When we experience rejection, we experience pain. In a study involving fMRI scanners, researchers Eisenberger, Lieberman and Williams found that rejection triggers the same pathways in our brain as physical pain. In a further experiment Eisenberger and colleagues tried treating rejection pain with over the counter painkillers and participants reported that, while still feeling rejected, they felt less pain associated with it.
We all experience rejection throughout our life. No matter if it happens in dating, in social settings, in sports, at our job or even in our committed relationships. It always hurts and often when we get rejected we gang up on ourselves, adding fuel to the fire.
We blame ourselves by taking on all that went wrong and thinking, “how did I cause the rejection?” But are we really responsible?
Considering that physical pain and emotional pain from rejection are so similar, let’s look at some of the research in that field. VS Ramachandran wrote in ‘Phantoms in the Brain’: “Pain is an opinion on the organism’s state of health rather than a mere reflective response to an injury.” and Lorimer Moseley stated that “Once a danger message arrives at the brain, it has to answer a very important question: “How dangerous is this really?” In order to respond, the brain draws on every piece of credible information — previous exposure, cultural influences, knowledge, other sensory cues — the list is endless.”
Currently, research is clear that we experience pain when our brain perceives a threat to our health and safety. And rejection is exactly that. From an evolutionary point of view, in a tribal society being rejected and ostracized meant more or less a death sentence. Rejection pain was probably the early warning system that kept us safe and alive.
Since we aren’t living in a tribal society anymore, getting rejected doesn’t immediately threaten our survival. However, as human beings we are social creatures and as such we have a strong need to belong. Rejection is a destabilizing force in that need and again we experience the pain that comes from feeling unsafe or in danger. And while we can’t think the rejection or the pain away, there are some Jedi mind tricks that we can experiment with and see if that shifts how we feel about our experience.
Change the social context
Do you know the feeling of having the flu and being really sore and achy? Have you ever compared that with going to the gym, having a heavy workout and feeling achy and sore afterwards? It’s the same sensation but because our social context is that the flu is a bad thing and going to the gym is a good thing, we have a much higher tolerance for the pain of the latter. So how can you change the social context for being rejected? Do you prefer a clear “No” over an ambiguous “Maybe” that has you sitting on the edge of your seat wishing and hoping? Do you like being taken seriously enough for clear communication? Do you want to stay in your status quo bubble or do you rather have another #&@!%^* growth opportunity? Did you work your social muscles to the point of pain or did you “catch something” that makes you feel like the thing you had stuck on the bottom of your shoe last week? Social context is the meaning we give to circumstance and what others are doing. Changing the meaning is changing the context.
Change your own perspective
Have you heard the quote about being the best peach in the world and you run into someone who doesn’t like peaches? Well, I won’t go there because we all know that you can’t please everybody. But what I suggest looking at is what triggered the rejection. Normally we get all hung up on it and look at ourselves as the issue. But in my experience it is rarely ever something we, ourselves, do. As people we give meaning to things so our brain can make sense of them. We pre-judge, judge and sort people so they fit into our perception of reality. And most of the time that is what happens when we get rejected. Someone else has perceived us through their filter of reality and draws their conclusion. Honestly, if the hottie at the end of the bar is reminded of her creepy uncle Bob from when she was 4 years old every time she looks at you, what can you do about that?
Change your (emotional) state
Somewhere we got the idea that thinking about the things that can go wrong helps us to protect ourselves against the feelings that come with it. While that is not entirely wrong, most of us go way beyond preplanning and experience worry, fear and anxiety when it isn’t necessary. However, some of the most prominent drivers for pain (and the pain that comes with rejection) are fear and anxiety. Both are fertile grounds for our primal brain to kick in and increase the DEFCON level. If rejection happens in that state, it is much more painful. However, if your brain is happy and confident the pain signals will be less amplified and thus the pain you are experiencing will be much lower. To change your state, increase your confidence, work on your fear and anxiety, and be kind to yourself. Create pleasant and safe experiences for yourself. When your brain feels safe, pain goes down. And pleasure feels safe.
All 3 of these methods work for me and have for many of my clients. I hope that you can put them to good use too. You can use all 3 of them simultaneously or just one at a time, whatever is most effective for you.
There is just one thing that I would like to add to all of that. You might feel pain after being rejected and you want this feeling to go away as fast as possible. I get it. It feels bad, really, really bad. So above you have 3 ways that you can deal with it. At the same time I encourage you to be kind to yourself (as mentioned above as well).
In addition to creating pleasant experiences for yourself, being kind also means allowing yourself to feel whatever it is that you are feeling. Judging your thoughts or feelings will not create a safe space in your mind. Approve of yourself, your thoughts and all the feelings you have and use the 3 steps above if you want or need to to and rejection will hurt a lot less.
Falk is a sex, relationship and intimacy coach. He is also one of the founders and teachers at desire.guru where he runs online and live classes and workshops.