How to Deal With Rejection, According to a Psychologist

Feeling rejected in love, or at work? We know it hurts—so, here's how to cope the right way. 

22 June, 2021
How to Deal With Rejection, According to a Psychologist

Owing to one's survival instincts, homo sapiens are wired to form affiliations, emotional connections, and intimate relationships that stimulate the feeling of belongingness. One of man's primary needs is to form healthy, long-lasting social contact marked by positive and consistent interpersonal relationships, founded on mutual respect for one another. Hence, any real or imagined rejection—among siblings, peers, romantic partners, or co-workers—can significantly impact the core social instinct. 

Most of us have been rejected at some point in life—whether it be from the 'cool gang' of friends at school, a dream college you applied to, or a crush. And, while many individuals tend to 'act out' when faced with rejection, there are healthier ways to process dismissal. Basically, you cannot allow rejection to hold you back and wreak havoc on all aspects of your being!

There certainly isn't one 'right way' to handle rejection, however, there may be several 'appropriate ways' to process your emotions. Certified Psychologist and M.Phil Scholar, Sanjoni Sethi suggests a few healthy ways to come to terms with rejection, and be resilient. 




Learn and Practice Mindfulness


Mindfulness strategies allow people to direct their attention to the present moment by focusing on their breath, bodily sensations, surroundings, and thoughts. The practice also assists a non-judgemental approach towards one's thoughts and feelings. For instance, early childhood relationships, including that of with parents, peers, and teachers; and experiences of neglectful parenting or bullying, lay the ground for the development of expectations and rules in future relationships. Hence, growing up, people develop anxious expectations from certain relationships—creating a bias in judgement across relations (e.g: "If I disagree, I’ll be a misfit"). Response to rejection influenced by childhood traumatic experiences can intensify the severity of rejection.

Repeated events of rejection may also cause rejection sensitivity dysphoria (RSD). "Research findings indicate that people might be watchful of social cues, misinterpret them due to negative bias, and respond to rejection in an overwhelmed manner—through aggressive behaviour. In such cases, mindfulness practice trains individuals to re-direct their attention into the present moment, prompts sensory awareness, and endorses self-acceptance," explains Ms. Sethi. It can also assist with rejection sensitivity dysphoria, to prevent emotional outbursts. 


Avoid Brooding, Begin Reflecting


Rejection may foster feelings of anger and create a vicious cycle of repetitive thoughts surrounding the experience of rejection, termed as rumination. Ruminating often challenges effective problem solving and activates past memories of critical incidents where a person has undergone a similar experience with rejection, consequently increasing the pain caused by the current rejection. Studies suggest that rejection can hurt similar to physical pain!

According to Sanjoni Sethi, one must turn to 'reflection' to work on feelings of rejection. "Reflection allows the opportunity to identify problem areas (e.g: "My partner mentioned that I do not communicate my expectations to them"), and learn to solve them effectively. For reflection, one of the essential strategies is to focus on the time and setting—since reflection is not effective immediately after a conflict. Thus, to mentally visit the situation later on, in a different place, when one is emotionally less reactive, is better."


Dispute Negative Automatic Thoughts


At the time, looking for a logical alternate explanation for real or imagined rejection can be challenging. In a parent-child relationship and romantic relationships, people often perceive rejection by the fear of losing that significant relationship. This could take place due to the involvement of a third party—a sibling feeling jealous, a boss favouring another employee, or a friend attending to other peers—and ambiguous situations may perpetuate catastrophising thoughts (another cognitive error). Thereby, one must gain control of and dispute negative thoughts.

By doing so, one may be able to find logical explanations to challenge the negative belief. Ask questions to oneself: "Has this happened before?" or "Could there be another reason for such behaviour that might not be due to me?" Such self-posed questions challenge the negative thoughts, and the discrepancies between reality and assumptions. It allows one to re-evaluate the situation, avoid self-critical thoughts, and manage assumptions (especially for imagined rejection). 


Cognitive Reframing of Thoughts


Negative thoughts, such as, "My boss doesn't like me because he rejected my business proposal" or "She rejected my marriage proposal because I am not good enough for her", quickly float in our mind when we experience rejection. In such a scenario, it is crucial to remind oneself that these thoughts are generated due to one's current mental state—based on an event—and are most likely untrue. 

For many, rejection implies less valued relationships and a negative perception of oneself by significant others. "Literature on rejection studies found that criticism was often construed as rejection. Personalisation is a cognitive error that most of us make, as we may be conditioned to do so. Therefore, people often personalise rejection to themselves," informs Ms. Sethi. These automatic thoughts must be cognitively reframed—"My boss rejected my business proposal, not me. The criticism is feedback on my work that I need to review for potential growth". 


Use Self Regulation 


Binge-watching, binge-eating, and acting passive-aggressively are a few of the many ways people deal with rejection. Conversely, there are healthier ways to manage the emotional response triggered due to rejection. Monitoring and endorsing mindful eating, lending structure to the day, and working towards accomplishing one task at a time, are a few appropriate ways to handle rejection. Plus, physical exercise helps release endorphins and 'happy hormones' that can uplift one's mood. The use of positive self-affirmations such as, "I am capable of handling myself independently", also helps create responsibility and allows one to take charge of their own feelings.


Exploring Self Concept


Rejection by a social group—peers, colleagues, or a partner—increases the need to become a member of another group, as one may undermine their self-relational value in the group. It is imperative to identify if one experiences low self-confidence that can create insecure feelings towards other relationships, being overwhelmed by rejection, and delaying recovery. In conclusion, feelings of rejection can result in emotional outbursts, behaviourally harmful acts such as coping using alcohol/substance abuse, and can cognitively affect negative thoughts about oneself, the world in general, and the future.