Rejection is a bitter pill to swallow. And most of us have had a good dose of it. Whether we didn’t get a job we applied for, weren’t admitted to our top choice college, didn’t make it to the team we tried out for, or didn’t score a second date with the person we were sure was going to become our soulmate, many of us have experienced rejection first hand. Hearing “no, not interested” doesn’t feel good. Regardless of how hard you want to look at the bright side of it, rejection doesn’t build character. It breaks hearts, it brings tears, and it raises fears. And that fear can stick and become a hard-to-remove stain.
Fear of rejection, or rejection sensitivity, as it is often referred to in the psychology literature, can become an obstacle to success and happiness. Research shows that fear of rejection can have a negative impact on emotional well-being, interpersonal relationships, and psychological functioning. It affects the way we feel about ourselves, the decisions that we make, and the goals we choose to pursue. Fear of rejection can make us think small and act even smaller.
All fears are evoked when after we appraise a stimulus, we find it dangerous and potentially harmful. Fear is the internal alarm system that we are equipped with and which exists to warn us against threats to our survival. In the past, survival meant staying alive. It meant not getting killed by a predator, a disease, a rival, or a natural disaster. And threats included anything that could literally cause death or serious harm.
But in a relatively safe, socially complex, and intellectually demanding world, the meaning of both survival and threat has changed significantly. For most people in the developed world, it is no longer our biological survival that we are preoccupied with on a daily basis. Our worries extend to beyond just staying alive. We still care about our physical health, but we also care about our mental, emotional, financial, relationship, or spiritual health and we want to protect them from any threats. And when any of these are threatened, fear arises.
So what is it that fear of rejection protects us from?
There are many answers to this question, the specifics of which only you can provide, based on what’s important to you and what your life looks like. Is there something, however, that is common in all rejection and that motivates us to want to keep it out of our realm of experience?
The commonality may be pain. We are generally hardwired to avoid pain, whether it is physical or emotional. Pain is associated with harm, invasion, and potential damage. Pain is a signal that we should avoid, correct, or withdraw from a situation. It is easy to imagine how this plays out with physical pain. If your coffee is so hot that it burns your tongue, you wait until it cools down. And the beautiful thing about our brains is that they register those painful events, so we can avoid them in the future, and prevent harm. We learn what’s causing us pain and we take steps to protect ourselves from it. The same is true about emotional pain. We, consciously or unconsciously, avoid entering situations or creating circumstances that could get our feelings hurt. In fact, the brain centers that register the magnitude of pain and the subjective experience of pain are closely connected.
What does that have to do with rejection? Rejection hurts. There is evidence that rejection is, in fact, a painful experience. In a study conducted in 2010, DeWall and colleagues tested the effect of a painkiller on the emotional pain caused by social rejection. Their participants were randomly assigned to take either a painkiller or a placebo pill each day for three weeks. Those who took the active pill, reported a reduction in hurt feelings over time, in contrast to those who took the placebo, whose intensity of hurt feelings remained unchanged. They took their study a step further and used neuroimaging to see what happens in the brain during a situation that they set up to create feelings of social exclusion. They found that the participants who took the painkiller showed less activity in the brain regions associated with the subjective experience of pain than those who took the placebo.
This doesn’t mean that the cure for fear of rejection is taking painkillers. It means that emotional pain is a natural response to rejection. This may also explain why we tend to avoid situations in which we expect to be rejected. Consciously or unconsciously, we stay away from people, places, and events that we have associated with rejection either through experience or based on expectation. And that fear and the subsequent avoidant behavior can have a serious impact on the goals we seek to accomplish and the life we aim to build.
So, what can we do to handle fear of rejection?
First, identify the fearful stimulus. That is, become aware of the situations or circumstances that we are actively avoiding because we worry that they will lead to rejection. What ideas are we not sharing because we worry that others won’t embrace them? What requests are we not making because we worry they will be denied? What steps are we not taking toward a goal because we worry that we will be exposed and vulnerable? What “no’s” are we afraid to hear?
Second, turn avoidance into action. If a goal still seems important and meaningful, take steps toward achieving it, even if that increases the risk of rejection. Avoiding is safer and less painful. Without an “ask,” there is no rejection. But without it, there is no acceptance either.
Third, remind ourselves that the pain caused by rejection is a normal feeling and that it will pass, just like any other painful sensation or feeling. We can’t fully control whether our ideas, our proposals, our applications, or our pitches will be rejected because rejection is in the hands of others. But we can control the intensity of our emotions and we can train ourselves to become emotionally stronger. Being a good emotion regulator is one of the cornerstones of emotional intelligence.
And finally, reframe rejection as an opportunity to improve our approaches and tactics. There are many reasons why we did not get a “yes” this time. The timing might not have been right, we may not be a good fit, we may not have been thorough enough in our preparation, we may not have presented the best sample of our work, the people who rejected us may have their own needs, biases or limitations. The list of situational factors is endless. It is easy to personalize rejection and think of it as a reflection of who we are and what we are capable of, as opposed to what we did and how can we do it better next time. Changing what we do is easier than changing who we are. And people will evaluate us by what we do.
All in all, rejection doesn’t feel good. But letting the fear of rejection dictate what we accomplish in our lives can make us feel even worse in the future. After all, no pain, no gain.