brain almost automatically starts to think that whoever rejected us must be better than us on some level. Rejection doesn’t mean you as a person aren’t as good as the person who rejected you. Remember that rejection is just a quick and easy tool to weed out who we think/feel/sense/intuit we won’t be able to attach to. It is not always accurate and has more to do with a person’s history of attachment and relationships than it does with your worth as a person. And, too, keep in mind no human is perfect. We all struggle, and the one who rejects you has their own struggles.

2. You are experiencing instamacy, not intimacy. Be aware if you are overly personalizing your connection with the one who rejected you. Think back: Did the connection between you and the one who rejected you feel instantaneously amazing and close? Do you really know this person on a deep level, or was it a very intense or passionate interaction over a short period of time? It takes time to truly know someone and to be known. The beginning is exciting and easy, but it is not the same as having someone in your life who is truly interested and invested in knowing you on a day-to-day, intimate level. If you are feeling let down and defeated, make sure you are not overemphasizing how close and known you were by your dating partner. When the connection is a truly close one, it is a back and forth exchange that deepens and becomes more intimate over time.

3. You believe you are permanently screwed. Reflect for a moment on what you are telling yourself about this relationship ending. If you can’t rebound from a break up, chances are you are generalizing out across time about your character and chances of success in romance: “I will never find anyone,” “I am a loser,” “Guys/gals never like me,” “I am always the one who gets left.” “If only I weren’t so awkward/shy/weak/skinny/fat/hyper/unmotivated... then I’d find a romantic partner.” Hear me on this: You are not a loser who is doomed to a loveless existence. Each failed romance is an opportunity for growth. What did you learn from this last encounter? What might you do differently next time around?

4. You are experiencing lonesomeness panic. Just like a child left out in the woods with no secure attachment, feeling as if you are always the one left and alone can be terrifying. You may be afraid that you will be alone forever and you know deep down that relationships are vital to survival, joy, and pleasure in life. You want what you believe everyone else easily has and you panic, thinking that a solid, loving relationship will never come. You will be a helpless, left out, alone misfit. People will pity and avoid you. STOP! Snap out of it! None of this is true. In fact, thinking this way may increase the chances that you will partner with an unhealthy match. If we are in a panic about a life alone, we become desperate. When desperation takes hold, we stop rejecting and we accept lackluster connections just to have a warm body, even if that warm body isn’t really a healthy/sustainable match. Truly, there is someone for everyone—dating is a numbers game. As long as you keep meeting new people (and growing as an individual), odds are in your favor that you will find a long-term partner.

In my book Breaking Up and Divorce, I offer more strategies for healing and dating after relationship endings.