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Rejection Sensitivity

Rejection: A Loser's Guide

Physiologically, neurologically, anthropologically speaking: Rejection sucks!

Welcome to Rejectville, Population You!

Raise your hand if you have never heard any of the following lines in one form or another:

  • Let's be friends.
  • Unfortunately, we don't have a position that meets your unique qualifications at this time.
  • We regret to inform you that we cannot grant you acceptance to X University.
  • You are very talented, and I expect you to do great things...elsewhere.

If you've finished reading this list and your hand is raised, please bring it down to face level. Cup your hand to your cheek. Pull it back three to five inches and traveling at an increased velocity slap yourself firmly in the face. Why? If you haven't experienced rejection, this exercise serves as a simulation of what rejection feels like.

Actually, a slap in the face is much more pleasant than rejection. Rejection is more of a swift punch to the solar plexus. But since punching oneself in the solar plexus requires dexterity and the knowledge of the location of your solar plexus, for demonstration purposes you must forgive me for choosing the former.

However, chances are you didn't raise your hand. I'm willing to bet that if you are reading this article, you are all-too-familiar with that uninvited houseguest. Say hello to your good buddy, Rejection.

Now, what you probably already know about rejection is that he isn't too shy about showing up at the most inappropriate places and at the most inopportune times.

In fact, some common situations where he loves to drop by include when you are:

  • Deeply in love
  • Chasing your dreams
  • Job hunting
  • Starting a new venture
  • Pursing your personal projects
  • Applying and auditioning

And, God knows this list is not exhaustive. Just when you have filed the restraining order and unlisted your phone number guess who managed to find you? That's right: Rejection.

Your Old Nemesis: Rejection

Do you remember when you first met that meddlesome stranger? I remember the first time I shook his cold, clammy hand. I can still feel the sweat on my palm.

It was summer camp; I was seven. We had to swim across the pool "freestyle" in order to earn a green plastic necklace announcing our admission into the coveted deep end. I thought "freestyle" meant we were free to pick any style we wanted. This is America after all! The style I picked was swimming at the bottom of the pool and not coming up for air.

I did not earn the attractive green necklace. Instead, I sported a red one the entire duration of camp. I entered a "highly exclusive" group of non deep-end-goers made up of only two girls — a girl from Honduras and myself. Because she didn't speak any English, we couldn't even commiserate about our exclusion.

You probably remember your first encounter with rejection: being picked last in gym class or not getting into the advanced reading or math class in elementary school. Perhaps it came at home or on the playground.

Since a young age, we have been tormented by rejection. We have seen rejection crop up at school, at work, in relationships, and in the pursuit of our dreams. Over the years, we have been rejected by significant others, from teams, from programs, from projects, from companies, from roles, from organizations, and from institutions.

Logic would suggest that if we have been confronting rejection since a young age on numerous occasions, over the years we should be experts at getting over rejection by now. We all know this isn't the case.

Why Does Rejection Hurt Us So Badly?

The honest truth is that rejection sucks. Rejection hurts now and will in the future. (Good on you rejection for at least being consistent.)

The purpose of this article is to build our awareness about why rejection hurts so badly, and why even after years of exposure we are not immune to its pernicious effects. In this article, we examine rejection psychologically and evolutionarily, to discover what is happening to us neurologically when we feel rejected and why anthropologically speaking, we are hardwired to fear rejection.

Rejection comes from Latin, meaning thrown back. When we are rejected, we feel not only halted but pushed back in the opposite direction of which we were headed.

Now consider this: When rejected, how do we describe the event? We tend to say, "I was rejected." Notice what is going on here. We are using passive voice. This indicates how we feel about the part we play in rejection. We view ourselves as passive, as being the victim of an action, as inactive, as nonparticipative.

Rejection Is Physiologically Heart-Breaking

Do you remember when I made you slap your face? Let's return to that moment to continue the discussion of what it feels like to be rejected. Okay, you have just received the swift blow of rejection knocking you off guard and what happens? First, you are stunned, disoriented from the blow. You feel weak and helpless. Your body begins to shut down, as you lay there paralyzed from the injury. You might think that I am being overly dramatic, but this is what happens biologically when your body responds to rejection.

Scientists from the University of Amsterdam found that unexpected social rejection is associated with a significant response of the parasympathetic nervous system. Let's take a quick time-out to discuss just what the heck is the parasympathetic nervous system. When the body is active, generally in fight or flight mode, the sympathetic system engages, heart rate quickens, pupils dilate, energy is directed towards allowing the body to react quickly. However, the parasympathetic system is responsible for when the body is at rest.

