Rejection hurts because science. Evolutionarily speaking, my nerds, if you got kicked out of the village, you died. A lion ate your face and it was game over. So if you were vigilant to social rejection, you survived. If you were smart, you people pleased and upheld your perfectionist standards and you kept the community happy with you, then you would be protected, fed, kept warm, safe.
It is normal and human to want to belong, my darling. And when our fear of not pleasing others, not having everyone on earth enamored with us stands in the way of liking ourselves and living in our authenticity, it’s not the rejection that holds us back. It’s our fear of it and what we make it mean about us.
We’re pack animals. We are wired for collective wellness and collective healing, which means putting the safety of the village ahead of everything else.
If someone was rejected, we assume that meant there was something wrong with them, or why would they be left behind or cast out?
And we continue to have that same visceral feeling of thinking that those who don’t fit in or who are rejected are somehow damaged goods and we certainly do not want to be them.
While nothing could be farther from the truth, those who are rejected are certainly not damaged goods, evolutionarily, it makes so much sense. And as usual, we have evolved as humans and we now see all sorts of things that don’t actually mean we’ll be left in the woods to die as a rejection.
Things like your boss saying you need to change up something you wrote, your post on the socials not getting likes, getting ghosted by someone after a date, someone not texting you back in the timeframe your brain tells you is appropriate, and all of that creates a lot of internal suffering that you really can start to put down, my beauty.
Rejection can trigger your amygdala, the fear center of your brain, which is why it can feel so scary.
It can shift your nervous system into sympathetic activation, the old fight or flight we’ve talked about so much here.
So that can be an acute experience when someone rejects you, or when someone says words and your brain interprets it as a rejection. Or when it’s a chronic or frequent experience, such as familial rejection, and especially when it’s systemic, like the rejection that Black folks, BIPOC folks, queer folks, immigrants experience on the daily in this country, all of that chronic rejection can leave your system so exhausted that you find yourself protectively and smartly in dorsal vagal.
That immobilization shutdown, sad, sit at the back of the cave part of the nervous system, which makes sense. Both sympathetic and dorsal are well meaning protective mechanisms, but neither prepares you to take a no or rejection in stride, or to get the support you need and deserve when the rejection is familial, systemic, and touches deep in your tenderness.
There’s some fascinating research about rejection.
Functional MRI studies, a kind of brain scan that uses magnets, show that rejection activates the same part of the brain as physical pain.
Walking into a table and feeling rejection light up the brain in similar ways. And this is why rejection hurts so much. What is also fascinating is that studies have found that the analgesic or pain-reducer Tylenol, which is acetaminophen, reduces both our empathy and the pain associated with rejection. Isn’t that fascinating?
So reducing your physiologic pain response reduces the emotional pain of rejection, which totally tracks.
Now, I am not out here being like, oh yeah, you should take Tylenol to reduce your emotional pain before an audition, a job interview because A, number one, your liver would not be thrilled if you did that. Acetaminophen is rough on the old liver. And B, number two, that buffering or attempt to push the feelings away doesn’t actually help you in the long run.
All of this nerdiness about how rejection impacts us on so many levels is an important backdrop to say rejection can feel enormous in our bodies, like something that means something real and terrible about us as humans. And so we live with this powerful fear of it.
Vital caveat my beauties, if rejection, particularly early childhood or familiar rejection is keeping you feeling stuck, the following will hopefully be helpful for you as a framework and can give you some tools to help yourself.
And I want to encourage you to see if working with a skilled and experienced therapist to help you address and unravel the tight old knots of rejection in our mind and body may be a good path for you.
Rejection happens to all of us in all sorts of ways. And you staying in that feeling, letting it swirl within you, that fear of someone disapproving of you or not liking what you offer, which is what a rejection is, can keep you from taking courageous action for your life.
Because if you see failure as a rejection of your plans and attempts to succeed, you will fear it. Because of course you will. If as a kiddo you decided the best way to be safe was to have everyone from your parents, your caregivers, to your teachers, to the bus driver adore you and approve of you, then risking failure is antithetical to your goal of being safe and liked.
The train of thought of seeking to avoid rejection keeps us in inaction, keeps us from taking risks, from building the life of our dreams on our own terms, lest someone say no, it’s no good, I’m not interested.
And baby, that’s no way to live. That’s certainly not a life built and lived with intention.
We make someone else not wanting what we have to offer mean something about us and our worth, our value.
And that’s part of why it’s such a painful emotion.
It’s really important to get clear on the difference between hearing a no and being rejected.
What’s interesting is we don’t often make a no mean something about us, unless it touches a deep tenderness. It’s when your loving ego gets involved and takes it personally, which is its job after all.
I want to invite you to feel into the difference between saying, hey, can I borrow your socks? And your buddy says nah, I need my socks.
So the difference between that, just a no, I won’t do a thing, you can’t have my thing, and when you ask someone to hold you when you’re crying and they say no. Or you ask someone on a date, and they say no.
In the first one, you may not make that experience mean something about you. You’re less likely to take it personally. Can I have your fries? No dude, fries are sacred, hands off. Those experiences don’t feel like rejections in my heart. They don’t stir up the same protective mechanisms for me as when the request is about something that I am making mean something about me as a human.
Because that’s when rejection hurts. When you make it mean that someone is disappointed in you, upset with you, thinks less of you, doesn’t like you, doesn’t approve of you. When your brain tells you you’re unworthy because of that rejection.
When at its core and in truth, someone saying no to whatever the request is is just a human saying no.
We seek to figure out what someone else is going to think about us. And we interpret the world through the lens of trying to not think that someone else is thinking something bad about us.
