Rejection can be defined as the act of pushing someone or something away. One may experience rejection from one's family of origin, a friend, or a romantic partner, and the resulting emotions can often be painful. Rejection might be experienced on a large scale or in small ways in everyday life. While rejection is typically a part of life, some types of rejection may be more difficult to cope with than others.

A therapist or other mental health professional may often be able to help an individual work through and cope with instances of rejection and the distress that can result.  

Understanding Rejection

Rejection can occur in a variety of circumstances. Typically, rejection describes an instance of a person or entity pushing something away or out. A person may reject, or refuse to accept, a gift, for example. In medicine, rejection occurs when the body refuses to accept transplanted organs or tissue and attempts to get rid of them with an immune reaction.

In the field of mental health care, rejection most frequently refers to the feelings of shame, sadness, or grief that people feel when they are not accepted by others. A person might feel rejected after a significant other ends a relationship. A child who has few or no friends may feel rejected by peers. An individual who was given up for adoption may also experience feelings of rejection.

Rejection can also result from life events not involving relationships, such as being turned down for a desired position. While any rejection can be painful, some instances of rejection may be more affecting than others. Because most humans desire social contact, and many people crave acceptance from society, being rejected can incite negative feelings and emotions. 

The feeling of rejection is believed to have developed as an evolutionary tool to alert early humans who were at risk of being ostracized from the tribe they belonged to. A painful rejection from others in the tribe was likely to encourage an individual to modify any problematic behavior in order to avoid further rejection, or ostracism, from the tribe. Those who were able to avoid further rejection were more likely to survive, while those who did not find rejection to be particularly painful may not have corrected the offending behavior, making them less likely to survive. Humans have therefore evolved to experience rejection as painful.

Types of Rejection

Rejection from one's family of origin, typically parental rejection, may consist of abuse, abandonment, neglect, or the withholding of love and affection. This form of rejection is likely to affect an individual throughout life, and it may have serious consequences: One study found that, in the male members of the study, the perpetration of abuse in intimate relationships was associated with the experience of higher levels of parental rejection in childhood. Symptoms of posttraumatic stress and deficits in social information processing were also linked. 

A person might also experience rejection while dating or from a romantic partner. While rejection can occur when a person asks for a date and is denied or when an individual decides to end a relationship, it might also happen within the relationship. For example, an individual may refuse to share an event or experience with a partner, withhold affection, or treat a partner as if that person were no more than a casual acquaintance. These behaviors are all likely to be hurtful and lead the recipient to feel rejected. Because there may be reason for concern if one's romantic partner is acting in this manner, therapy may be recommended. Individual or couples therapy can provide a space for intimate partners to address any issues that may have arisen in the relationship or on a personal level. 

Rejection and the "Friend Zone"

In recent years, the concept of the "friend zone" has been popularized. A person who describes themselves as being "put in the friend zone" is typically saying that romantic advances made toward the object of that person's affection were refused. This generally occurs in one of two circumstances: One, a person has developed romantic feelings for a friend over time; or two, one attempts to date or otherwise seek intimacy with an individual who does not wish to pursue anything other than friendship. 

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The concept of the friend zone is considered by many to be problematic, because it is often used to uphold ideas that many find troubling. Although anyone may use the term "being friend zoned" to describe an instance of being rejected, the term is most often applied to and by men who have been turned down by women. While many individuals may be able to readily accept that the person they are attracted to does not have the same feelings, others may feel disgruntled or angry. Some may believe that because they have been nice to an individual, they deserve a chance to date and win the affection of that person. Some may also believe that remaining friends with a person one is sexually attracted to will give that person the chance to realize romantic feelings toward the other individual and develop the desire to pursue a romantic relationship with them. These ideas can perpetuate the notions that romantic love is superior to friendship, that individuals (typically men and women) cannot remain friends without desiring sexual contact, and that all individuals desire sexual contact (eliminating the experiences of those who are aromantic or aseuxal). 

