How To Cope With Rejection, According To Research
Rejection — from college, partners, prospective employers — is an unavoidable part of life. Even the most gloriously successful of people has experienced it, and often the serious high-flyers experienced years of rejection before they got big breaks. However, it's also a part of human psychology that rejection of all kinds hits us hard; science tells us that we're neurologically programmed to want acceptance and belonging, and when the opposite happens, we can feel lost, damaged, hopeless or angry. If you're experiencing rejection of any kind right now, it can be difficult to know what to do next. Fortunately, research has some tips for coping with rejection, that include building up resilience for the long-term.
The only surefire way to avoid rejection is to stop putting ourselves in situations that could cause it, and that, explains psychologist Elayne Savage in Don't Take It Personally: The Art Of Dealing With Rejection, isn't a good strategy at all; it means we're "afraid to come forward with requests such as asking someone for a first date, requesting a raise, submitting artwork or manuscripts, or asking for favors like a ride to the airport. It's constricting and restricting, keeping us from being ourselves." If we want to take chances and create the possibility of succeeding, we need other ways to develop resilience when rejection happens.
1. Get A Hug
First things first: when rejection happens, it's a very good idea to go find some human contact as soon as you can. A study published in Nature in 2017 found that the gentle touch of somebody else, even a stranger, helps ease the very real neurological pain of rejection. While you may be so angry or upset that you don't want to deal with the reactions of others, science emphasizes that accepting that hug, or gentle pat on the hand, may genuinely make you feel better.
The American Psychological Association notes that "healthy, positive connections with friends and family" are great for dealing with rejection, because "positive social interactions release opioids for a natural mood boost." Get on the phone and have a chat with your best friend or your favorite relative.
2. Boost Your Self-Esteem
Rejection can shake the core of your self-worth; if you're not wanted in this instance, are you actually worth anything? Experts recommend stopping this thought in its tracks and reminding yourself of the great aspects of your life and personality. "The best way to boost feelings of self-worth after a rejection is to affirm aspects of yourself you know are valuable," psychologist Guy Winch writes for TED. "Make a list of five qualities you have that are important or meaningful — things that make you a good relationship prospect (e.g., you are supportive or emotionally available), a good friend (e.g., you are loyal or a good listener), or a good employee (e.g., you are responsible or have a strong work ethic). Then choose one of them and write a quick paragraph or two (write, don’t just do it in your head) about why the quality matters to others, and how you would express it in the relevant situation." Winch calls this practice "emotional first aid", and it will help you get away from serious rejection with your self-worth feeling bruised but not battered.
3. Recognize That You're Feeling Real Pain
Don't let anybody tell you that the pain of rejection isn't 'real'. Research has actually shown that it activates similar parts of the brain to our experience of pain. Researchers also believe that we've evolved to feel very upset at rejection. Dr. Mark Leary, in a study in Dialogues In Clinical Neuroscience in 2015, explained: "Because rejection had serious, potentially fatal, consequences in the ancestral environment, a person would have needed to avoid social exclusion and ostracism at nearly all costs and had to be attuned to cues indicating that his or her positive standing in other people's eyes might be in jeopardy." For that reason, he noted, we've developed a serious aversion to rejection that happens in a "bio-physical" way: in other words, our body really hates it and makes the experience extremely unpleasant. So don't brush that off.
4. Try Making Art
An interesting study in 2012 found that social rejection can actually increase creative thinking, particularly in people who have a strong independent streak and think outside the box. If you're experiencing the tidal wave of feelings after an episode of social or professional rejection, it could be worth channelling them into creative work — even if you don't think you have an artistic bone in your body. Paint, draw, write a journal entry, garden, strategize something new and creative for work — anything that might help you find an outlet for your feelings. You might be surprised at what comes out.
5. Be Mindful Of Negative Self-Talk
It can be very tempting, particularly if you experience depression and are prone to negative self-talk, to take the rejection and make it into a big lesson: that you're a failure, useless, will never succeed or earn love, and so on. Coping with rejection means stopping this head-on. Wiseheart Counselors told Psych Central, “While our go-to feeling is that we are inadequate or we are at fault, try to reframe this. Remind yourself that some people or situations just do not work out.”
This process of reframing can also involve looking at the stories of others in your field or elsewhere who suffered serious setbacks along the way. "Remember that rejection doesn't mean that you are a failure. Criticism happens to the most successful of us. After all, we're only human!" entrepreneur Candice Galek wrote for Inc.com in 2017. "Think of rejection as an opportunity to improve and to grow as a person and as a professional in your field."
6. Know That Professional Rejection Is Opinion, Not A Criticism
Professional rejection — not getting a job, an interview, a raise, a chance or something else in your career — can feel like a massive blow. However, particularly if it was down to the decision of one person, experts note that it's important to put that in context. Jia Jiang, author of Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear And Became Invincible Through 100 Days Of Rejection, explained to Psych Central: “That opinion could be based on mood, their needs and circumstances at that moment, or their knowledge, experience, education, culture, and upbringing over a lifetime. Whatever was guiding them at the time I entered their lives, these forces were usually much stronger than my presentation, my personality, or my request itself.”
Kim Liang, author of the viral essay Why You Should Aim For 100 Rejections A Year, agreed. In a follow-up essay in 2018, she explained that the opinions behind a rejection can point to the truth about an endeavor: "The sad truth is that sometimes rejections are warranted. Sometimes they are indications of creative failure, or a sign that the piece needs another draft." Opinions are feedback, and often that feedback is a valuable thing — just not one that crushes our personal worth to a pulp.
7. Think About Your Own Growth
In an interesting study published in 2016, people who had a 'growth mindset' about life — in other words, they believed that personality traits and intelligence can change over time, and that who we are isn't set in stone — were better at coping with social rejection than people who thought personalities and smarts were static. The founder of the idea of the mindsets, Carol Dweck, wrote in her book Mindset, "Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them." If, by contrast, you have a growth mindset, you believe that "your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts."
Adaptation to rejection might be easier, according to this theory, if you look at your life, personality and brain as developing, rather than fixed. You're growing all the time; how does this rejection help that? What new challenges does it open up to you?
Whatever strategies you choose, rejections are still going to be hard. However, they can also eventually be helpful. "Let’s also let rejection be our teacher and our creative compass to check pride and high expectations," Liang wrote in 2018. So get out there and risk rejection — and when it comes, get up and try again.