This is why your friend can handle rejection and you can't
Whether it's being rejected by a business, a partner or a friend, there is no doubt that this kind of feeling really hurts. And it’s not just intangible hurt either; fMRI studies show that an experience of rejection and an experience of physical pain can both activate the same areas of the brain. So, if being dumped feels like you’ve been physically punched, there’s a good reason for this.
Rejection doesn’t affect us all equally. You might find yourself reeling from a romantic rejection, unable to function, feel good or see a future for yourself in which you’re happy - while your friend might take it more on the chin. Have you ever wondered why some people struggle with it and some people don't?
How do you react to rejection?
Human beings are complex and there are a lot of different things that will go into how you experience rejection, from your attachment style to your self-esteem. Sometimes someone isn't actually coping with rejection but just ignoring their feelings about it, which isn't healthy either. But, by far one of the biggest influences on how we process rejection is the story we attach to being rejected.
Let me explain what I mean using the example of being rejected in a relationship:
Person 1: I am being rejected. It hurts but I know that it doesn't make me an unlovable person and it's happening because this partner isn't right for me. I also know it happens to everyone. Although it’s horrible, this feeling is temporary and I will be able to move on.
Person 2: I am being rejected and it shows just how unlovable I am. No one else will ever want me. Being rejected means there is obviously something wrong with me. I am always unwanted and I can’t get over this.
Person 1 is experiencing the pain of rejection and will probably feel low for a while but that's where it ends. There is no secondary layer of emotion coming from a negative story they have attached to being rejected. They aren't using it to create meaning around who they are - it's just what has happened. This allows them to feel hurt and sad but still worthy and lovable. They see rejection as part of the human experience (which it is), which makes them like others - not separate from them. It's likely to allow them to bounce back faster - and open up again in the future because they know rejection is survivable.
Person 2 is taking this one incident and using it, essentially, as a sign they are doomed in love. They are shaming themselves for something they have no control over (someone else's free will) and basing their self-esteem on whether they are chosen. For them, it feels like something lonely that no one else understands. This will undermine their confidence and cause a secondary layer of hurt and pain that will slow down recovery and could affect whether they are able to open up again.
Why do we react the way we do?
The stories we tell ourselves about who we are and why things happen to us have been formed earlier in our lives - and then are repeated over and over until they feel like the truth. If those stories are "No one ever chooses me" or "I am not lovable" then this can feel intensely hard and painful.
The origin of those stories is going to be different for everyone. For many of us, they can be traced all the way back to childhood - often to age seven or younger when we are laying down the fundamental core beliefs we have about ourselves based on what the people around us said and did. Events in life can change these beliefs, positively or negatively. And it’s the combination of all of this that will ultimately create the story you attach to a rejection.
What rejection really means is up to you
What we, all too often, forget is that how you see rejection is a story. Although what's in your mind might feel like facts, it's actually fiction - just your spin on the facts. And your spin is something you can choose to change at any time. You literally have the option to believe whatever you want about what's happened to you at any time - and, in doing so, change how you feel about that event and about yourself. You just have to let yourself make that shift.
Of course, that's not always easy. Especially if there is some part of you that feels like you need to be ‘realistic’ (this usually just means negative) or which is trying to protect you from getting hurt again by forcing you to believe the worst about yourself.
But it can be done. Even the toughest, most critical, shame-filled mindset can be changed. I've seen it happen before my eyes as a coach. And I've done it myself.
Changing how you handle rejection (with more resilience)
1. The first step is self-compassion
This is the groundwork you always need to do before you attempt any kind of mindset shift. If you don’t then you risk getting caught up in self-criticism ("I shouldn’t react like this") or self-shaming ("I should be over this by now" or "I’m just being too sensitive"). And if you end up there then you’re not going to get any further because those stories will keep you well and truly stuck. So, choose this instead: "This is hard and it hurts and all my feelings are valid. Now, how can I help myself?"
2. Identify your rejection stories
It can take a while to start hearing your rejection stories. If the rejection isn’t fresh then think back to when you’ve been rejected and get clear on what you were telling yourself about the situation. Was it catastrophising, doom and gloom, shaming and making this one event an indicator of your self-worth and future potential?
Once you’ve done this, it’s worth thinking about where these stories might have come from. Often, we only believe that our self-worth is tied to being chosen (for example) because it’s what someone else modelled for us or we’ve been repeating it to ourselves for a long time. Then into the internal narrative it goes, popping up again every time rejection happens. Is it actually what you think though?
3. Change the story
Sounds so simple doesn’t it? And, actually, it is simple. Not easy but simple. When you accept that being unable to handle rejection is coming, not from the situation, but the story you’re telling yourself about it, you can see that change is possible. How would it feel if this rejection wasn’t the end of the world? If it was redirection (as the saying goes) and might even in the end be a good thing?
Experiment with different stories to attach to rejection so you can see how many others there are available. It’s not lying to yourself to choose a story that best serves you when you’re talking about unknowns. By that I mean you have the facts of the situation - someone you wanted to be with doesn’t want to be with you - and then you have the unknowns i.e. whether anyone else will want to be with you, when you’ll stop hurting and what comes next. No one knows the unknowns at the point of rejection and being negative isn’t ‘more realistic.’ So, do yourself a favour and pick a story that doesn’t weigh you down and keep you stuck.
The stories we tell ourselves make up our mindset - and it’s mindset that affects everything we do. Resilience coaching is a powerful tool for changing your mindset so that you don’t have to repeat the same reactions and patterns throughout your life - and you can move forward with a very different approach next time something challenging happens.