This concept is not always used in reference to a man and a woman. When it is used in such a manner, it can have the effect of furthering the belief that when a woman turns a man down, she may not really mean it or may give a different answer in the future, thus implying that women, or any individual who rejects another, cannot be responsible for their own attractions or dating preferences and may not know what they want. The "friend zone" can also be said to contribute to heterosexist beliefs, as another basis for the concept is the assumption that individuals are heterosexual unless they state otherwise, or that heterosexuality is the "normal" sexual orientation 

Using the term friend zone is not necessarily harmful. A person who jokingly states, "I was put in the friend zone again," may be able to accept this and move on easily. However, the concept is considered by many to be grounded in ideas that can be harmful. Thus, it may be helpful to find a different way to describe a situation where one has been rejected, and those who experience difficulty coping with rejection may find help and support in therapy. 

How Rejection Can Hurt

Rejection can be extremely painful because it may have the effect of making people feel as if they are not wanted, valued, or accepted. Most individuals will experience rejection at some point in their lives. A child may feel rejected temporarily by a busy parent, or a student may feel rejected by a professor who is brusque or rude. These types of rejection may resolve quickly and are less likely to have long-lasting effects. 

However, long-term rejection or rejection that results in extreme feelings and contributes to trauma can lead to serious psychological consequences. Children who feel consistently rejected by their parents may find it difficult to succeed at school and in relationships with their peers. Romantic rejection can be particularly challenging, especially to individuals who desire a lasting romantic relationship. A breakup, or rejection from a romantic partner, can lead to feelings of grief that may be overwhelming and can last for weeks, months, or even years. Rejection in a romantic relationship might alter the way one views one's life and one's own self long after the breakup has occurred. 

Rejection might often contribute to pre-existing conditions such as stressanxiety and depression or lead to their development. Similarly, these and other mental health conditions can exacerbate feelings of rejection. Some individuals develop a chronic fear of rejection, often as a result of multiple traumatic experiences with rejection early in life. Research has also shown that the brain responds to social pain in a way that is similar to the way that it responds to physical pain. According to research, the same brain pathways that are activated by physical pain are also activated by social pain, or rejection. Receptor systems in the brain also release natural painkillers (opioids) when an individual experiences social pain, the same as when physical pain is experienced. 

Rejection has been linked to the development of depression in teen girls. Further, bullying, which is essentially a combination of ostracism and rejection, can have numerous negative effects, including depression, stress, eating disorders, and self-harming behaviors, among others. 

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Addressing and Coping with Rejection

Those who find themselves rejected often may become distressed or frustrated. They may begin to reject themselves, believing that they are not good enough for others or that they will never succeed. Though it may be difficult to cope with rejection, especially when it seems as if it is frequent, it may be helpful to:

  • Acknowledge the event and accept that it was painful. Rejection is a common experience, and pain and distress are normal responses. 
  • Express feelings verbally, to one's self or others. This can help clarify the event and facilitate understanding of why one was rejected.
  • Avoid dwelling on the event, as this can lead to self-blame and may make it difficult to move forward after being rejected. 
  • Use facts to understand rejection. Avoid self-blame or negative thoughts about the self. 
  • Reach out to friends or family members. Positive social interactions can provide natural pain relief. 
  • Engage in physical activity, as exercise can often relieve the pain of rejection.  

Individuals with lower self-esteem may find rejection to be more painful, and it may be more difficult for them to recover from rejection. Research has also shown that people who are more sensitive to rejection may be likely to engage in behavior that leads to further incidences of rejection. They may also be more likely to experience loneliness, as they may attempt to avoid chronic rejection in their interactions by avoiding social situations entirely. Working to strengthen resilience and developing a strong support system of trusted family and friends can help those who are sensitive to rejection overcome any sensitivity and reinforce belief in their own values. 