Remember how we discussed speaking of rejection in passive voice: "I was rejected?" Well, studies have found that after rejection not only do we think passively, but also we act passively. When faced with unexpected social rejection, research has found that "feeling that you are not liked" results in our heart rate actually slowing down, an activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. Thus, feeling rejected results in you reacting both psychologically and physically.

It is interesting to mention that in this study, participants' heart rates fell not only when they heard a person's unfavorable opinion of them but also in anticipation of hearing a person's opinion. If told that the person's opinion of him or her was unfavorable, the individual's heart rate plummeted even further and took longer to return to baseline. Additionally, heart rates slowed even more when individuals expected a positive opinion but received a negative one. This explains how rejection, especially the kind that blindsides you, literally feels heartbreaking.

We Are Hard-Wired to Fear Rejection

As human beings, we are extremely sensitive to rejection, especially forms of social rejection. We have a strong motivation to seek approval and acceptance. If we take an anthropological perspective, we can see how back in the day — I'm talking about back in the 10,000 BC day — you knew that if you were on your own, your chance of survival was nil. You needed your tribe for food, shelter, and protection. Being rejected from others meant imminent death. Evolutionarily speaking, we are hardwired to form social relationships and strongly motivated to feel liked and feel like we belong.

Getting Over a Breakup Is Like Getting Over a Cocaine Addiction

Neurologically speaking, rejection sucks! And, arguably the worst type of rejection is romantic rejection. Getting over a breakup is like getting over an addiction to cocaine. Oh, that isn't just my personal viewpoint; it is also the opinion and the scientific finding of researchers at Stony Brook University. The researchers found that the area of the brain that is active during the pain and anguish experienced during a breakup is the same part of the brain associated with motivation, reward, and addiction cravings. Brain imaging shows similarities between romantic rejection and cocaine craving.

Rejection hurts so acutely because we get addicted to the relationship, only to have it taken away from us. And after, just like a drug addiction, we go through withdrawal.

We Aren't That Good at Dealing With Loss

In general, humans aren't good at dealing with loss. We tend to view loss as much more significant than gain. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize for his work in Prospect Theory. Prospect Theory describes how people make choices in situations where they have to decide between alternatives that involve risk. The model discusses how people realistically decide rather than evidencing how one should make the most optimal decision. Using empirical evidence as the base, the theory describes how individuals evaluate potential losses and gains.

Individuals view the pain of losing $50 as much stronger than the joy of receiving $50. Thus, we tend to be loss averse and will be motivated to avoid risks that involve losing rather than take risks involved in the potential for gains.

Now that we can give the scientific explanation of why rejection sucks and can sound smarter at cocktail parties, let us move on to explore how rejection impairs us not only in the moment but also in the long-term.

After Rejection, We Stop Trying and Taking Risks

Sadly there is no surgeon general warning that comes with rejection. So, we must conduct our own exploration into the major effects of rejection that are most inimical to our psychological and physical health. First, we see that rejection can lead to the reduction of hope and the reluctance to take risks.

Psychological studies have proven this outcome. This phenomenon is known in the scientific community as learned helplessness. Psychologist Martin Seligman and Steve Maier discovered during a series of experiments that dogs who had previously "learned" that nothing they did had any effect on preventing shocks when placed in a new situation, where they could have easily escaped the shock, simply lay down passively and whined. Learned helplessness refers to the condition in which animals or human beings learn to behave helplessly, viewing their actions as producing no effective result even when attempting to avoid an unpleasant or harmful situation.

After facing rejection, individuals often feel as if their actions fail to produce any desired effect. As a result, individuals can lose hope that the situation can be improved at all. And, just as the dogs in the experiment, what do we tend to do after a strong blow of rejection? We lie down passively and whine. We complain about how we were wronged saying that the world hates us and that the outcome is completely unfair. But, do we try and take action? No. Rather, we stay in that fetal position and continue to sing our song of sorrows and think why try if there is no point.

We are such diligent students of learned helplessness that we can even learn vicariously. By observing others encountering uncontrollable events, we too can become helpless and passive. Rejection is so strong that even the mere presence of it around us makes as run home to our mommies, worried that if he just beat up Timmy, who knows what he will do when he gets a hold of us. The result: we give up on our goals because we are so preoccupied with failing.

If We Think We Will Fail, We Try Less

In fact, studies show that our belief in whether we will succeed or fail influences how much effort we put into our actions. Neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology studied brain activity in the posterior parietal cortex (PPC), the part of the brain where sensory stimuli are transformed into movement plans. In the study, subjects performed a complex task and then reported how they perceived they performed. Fascinatingly, subjects perceived performance did not correlate with actual performance. Some individuals rated performing well while actually performing poorly and vice versa.