And we do that because we’re so scared of rejecting ourselves, beating ourselves up, repeating the story that we are not worthy of being treated well. So the rejection stings because you turn it around on you. You call yourself unworthy and less than lovable, and you spin in that. Your brain takes it in so deep and you forget that you can have your own back.
This is a form of confirmation bias.
When you reject yourself, your ego looks for experiences that strengthen that belief, that worry about your own unworthiness.
And one of the reasons why so many of us are so mean to ourselves ahead of time and at the site of provocation is because our brains feel like it’s easier to be mean to ourselves before someone else can be mean, as though that would protect us.
For us folks with a history of protecting our tenderness with codependent, perfectionist, and people pleasing thought habits, this line of thinking may be our norm.
So we take things personally and feel rejection pretty darn frequently, often when we’re not actually being rejected.
What it comes down to is this; someone saying they don’t want what you’re offering, whatever that may be, has nothing to do with you.
It truly is 100% about them.
And just as important for us as folks who have learned to be vigilant about not hurting others as a way to be liked, safe, protected, us codependent, perfectionist, people-pleasing thought habit havers, is to talk about our fear of rejecting others.
My clients often talk about not wanting to say no because they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Don’t want the other person to feel bad about themselves or about them as the no-sayer. They don’t want to reject someone.
If we apply the same logic, when you say, “I don’t want to date you, I don’t want this job, I don’t want cheese on it, I don’t want to go to there,” you aren’t rejecting someone else or their opinions, thoughts, or ideas. You’re just stating your side of things.
It’s no more about them than them saying, “Let’s have tacos,” is about you. You don’t want their offering. Cool, fine, all good. You get to use this framework to get a little cognitive distance, to support yourself in saying your yes and your no with conviction and self-love without attempting to people please anyone, without attempting to shape your will and desires to attempt to protect someone else from a feeling, because my tender, kind, darling love, you can’t.
Other people will have their thoughts and feels, much like you will.
Independent of what is said. So the remedy here is to remember that you don’t cause anyone else to feel rejected. That’s in their mind. And of course, this is always within the context of trusting you to move through the world with love and gentleness, while also speaking what you want and need.
So I want to really empower you to speak your truth, to say what you want and need, and to not worry about the other person feeling rejected, trusting in yourself that you’re speaking with kindness.
We start by getting neutral about it. And we do that so we can really see through our habitual experience of things. The stories we’ve always been telling about an experience. Write out the facts without adjectives or subjective data.
My boss said x, put in the facts, whatever that is. She said she doesn’t want to go on a date, they don’t laugh at my jokes. And then once I can see the situation as this really neutral thing, I get to recognize that I can make a decision. I get to interpret that, and I can use my prefrontal cortex, my nerds, that smart part of my brain that can do thinking about my thinking, to make a choice.
And so I’ll ask some curious questions. What am I making this set of facts mean? How am I making it about me? Why does this fact, he said words, she said words, they didn’t laugh, why does this feel like a rejection of me as a human?
And I do this because it’s those thoughts that are leading me and you to judge ourselves, to criticize ourselves, and to continue to seek the false protection of the story that we are being rejected and will always be rejected, so we shouldn’t put ourselves out there.
But what if someone saying no doesn’t mean anything about you?
What if it means everything about them and what they want, like, and need? They don’t want what you’re offering and that’s just fine. Whether it’s the thing you wrote for work, dating you, being your friend, paying you for your services, but seriously, it literally means nothing more about you than that they don’t want it. It’s just about them.
Making it neutral and putting the facts of whatever happened in terms of someone else wants or doesn’t want this thing, and that is their preference and nothing more helps me to take the emotional sting out of it, and it’s like when we set boundaries.
So remember, healthy self-loving boundaries are not emotional. They’re not about guilting or shaming ourselves or others. It’s simply about saying what you want and need. If you do x, I’ll do y. And someone saying no to you is the literal same.
It’s possible for you to reframe any situation as someone making a choice for themselves. And I want you to practice this tool so you can begin to rewire your nervous system like we do by repeating to yourself, she said no because she wanted to say no. They didn’t text because they didn’t want to text. She sat where she sat because that’s where she chose.
You get to choose reframes that have nothing to do with you because most things aren’t about you.
Truly and in the best sense. Your brain just has the habit of making things mean something about you and you can pause before your tenderness gets involved. It takes practice and love and care, and I know you can do it starting today.
The next remedy is to realize that there will always, 110% of the time, be humans who don’t see your magnificence. And the truth is that is very sad for them. But it doesn’t have to be sad for you.
So you get to shift the experience of your life away from that often not very conscious thought pattern of asking, how can I get this person to like me so I won’t feel rejected? Into building your confidence in yourself as someone who can take a no. That’s the shift.
And so with that, you can remind yourself that discomfort isn’t a problem and you can feel all the pain of it because we don’t emotionally bypass in this family. We don’t push discomfort away. We practice sitting with it, within our window of dignity. And we remind ourselves, I can process this emotion through my body and can release it with love and care.
I know it’s challenging.
But the more you can lean into your self-confidence, the more you can feel that deep dedication to valuing your own approval of you over anyone else’s.
And I want that for you so much, my beauty.
So in order to not walk around fearing rejection, you get to:
- Get neutral about it.
- Not take it personally or make it about you.
- Process the emotion through your body.
- Decide it’s totally okay to not be liked by every human on the planet if you like you.
- You can decide that you’re no longer going to live in fear of rejection because you know you have a plan and you trust you to have your own back.
What if you never had to fear rejection?
What if you let other people’s choices just be their choices and not have anything at all to do with you? Imagine how beautiful that would be, how different your life could be.
Think as well about all the things you haven’t done because you’ve been afraid of what other people might think or say. When you take the scary out of hearing no and just make it a human saying words, you can grow in such glorious ways, my tender one.
What a beautiful gift to give yourself.