We humans

Why rejection hurts so much — and what to do about it

Dec 8, 2015 /
Why rejection hurts so much | Illustration by Dawn Kim for TED

Psychologist Guy Winch shares some practical tips for soothing the sting of rejection.

Rejections are the most common emotional wound we sustain in daily life. Our risk of rejection used to be limited by the size of our immediate social circle or dating pools. Today, thanks to electronic communications, social media platforms and dating apps, each of us is connected to thousands of people, any of whom might ignore our posts, chats, texts, or dating profiles, and leave us feeling rejected as a result.

In addition to these kinds of minor rejections, we are still vulnerable to serious and more devastating rejections as well. When our spouse leaves us, when we get fired from our jobs, snubbed by our friends, or ostracized by our families and communities for our lifestyle choices, the pain we feel can be absolutely paralyzing.

Whether the rejection we experience is large or small, one thing remains constant — it always hurts, and it usually hurts more than we expect it to.

The question is, why? Why are we so bothered by a good friend failing to “like” the family holiday picture we posted on Facebook? Why does it ruin our mood? Why would something so seemingly insignificant make us feel angry at our friend, moody, and bad about ourselves?

The greatest damage rejection causes is usually self-inflicted. Just when our self-esteem is hurting most, we go and damage it even further.

The answer is — our brains are wired to respond that way. When scientists placed people in functional MRI machines and asked them to recall a recent rejection, they discovered something amazing. The same areas of our brain become activated when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain. That’s why even small rejections hurt more than we think they should, because they elicit literal (albeit, emotional) pain.

But why is our brain wired this way?

Evolutionary psychologists believe it all started when we were hunter gatherers who lived in tribes. Since we could not survive alone, being ostracized from our tribe was basically a death sentence. As a result, we developed an early warning mechanism to alert us when we were at danger of being “kicked off the island” by our tribemates — and that was rejection. People who experienced rejection as more painful were more likely to change their behavior, remain in the tribe, and pass along their genes.

Of course, emotional pain is only one of the ways rejections impact our well-being. Rejections also damage our mood and our self-esteem, they elicit swells of anger and aggression, and they destabilize our need to “belong.”

Unfortunately, the greatest damage rejection causes is usually self-inflicted. Indeed, our natural response to being dumped by a dating partner or getting picked last for a team is not just to lick our wounds but to become intensely self-critical. We call ourselves names, lament our shortcomings, and feel disgusted with ourselves. In other words, just when our self-esteem is hurting most, we go and damage it even further. Doing so is emotionally unhealthy and psychologically self-destructive yet every single one of us has done it at one time or another.

The good news is there are better and healthier ways to respond to rejection, things we can do to curb the unhealthy responses, soothe our emotional pain and rebuild our self-esteem. Here are just some of them:

Have Zero Tolerance for Self-Criticism

Tempting as it might be to list all your faults in the aftermath of a rejection, and natural as it might seem to chastise yourself for what you did “wrong” — don’t! By all means review what happened and consider what you should do differently in the future, but there is absolutely no good reason to be punitive and self-critical while doing so. Thinking, “I should probably avoid talking about my ex on my next first date,” is fine. Thinking, “I’m such a loser!” is not.

Another common mistake we make is to assume a rejection is personal when it’s not. Most rejections, whether romantic, professional, and even social, are due to “fit” and circumstance. Going through an exhaustive search of your own deficiencies in an effort to understand why it didn’t “work out” is not only unnecessarily but misleading.

Revive Your Self-Worth

When your self-esteem takes a hit it’s important to remind yourself of what you have to offer (as opposed to listing your shortcomings). The best way to boost feelings of self-worth after a rejection is to affirm aspects of yourself you know are valuable. 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. Applying emotional first aid in this way will boost your self-esteem, reduce your emotional pain and build your confidence going forward.

Boost Feelings of Social Connection

As social animals, we need to feel wanted and valued by the various social groups with which we are affiliated. Rejection destabilizes our need to belong, leaving us feeling unsettled and socially untethered. Therefore, we need to remind ourselves that we’re appreciated and loved so we can feel more connected and grounded. If your work colleagues didn’t invite you to lunch, grab a drink with members of your softball team instead. If your kid gets rejected by a friend, make a plan for them to meet a different friend instead and as soon as possible. And when a first date doesn’t return your texts, call your grandparents and remind yourself that your voice alone brings joy to others.

Rejection is never easy but knowing how to limit the psychological damage it inflicts, and how to rebuild your self-esteem when it happens, will help you recover sooner and move on with confidence when it is time for your next date or social event.


Illustration by Dawn Kim for TED.