How to Cope with Rejection
Man looking sad, trying to cope with rejectionPhoto Credit: Vic@Flickr

We’ve all experienced rejection, and we all know that being rejected is no fun. In fact, psychologists studying the neuroscience of rejection have actually found that rejection activates the same brain regions as physical pain does. However, as unpleasant as rejection might be, psychologists have suggested that there’s a good reason for us to find rejection a painful experience. In our distant past, ancient humans needed to work as a social group in order to survive: if someone wasn’t part of the group, they wouldn’t have anyone to help them hunt for food or fend off predators. So, as a result, we evolved a system that caused us to easily detect potential rejection, and to be motivated to remain included in social groups.

However, even though we’re motivated to be included, we don’t always know exactly how to best respond to rejection. Unfortunately, many times people engage in destructive or self-sabotaging ways to cope with rejection, which can, in turn, lead to further rejection. In today’s post, I’ll review what social psychology has found about how people cope with rejection, and suggest a few ways that we can cope with rejection more effectively.

How we respond to rejection. Psychologists have found that a large part of how people respond to rejection relates to their level of rejection sensitivity. People who are higher in rejection sensitivity are vigilant for signs of rejection and tend to react more strongly to being rejected. While virtually everyone would react strongly to some types of social rejection (such as the break-up of an important relationship), rejection sensitivity affects how people respond to ambiguous everyday situations. For example, imagine that Sarah is on a first date with Ted and things seem to be going well, until Ted suddenly gets called in to work and has to leave. If Sarah is lower in rejection sensitivity, she is likely to assume that Ted really did have to go to work. However, if Sarah is higher in rejection sensitivity, she might suspect that Ted was looking for an excuse to leave the date.

When people are rejected, they often experience hurt feelings, sadness, and lower self-esteem. Some people, especially those who are higher in rejection sensitivity, also respond by becoming hostile, which then reduces their chances of being included in the future. For example, in lab studies, people who believe that they have been rejected are more likely to engage in negative behaviors towards the person who rejected them, such as making them listen to an unpleasant noise, or making them eat a very spicy food. Additionally, rejection can even cause people to become hostile to a new person who hasn’t rejected them.

Constructive Ways of Coping with Rejection:

Rejection may be a fact of life, but we can work to limit its effects by managing the way that we respond to it.  Keep reading to learn some ways that psychologists have found that we can cope more effectively with rejection:

1) Focus on non-emotional aspects of the situation. Psychologists have found that redirecting attention to non-emotional aspects of the situation may help to reduce negative emotions like hostility. In one study, research participants were asked to recall a past rejection experience: half were asked to think about the emotions they felt at the time, while half were asked to think about something non-emotional (the physical setting they had been in when they experienced the rejection). Compared to people who were asked to think about their emotions, people who thought about non-emotional aspects of the situation had a less hostile mindset. Want to test out this idea? Next time you find yourself feeling rejected, take a moment to think about something more neutral (the room you’re in, the clothes you’re wearing, or what you ate for lunch) until you feel calmer.

2) Focus on something important to you. Research on self-affirmation theory has found that focusing on values that are important to us can lead to a variety of positive benefits. In a typical study on self-affirmation theory, half of participants will write about a value that is important to them, while half will write about something else. One recent study found that writing about an important value can actually help those of us who are insecure to be more relaxed. In this study, writing about an important value led people who were previously insecure in their relationships to report feeling more secure in their relationships and behave in a more relaxed way during a social interaction. Another study found that people low in self-esteem typically reacted in defensive ways when they felt their relationship was threatened; however, this tendency was eliminated when participants wrote about their most important value. If you’re interested in trying this out for yourself, take a moment to think about and write down a few of your important values, and remind yourself of them when you’re feeling rejected.

3) Help others. Fortunately, we don’t always become hostile or behave in self-sabotaging ways when we’re rejected. Research has found that, although people who have been rejected often become less social, people who have been rejected can sometimes behave in prosocial ways. In this set of studies, some participants who had been rejected showed more of an interest in meeting new people, rated other people more positively, and were more likely to give a cash reward to someone else. The researchers suggest that people sometimes behave in positive ways after being rejected if they see a possibility of gaining acceptance through this behavior. We can see this play out in popular culture, when celebrities who were themselves bullied as teenagers use their fame as a platform to speak out against bullying.

4) Don’t take things personally.  According to the psychologist Aaron Beck, our emotions are caused by our response to a situation, rather than the situation itself.  In other words, we have a choice about how we choose to interpret and respond to an event.  For example, imagine that Lisa and Sally have plans to get lunch, but Sally suddenly cancels with no explanation.  If Lisa assumes that Sally is upset at her, she’s likely to feel hurt and angry.  However, if she thinks that Sally canceled because an urgent problem came up, Lisa is likely to feel more compassionate towards Sally.  When we experience rejection, it’s especially important to remember that our initial reaction to the situation may be inaccurate.  Often, when we’re not included, we tend to take it personally when, in reality, the other person was merely busy or forgetful.

For more advice about how to not take things personally, check out this video from Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday:

Rejection is never pleasant, but we can work to reduce its effects by managing negative emotions, focusing on our most important values, and attempting to form new connections with others. However, if you’re experiencing anxiety or depression related to social rejection, or you’re interested in learning more about the issues discussed in this article, you may want to consider reaching out to a psychologist or counselor to develop a treatment plan. Rejection is inevitable, but the way we choose to deal with it is anything but.

Further Reading:

Naomi Eisenberger & Matthew Lieberman: Why Rejection Hurts: A Common Neural Alarm System For Physical And Social Pain

Roy Baumeister & Mark Leary: The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation

Geraldine Downey & Scott Feldman: Implications of Rejection Sensitivity for Intimate Relationships

Jean Twenge: If You Can’t Join Them, Beat Them: Effects of Social Exclusion on Aggressive Behavior

Ozlem Ayduk: Individual Differences in the Rejection–Aggression Link in the Hot Sauce Paradigm: The Case of Rejection Sensitivity

Ozlem Ayduk: Attentional Mechanisms Linking Rejection to Hostile Reactivity: The Role of “Hot” Versus “Cool” Focus

David Sherman & Geoffrey Cohen: Accepting Threatening Information: Self–Affirmation and the Reduction of Defensive Biases

Danu Anthony Stinson: Rewriting the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Social Rejection: Self-Affirmation Improves Relational Security and Social Behavior up to 2 Months Later

Lisa Jaremka: Reducing Defensive Distancing: Self-Affirmation and Risk Regulation in Response to Relationship Threats

Jon Maner: Does Social Exclusion Motivate Interpersonal Reconnection? Resolving the “Porcupine Problem”

The Beck Institute: What is CBT?

About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology.  Her research interests include positive emotions, close relationships, coping, and health.  Outside of the research lab, Elizabeth can often be found going to yoga class, teaching her puppy new tricks, and working on her creative writing.

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