Since the age of 10, I have struggled mightily with the issue of rejection. Moving from a town and school where I had been accepted and well liked to a small town where I had to begin from scratch as a chubby, nerdy bookworm took a huge toll on my self-esteem. I desperately wanted others to approve of me and like me, and I often felt the sting of their rejection intensely. I was not thin enough, pretty enough, cool enough. These feelings culminated in an 8-year struggle with bulimia and a constant search for approval from others, even as I graduated college, worked, married and began a family, and completed grad school for a counseling degree. Through my counseling classes and work with clients, I was able to really look at the need for approval and explore the concept of rejection. I was making progress! I was getting stronger! I was moving beyond rejection! And then…I was “unfriended” on Facebook.
Oh, that had happened before, but never by adults who had been my teachers, my band director, my youth minister at church…people who had played a big role in my formative years. People who had helped me during those years of intensely felt rejection. It hurt. It was confusing. I wondered why they had done this to me. Then I realized my Facebook posts supporting marriage equality and equal rights contradicted their strongly held religious belief system, and there was no room in their world to entertain different opinions…or me. And even though I felt I was on the right side of history, that familiar sting of rejection came rushing back hard. I would never have expected it could still hurt so much.
Current research into social rejection by a team led by Dr. David T. Hsu at the University of Michigan Medical School shows that our brains treat social rejection as they treat physical pain. When we’re physically hurt, our brains dump chemicals (opioids) between the neurons to lessen the pain. It is a type of survival instinct. Scientists have proven with PET scans that when experiencing social rejection, our brains dump these same chemicals into this same part of the brain to ease the pain of rejection, acting in a protective way. They have also determined that people who show more resiliency in life and social situations actually dump more opioids into the brain and recover more quickly from social rejection. We can avoid physical harm, but we are designed to need each other and to be in social groups. We depend on our social groups for survival. And in social groups, there is always the prospect of rejection. Some people will not like us. But how do we make peace with this fact and build our resiliency against the pain of rejection? By using this method to REJECT rejection:
- REALIZE you will never be everyone’s cup of tea. Shocking, I know! Who wouldn’t adore YOU?! Well, plenty of people…and that’s okay. The same way it is okay for you not to like everyone you come in contact with. Accept this reality and you will be on your way to dealing with rejection in a healthy way.
- EMBRACE the opportunity for growth as you navigate uncomfortable feelings. Easier said than done, right? Opening yourself to growth is a process, a stretching of your comfort zone. Stretching takes effort; it’s uncomfortable. And then it gets easier, more natural. You stretch. You flow. You grow.
- JUST RELAX. Breathe. Take a break. Go for a walk. Exercise! This will cause your brain to dump even more endorphins and opioids, causing you to feel much better naturally. (I would also highly recommend getting a shelter dog if you want constant love, affection, and complete adoration—and who doesn’t?! Nothing combats rejection like a wet nose and wagging tail! And a dog needs to be walked…so bonus exercise!)
- EXPECT yourself to spend more time with those friends and family who support you, like you, love you, GET you! Life is too short to waste precious time bemoaning the fact that some people don’t like you…or what you stand for. Emotional energy is a finite resource. Spend it on those who make you feel good about yourself.
- CHECK your behaviors and reactions. Time for a bit of introspection here. Look carefully at your role, if any, in the rejection. Check your perceptions of others. Could it be someone is busy or distracted and not really rejecting you personally? Do you expect too much from people and feel constantly disappointed or rejected by them? Could you have alienated someone by your words or positions on issues? If so, are you okay with that loss, or do you want to work on mending that relationship? Explore whether you are overgeneralizing rejection into all areas of your life and bowing to that voice that says no one likes you.
- TRUST in your authentic self. Be yourself. Check your intentions and ask the important questions before you speak: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” Then feel free to act and speak with the full knowledge that your “authentic self” will irritate and repel some people. But trust that you will attract more people to you…people who appreciate your willingness to step out and be you. You will attract your tribe.
I have been tempted to reach out to people who unfriended me on Facebook, those who once meant so much to me, to see if we can be “friends” again, but I have decided that another key factor in developing resiliency is to realize when relationships have played out. I intentionally wish them love and light, and I intentionally note that our time together has ended. This is not to reject them or their influence in earlier years. Rather, it is to recognize that I am absolutely okay without them or their approval.