What is worse: dealing with a rejection or getting slapped in the face?
Well, apparently to your brain it’s all the same. When scientists researched what happens when people recall a recent rejection, they realized that rejection activates the same areas in our brain as physical pain.
It gets worse.
We can recall rejections more vividly than pain. Unlike with physical pain, when we remember a rejection, we experience the same feelings over and over and over again. It's like the Groundhog's Day from hell. 😈
No wonder I’ve not always felt so great recently. You see, I’ve recently gotten rejected more often, especially in my writing. There are many reasons for this (the field I’m in has become more competitive) but here’s the main one: I’ve submitted more articles to publications.
And, well, the more you submit, the more you can get rejected.
The more shots you take at a target, the more shots you will miss.
The only thing that could give me a zero-rejection guarantee is if I decided to never submit my writing anywhere. The same is true for every area of life, whether that is rejection during job searches or while dating.
The more you put yourself out there, the more you will get rejected.
And it sucks.
Our brain wants to avoid pain and chase pleasure so it has no incentive for placing us in a situation where we might get rejected.
If someone decides to watch Netflix instead of bidding a project proposal for a contract they likely won’t win, it looks like that person is sabotaging themselves. But in reality, they are just proving that psychologist Edward Thorndike might have had a very good point when he formulated his law of effect that states that
"responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation."
Let me put this in plain terms: watching Netflix produces a short-term satisfying effect. Getting rejected, not so much.
With that said, I’d like to discuss
- why exactly rejection hurts so much (this can really help you have more compassion with yourself… it definitely help me understand that my reaction is perfectly natural),
- why it’s important to find a good way to deal with rejection,
- and give you concrete tips for getting better at it.
So, let’s jump right in:
Why it hurts to get rejected
There’s a lot of stuff that happens whenever people get rejected and of course it depends on what area we’re talking about. It’s different to get rejected on a date vs. when in business because the rejection has different implications. However, here's what different types of rejections have in common:
When we get rejected we are not getting what we want (for instance, getting published in a publication, or getting asked for a date by someone we’re interested in), so that is disappointing.
More importantly, the rejection itself stings, even if we don’t care about the thing we’re not getting
In fact, research shows that people can be rejected by a group they absolutely despise, and it will still cause distress.
Yes, that’s right. Apparently, I (who’s been a vegan for many years) could be rejected by people who like to torture bunnies for fun and that rejection would still cause me distress.
Why is that? Well, evolutionary psychologists assume that we are wired to react so strongly to reaction because once upon a time, our very survival depended on not getting rejected by others (presumably even if they like to torture bunnies...).
Psychologist Guy Winch explains that rejection hurts more than failure because there’s an interpersonal aspect to rejection (whereas failure is typically task-specific).
In addition to bringing up our evolutionary angst about being cast out of a group we need to survive, rejection can also bring up past rejections, childhood stuff, the whole enchilada. (Yes, it’s that much fun.)
To summarize, rejection hurts... presumably because having it hurt helped our ancestors not get kicked out of the group and subsequently eaten by a lion which would have made it harder for them to pass on their genes.
If you're feeling uncomfortable about a recent rejection, take a look at the culprit right here:
With that said, let’s look at how we can learn to handle rejection
Now, I don’t know a single person who likes getting rejected and it looks like we’re hardwired to find rejection uncomfortable. Given all this, chances are that rejection will never feel good or neutral to us, no matter how much thick skin we develop.
However, it might be possible to reduce the intensity of discomfort we experience about a specific rejection, from, say a 10 to a 2 or 3.
Alright with that said, let’s move on to the part where I tell you (and myself) to eat your veggies and learn how to deal with rejection:
Why is it important to learn how to deal with rejection?
Handling rejections better will allow us to put ourselves into situations where we risk rejection.
I believe that if you’re not getting rejected at all, you’re probably not taking enough risks or just doing things that are outside of your comfort zone.
(By the way, I like this sentence more when I’m applying it to someone else rather than to myself.)
I haven’t always thought this way. Once upon a time, I thought that if you get successful enough, rejection is a thing of the past. However, as I learned more about the world worked, I discovered that that’s not true. As Gemma Wilne so accurately put it: “Successful people get rejected more.”
Case in point: I recently read an article from one of the most popular writers on a platform I’m on, thinking he’d never get rejected. He shared that he gets rejections from publications every single week. I know a ton of people who never have their writing rejected... primarily because they don’t publish it!
This convinced me that if someone never gets rejected, it’s probably because they are playing it too safe.
I think there’s also valuable introspection that can happen from rejection (well, once we get past the “ouchie,” which can take a long time…).
