It has been more than ten years since my first job interview ended with the classic: You did a great job, but we have chosen someone else. Since this memorable moment, other closed doors have followed: employers rejecting my application, people not sharing my interests, groups giving me the feeling of not being accepted.
Anyone who has gone through similar situations knows the bitter taste of rejection, the feeling of isolation when someone does not want us around.
Unfortunately, it is almost impossible not to experience rejection at some point in our personal, social or professional lives, either by failing to meet objective criteria or on subjective grounds. From the mundane to the highly significant, at events and in relationships, we regularly attempt acceptance. But things don’t always turn out the way we want them to. Sometimes we hit the hard stone wall of rejection. For these less than pleasant occasions, there are strategies we can use to moderate our sensitivity to rejection.
The need for acceptance is as important as the need for air
No matter how strong we strive to be, science says we suffer when people turn their backs on us. Rejection undermines our need to belong, the impulse to join others and share common ground.
The impact of marginalisation feels like a physical shock, likes stepping into an ice-cold shower. Both physical and psychological pain activate a common brain region. The brain experiences an injured heart similarly to a fractured leg. Interestingly, to alleviate the discomfort, both types of pain cause the brain to release the same natural painkillers. It is also interesting that memories of emotional pain are stronger than memories of physical suffering.
We are born sensitive, but childhood accentuates it further
Sensitivity characterises us all, but the intensity of our reactions bears the imprint of subjectivity, and is influenced by two essential factors: genetic predisposition and childhood experiences.
Genetic predisposition is related to certain biological features or some personality traits (factoring in low self-esteem, social anxiety, insecurity as a style of attachment). Genes dictate our reaction to rejection, their influence being enhanced or inhibited by childhood experiences.
A childhood marked by neglect or abuse, by critical or emotionally unavailable parents, by inappropriate treatment from family, colleagues or teachers can increase our sensitivity to rejection.
Children burdened by the failure to meet basic needs, such as safety, attention and attachment, become vulnerable adults. Even minor incidents, such as an unanswered text message, can turn them upside down.
Rejection sensitivity is a vicious circle
The lack of affection and validation from important figures maintains the fear of rejection, making us vulnerable to the moments when life seems to send us to the substitute bench.
When we live with the constant fear of not being liked, we end up being hypersensitive to situations: we distort reality, we misinterpret intentions, we exaggerate the consequences. We end up worrying too much about some made-up scenarios, about “what could happen if…” our partner would desert us, our boss would decline our proposal, our friends would ignore us.
We end up reacting in an extreme way to simple expressions of disapproval. A 2007 study showed that people with rejection sensitivity experienced different brain activity when they saw faces that expressed disapproval compared to the control group.
Fear of rejection leads to inappropriate behaviours such as jealousy, aggression, desire for control, and alienates those around the fearful one. It fulfils initial fears in a way that is not surprising: one’s own expectations influence the attitude of others.
Rejection sensitivity also leads to what is called “attention bias“. The term describes an undue focus on rejection. For example, a recent high school graduate who applies to ten colleges and, after being accepted into nine of them but rejected by one, focuses on that one rejection. Although outnumbered, failure minimises success, and the person’s mind struggles with pressing questions: Why was I not accepted? What did I do wrong? Do I have a problem?
Sensitivity to rejection negatively impacts our plans and our intelligence
We often see people around us with an acute need for validation, women and men willing to sacrifice time, energy and personal values to gain acceptance from other people (it has been shown that men tend to invest more money, during an evening out, when their date shows signs of disinterest).
We notice how the constant need to be pleasant changes us depending on the situation. The tendency is more pronounced among adolescents who, for the sake of being accepted, tolerate (or adopt) certain inappropriate behaviours, harmful to themselves or others.
Chameleonism is just one of the effects of the fear of not belonging. These effects cover a much wider range of cognitive, emotional and behavioural changes. Thus, the consequences of sensitivity to rejection are real and palpable: physical and emotional pain, anger, sadness, aggression and self-aggression, social isolation, jealousy, abuse, even a temporary decrease in IQ (in one experiment, people who had verbalised past episodes of rejection scored lower on IQ tests, short-term memory, and decision-making ability).
The list of negative effects is long and contains many causal relationships. For example, a 2003 analysis of cases of extreme violence in American schools reveals that 13 of the 15 underage perpetrators of the massacres had been victims of marginalisation by their peers. Of course, suffering does not justify the attacks, but it helps us to look deeper into the heart of the one who experiences rejection.
Aggression decreases, however, in the presence of the hope that we are liked. A series of experiments done in 2010 illustrates how subjects excluded from a group become vengeful and malicious, which was not the case when they were accepted by at least one of the stakeholders.
Paradoxically, we dislike being rejected even by people we do not particularly like. The mere fact of being sidelined arouses feelings of inferiority. That’s why indifference—exemplified by receiving only a small number of reactions (comments, likes) to certain online activities—rubs salt in the wound.
For someone prone to emotional problems, the difficulty of managing situations of rejection affects mental health. Often, people who experience rejection have depressive episodes, become over-anxious, or end up experiencing social phobia or certain personality disorders (borderline, avoidant), and experience feelings of inadequacy and hypersensitivity to negative evaluation.
A fight that is hard to win
As we have already mentioned, it is very difficult to be pleasant all the time, to excel in all activities, and to be carried through life on a constant wave of favourable circumstances. Closed doors can be good opportunities for self-assessment, but also for the development of defence mechanisms.
In addition to allowing us to correct some flaws or questionable habits (if any), analysing situations in which we are treated with hostility sets new standards for the future, as it teaches us to overcome emotional blockages.
In order not to be overwhelmed by emotions, we must, first of all, recognise and accept them as such, good or bad, old or new, constructive or less fruitful; to name exactly what upsets us, to tell someone or even to free ourselves by crying, if the need to cry builds up.
Understanding our own feelings will also clarify the motivation of behavioural responses, helping us to intervene in a constructive way and enabling us not to fall prey to the impulse to react offensively to a refusal, to nurture thoughts of revenge, to withdraw into ourselves or to give up fighting for the goals we’ve set.
Most of the time, rejection, marginalisation, and disinterest causes sadness, but this can be replaced by the opposite emotion. Involvement in positive interactions and/or physical activities helps to improve the mental state. At the same time, if we choose not to become victims but, on the contrary, to think of the bigger picture, to be proud that we have taken risks, to discover the good parts of a less happy story, then we can use rejection to our advantage: to develop, to weigh other options, or to build neglected qualities.
On our own, it can be difficult to achieve all these goals, so if you recognise that you feel intense anger, anxiety, or sadness when you feel criticised or rejected, talk to an experienced counsellor or mental health professional. They can help you respond more appropriately to rejection and improve your relationships and overall quality of life.
Genia Ruscu holds a Master’s degree in counselling within social services.