Therapy for Rejection

Talking to a close friend or family member about the experience of rejection may be helpful, but some individuals who are more sensitive to rejection and others who experience frequent rejection or exclusion may find it more difficult to move past the pain. Sometimes, this difficulty can have severe consequences, such as depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. These conditions can be addressed and treated in therapy, and a therapist may also be able to help an individual to explore potential reasons for rejection and work to achieve personal improvement in these areas. 

Working to strengthen resilience and developing a strong support system of trusted family and friends can help those who are sensitive to rejection overcome sensitivity and reinforce belief in their own values. Some individuals may internalize the pain of rejection, believing that there is something wrong with them, but others might externalize it, believing that the fault lies with those who have rejected them. Chronic feelings of rejection may lead to extreme responses, such as aggression. These behaviors may have the effect of further isolating an individual, but they can also have a negative effect on others. Discussing one's feelings with a therapist can help prevent these harmful behaviors. 

Rejection can be frustrating and lead to self-doubt and internal distress, and therapy can help an individual address these issues. Further, a person who is continually rejected may find therapy to be helpful in the exploration of potential reasons for chronic rejection. Individuals who fear further rejection or desire help in moving past a previous rejection may find that a mental health professional can help and support them through this process. 

Couples counseling may benefit couples where rejection issues affect one or both partners and may also be of help when rejection is experienced within the relationship. One partner may be unaware of how certain behaviors make the other partner feel rejected, and therapy can help uncover the underlying reasons for the behavior. When an individual is aware of these behaviors, therapy can still help address the reasons and support the couple as they work through any issues in their relationship. 

Case Examples

  • Therapy to address frustration with chronic rejection: Eddie, 29, enters therapy, reporting feelings of stress, depression, and frustration that have led to aggression and irritability. He tells the therapist that he has been trying to date but that he has been unsuccessful: He has been in love with his good friend for several years, but she would rather date "one jerk after another" than go out with him. Eddie says that he has tried to move on and date other girls, but that none of the girls he asks out express any interest in him. He tells the therapist that he is depressed and frustrated that his friend does not have feelings for him, since he believes she is "the one," and that any girl would be "lucky" to date him. The therapist begins by asking Eddie whether he believes that his friend should have the right to choose her own dating partner. Eddie admits that she should but states again that he cannot understand why she would rather date other men when he is "always so nice to her." The therapist then asks Eddie if he is only treating his friend with kindness in the hopes that she will date him. He denies this at first but then admits that this might be the case. He says that he values her friendship but would rather be in a relationship with her. Together, he and the therapist examine his thoughts and behavior toward his friend and other women, and through a series of exercises Eddie comes to realize that he tends to see women as "friends who might become romantic partners" rather than valuing them simply as friends. The therapist encourages him to examine what he desires out of a relationship and helps him to understand that attraction works both ways: He may be attracted to someone who is not attracted to him, and kindness will not further attraction when none exists. 
  • Addressing insecurity and fear of rejection in therapy: Daniela, 24, enters therapy, reporting insecurity and low self-esteem. She tells the therapist that she has experienced several bad breakups in a row, where she was the one dumped, and states that she is lonely and would like to find a partner but that she is now afraid to try again. Further adding to her emotional distress is her recent termination of employment. The position was seasonal, but she had hopes of being kept on, and her current job search has not yet yielded any results. Daniela says that she knows she has to find a job, but that she does not want to be rejected again. The therapist helps Daniela address the issue of employment first, encouraging Daniela to reach out to employment agencies and other services that help people find employment. They go over Daniela's resume and references, and the therapist encourages Daniela to keep trying, as she has a strong work history and positive references, including one from her previous employer that states they would have kept her on, had they been financially able to do so. This renews Daniela's optimism, and she resolves to try again. Daniela and her therapist also explore some of the circumstances from her past relationships, and they identify together a few patterns, some related to Daniela, some related to those she has dated, that Daniela can be aware of when seeking further intimacy. They also address and explore Daniela's strengths and her goals, and she is able to develop self-compassion and greater self-awareness. 


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Last updated: 11-05-2015

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