As my husband put it:
“If you thought you were a perfect fit for something and got turned down then it may enable you to ask yourself ‘Hmm, I wonder what happened here. Was I interpreting something in the wrong way or was I just not a good fit for what they were looking for even though I thought I was?’ So, there’s a way in which rejection can help us learn and grow, even though it’s not necessarily easy.”
When we learn how to swiftly metabolize rejection, we can take action more readily. For instance, on the same day when I recorded a video about rejection (go figure!), I saw that two of my articles had been rejected—in a very nice way and from publications where I have been published multiple times before.
It wasn’t really an issue and I appreciated that they took the time to let me know that my article wasn’t a good fit because that allowed me to move on quickly.
Getting a clear no from somebody can be such a relief because it allows you to direct your energy elsewhere… and if you’re not willing to risk rejection, you will never get that no.
And of course, sometimes a rejection is more like “try harder,” encouraging us to continue improving. Particularly when we get useful feedback about why we’re getting rejected, this experience can help us become better and step up our game.
Sometimes, a rejection can even get you something you want but that you didn’t know you wanted. Case in point: I went on a student exchange when I was 16. I really wanted to go to Australia—kangaroos, you know—and long story short, they didn’t pick me and instead send me to Canada. I didn't want to go to Canada and was bummed.
However, when I made it to Canada, I realized that I had the world’s best host parents, an amazing school, and amazing people. So in that sense, the rejection was the best thing that could have happened to me. So, yeah: "Oh, Canada..."
Rejection can be protection (in this case, quite literally, given that Canada has probably 192.343.823 fewer deadly species than Australia… no offense, my dear Aussies, I admire your hardiness!).
Alright, if I have worn you down convinced you that rejection is a good thing (I’ve almost managed to convince myself at this point), let’s move on to the how-to:
8 concrete tips for how to deal with rejection:
- Don’t take it personally. It could just be that it wasn’t a good fit or it wasn’t about you.
- Monitor your self-talk after a rejection. If you interpret a rejection as a sign that you’re always a failure and if you go down the extreme of negative thought, that’s unhelpful.
- Assess the rejection: is it just that you’re not the best fit? For instance, with an article that got rejected, the editors told me that they get so many submission, they sometimes have to reject high-quality article so it’s a no for this article but it’s not a no for every article. Is there something you can learn from or improve based on this rejection?
- See that rejection is something completely natural. Everyone who ventures outside of their comfort zone gets rejected from time to time (or very often, depending on how hard they push).
- Realize that you getting rejected actually shows that you’ve been daring to try something. For instance, if I never submitted my writing to articles I’d have a 0% rejection rate, so in a way, the amount of rejection you get is typically quite related to the number of risks you take (which should help to normalize rejection).
- It can help to talk to friends about it. I once was part of a group coaching program where at the beginning we would celebrate our wins and our failures. Doing that is so great because it helps us see rejection as just part of life and as something that means we gave it a shot.
- Realize that there’s a cultural component to it, too. Some cultures just tend to handle failure better. For instance, the US culture is more lenient when people fail (as long as they get back up) than some of the more risk-averse cultures such as Germany. Of course, the US approach has different challenges so just look at what your culture of origin is like and what belief system you got from them about failure and if they are helpful or not.
- Embrace the idea of getting back on the horse and quickly take more action. For instance, if you get an article rejected, you can quickly submit it elsewhere as opposed to sitting around and stewing in the discomfort of rejection.
Getting rejected hurts because as humans, we’re literally wired to find it painful (blame evolution!).
Despite that, it’s important to learn how to deal with rejection. This will allow you to take more risks which in turn will (probably) allow you to be more successful and unfold your potential better than if you play it safe.
What might help us handle rejection better is to start seeing it as a perfectly normal part of life and as proof that we’re taking action.
It also helps to recall that we just don’t know what the best outcome is. We all have our expectations and preferences but sometimes, a rejection is really a blessing in disguise.
For instance, my husband and I would not be married if things had worked out with the people we dated before. So, even though those breakups and/or rejections hurt at the time, I’m now glad they happened because they allowed me to be with the love of my life.
So if you have somebody in your life you love, consider sending cards to everyone who ever rejected you as a romantic partner: “Thank you so much! That you rejected me is one of the best things you’ve ever done! I’m super-grateful you did that because it allowed me to be with someone who’s actually a great fit for me.”
On second thought, don’t send those cards!
Even though your ex-romantic interest might not be interested in you, they’ll probably still experience that card as a painful rejection (see the research I shared above). So just imagine sending out those cards in your head, instead.
And (just in case a past boyfriend reads this): I think you’re awesome and I’m glad we got to spend some time together! I’m serious.
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