We often forget that rejection is preceded by an expectation of excitement or enjoyment. The anticipation of positive fulfillment followed by the dejection and shame of rejection is painful. Rejection motivates the protection of the self. Just as we are motivated to protect our physical selves, there is a human motive to protect our sense of belonging, social connection, status, and value.[i] Once we are rejected we generally focus on the negative outcome rather than the optimism that led to the risk we were willing to take.
The experience of rejection activates memories of other times in which we felt dismissed, disregarded, or shunned. Many people characteristically respond to rejection by blaming themselves (viewing themselves as unworthy or inadequate). Others condemn the source and express aggression toward the rejecting party. Retaliation is a common outcome of rejection, and social media sites provide ways for people to do it publically. Still others may retreat (withdraw) or do something to avoid feeling the sting of rejection. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to just sit with the feelings, to not make any assumptions about their meaning, to refrain from taking immediate action, and to contemplate what one can learn from such a painful state.
Our response to rejection has a lot to do what how we have learned in the past to cope with negative feelings. Additionally, prior experiences with rejection may influence the extent to which ambiguous social situations are perceived as rejecting or not.[ii] Memories of rejection or childhood circumstances that were rejecting, lead some people to consciously limit expectations in their current relationships. Thus, those who develop rejection sensitivity may be inclined to emotionally and behaviorally distance themselves from others in their self-protective efforts. [iii]
Behind the scenes, the shame of rejection also motivates an attempt to re-connect. In many circumstances that’s impossible. For instance, if someone ends a romantic relationship with you they may not be interested in re-connecting, let alone be forthcoming about the reasons behind their decision. Similarly, if you interview for a desirable job and are rejected, the prospective employer may not provide feedback—and these days you would be fortunate to participate in a dialogue about why you were rejected by a potential employer since silence has become a prominent rejection response. This risk-averse practice keeps people from learning; that is, if the feedback lends itself to growth. Most people who are able to learn from criticism might benefit from knowing why they did not succeed in a job interview, let alone in a relationship.
When we are undeniably rejected it might help to remember the hope we felt prior to experiencing the shame of rebuff. All of our hopes and expectations inform us of what we want. There’s no shame in knowing what excites or interests us and in pursuing it. Along the way, rejection may help us to learn and navigate life.
[i]Kemeny, M. E. and Shestyuk, A. (2010). Emotions, the neuroendocrine and immune system, and health. In Handbook of Emotions, Michael Lewis, Jeannette Haviland-Jones, & Lisa Feldman Barrett (Eds.). pp. 661-675. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
[ii]Jones, T. L., Barnet, M. A., Wadian, T.W., and Sonnentag, T. L. (2016). Individual differences associated with emotional and behavioral responses to ambiguous social situations in which rejection might be inferred. Journal of General Psychology, 143, 293-310.
[iii]Welsh, D. P. (2016). Rejection sensitivity and relationship satisfaction in dating relationships: The mediating role of differentiation of self. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 5, 124-135.
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