The researchers discovered that brain activity in the PPC related directly to how individuals thought they performed rather than how they actually performed, as well as how much money they would gain or lose from the experiment. This means that the level of effort, how hard an individual tries, depends on if the individual thinks he or she will fail or succeed.

It is interesting to note that when we plan for future actions, how we think we will do influences our plans. But remember, in this study how people perceived they were performing was not even correlated with actual performance. This means we are influenced by our subjective, inaccurate perceptions of how well we are doing. If we think we will succeed, we will try harder and put in more effort. When we think we will perform poorly, we obsess over trying to avoid failure and produce more brain activity when there exists a higher price for failure. We begin to focus our energy on avoiding rejection versus attempting to succeed. The more we focus on avoiding failure, the more we worry about failure, and the less effort we place in working towards our goals.

The More We Fail, the More the Goal Seems Insurmountable

Studies have indicated that as the frequency of rejection increases, the more insurmountable our goal appears to be. Psychologist Jessica Witt at Purdue University found that after a series of missed field goal kicks, players perceived the field post to be taller and narrower than before. However, after a series of successful kicks, athletes reported the post to appear larger than before.

It is easy to witness the power of rejection. The more we encounter rejection, the more we view our efforts as pointless, the less we try, and the farther away our goal seems.

Making a Big Deal Even Bigger: Catastrophizing

We sit there licking our wounds, gazing at the formidable world around us. Since the last blow of rejection left us dizzy, our vision of reality grows distorted. Case in point, has this ever happened to you? You didn't get a call back for that job interview. You start thinking about how if this company didn't call you back, then why would you expect to receive a call back from the other companies. You begin to question if you will ever find a job. You start thinking about your spouse and children and worry about how you can provide for them if you remain unemployed. You then wonder if your spouse will even stay with you if you are just dead weight, providing no support for the family. You can see how it is only a matter of time until your spouse takes the kids and jump in the minivan and drive away leaving you alone with the mortgage and the debt collectors. You realize you won't be able to afford your house or rent and will end up on the streets living in a cardboard box that smells of urine.

This is what is known as catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is actually a serious problem prone to many individuals dealing with rejection. In an interesting study, Christopher Peterson and colleagues analyzed questionnaires from the Terman Life-Cycle Study and found that catastrophizing predicted mortality and accidental or violent death especially well.

Let's take a second to think about what this study reveals. Individuals who catastrophize and who tend to irrationally fear bad events, consequences, even death, are more likely to die from accidents or violent death. This is shocking, yet it makes sense.

Take the mundane example of trying to make a free throw in a basketball game. If you are so worried about missing, you most likely are going to miss the shot. As we have learned, we tend to direct our efforts towards worrying about failing rather than directing it towards trying to succeed. We know from personal experience that when we think negative thoughts, we tend to end up in negative situations. But it is important to remember that these are not just negative situations; we are talking about risk factors of mortality.

It Makes a Difference Just Knowing You Have Control Over the Situation

Remember the learned helplessness dog experiments? Well, a similar experiment was conducted on people. Individuals were presented with a highly distracting noise while performing a mental task. Researchers found that participants who had access to a switch to turn off the noise had improved performance (as one would expect); however, here is the unexpected part: Those participants rarely bothered to use the switch. The mere fact that they were presented with the option to control their situation was enough to significantly counteract the distracting effects.

Thus, we must remember that when faced with rejection, knowing that we can act (even if we don't even choose to act) is enough to help prevent the onset of depression from rejection.

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Bregtje Gunther Moor, Eveline A. Crone, Maurits W. van der Molen. The Heartbrake of Social Rejection: Heart Rate Deceleration in Response to Unexpected Peer Rejection. Psychological Science, 2010; DOI:10.1177/0956797610379236

H. E. Fisher, L. L. Brown, A. Aron, G. Strong, D. Mashek. Reward, Addiction and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated with Rejection in Love. Journal of Neurophysiology, 2010; DOI: 10.1152/jn.00784.2009

Schwartz, Barry (2004). Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Seligman, M.E.P. and Maier, S.F. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74, 1-9.

Iyer et al. (2010). Motor Preparatory Activity in Posterior Parietal Cortex is Modulated by Subjective Absolute Value. PLoS Biology, 8 (8): e1000444 DOI:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000444

Witt, J. K, & Dorsch, T. (2009). Kicking to bigger uprights: Field goal kicking performance influences perceived size. Perception 38: 1328-1340 DOI:10.1068/p6325.

Peterson C, Seligman ME, Yurko KH, Martin LR, Friedman HS. Catastrophizing and untimely death. Psychological Science. 1998; 9: 127-130.

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