Historically, if a human being did not belong to a social group, he or she would more than likely die due to harsh conditions. It took a village to survive and you needed to be a part of that village. In an article titled The Pain of Social Rejection, written by Kirsten Weir for the American Psychological Association, she wrote that our need to belong, for acceptance, links back to our early survival skills.
Weir quotes Kipling Williams, PhD, at Purdue University as saying, “Evolutionarily speaking, if you’re socially isolated, you’re going to die and it’s important to feel that pain.” Weir also cites brain research which reveals that the areas of the brain that register pain due to physical injury, the dorsal anterior cingulate and the anterior insula, also register the emotional pains of rejection.
It’s quite smart of our bodies to create such a strong reaction to rejection. Due to our early programming, rejection—a lack of belonging, a lack of acceptance—meant death. So the brain sends us strong signals of pain to warn us that if we don’t try to reconnect, our lives are in jeopardy.
Rather than value this warning sign, this important bodily communication, we fear it. The pain becomes unbearable. We attach all kinds of meanings to the pain, to rejection itself. We perceive rejection as an absolute truth about who we are or what we can achieve. Somehow, this primitive survival signal creates a slow, painful death—of our spirits.
We stop reaching out. We stop trying. We give up on finding the right partner, the right job, the right friends. While our modern-day culture allows us to survive in isolation, what quality does that bring to our life? We may not die physically, but what about mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
Romantic relationships include various forms of rejection. You may reject your partner macro style, the total breakup, or micro style, such as the quiet zingers you launch over dinner. You may reject in obvious ways, such as sleeping in a separate room, or less direct ways, such as developing and feeding a sexual dysfunction.
As a result of these rejections, you may continue to coexist in your relationship but shut down connection. Or the whole relationship might break apart. This separation can wound so deeply that you may fear ever trying to form another relationship.
If you want to overcome your fears of rejection, here are five ways to transform how you respond to this difficult experience:
- Rejection is not about you and it is about you. This tenet is twofold. On the one hand, rejection usually has more to do with the person rejecting and less to do with you. That person has his or her own history that influences the person’s ability to connect with and accept you. The person may have his or her own emotional obstacles to confront. At the same time, there may be threads of truth woven into the person’s perspective about you. It behooves you to try to learn what you can from the experience. It takes two to make a relationship work or to tear it apart. How does this rejection become a learning opportunity for you? How do you become constructive instead of destructive with these threads of truth?
- Expect rejection SOME of the time. I have no idea where I heard this, but someone once said to me, “You see that gorgeous girl? Someone, somewhere, is sick of her [crap]!” Like that girl, you, too, will be rejected, no matter how attractive you are, how much money you have, or how nice you are—someone will “get sick of you” in some form. Not everyone is compatible, and you will not meet everyone’s needs at all times. If you can accept this, you can decrease the personalization of rejection, maintain faith, and keep trying.
- Stop making rejection your whole life story. Assuming the identity of “victim” will not attract or keep a mate. The more you cling to the “rejected” role, the more you suffer. There is more to you than your rejection. Surround yourself with friends and family who support you. These people serve as a reminder of your worth. They are a part of your love story. To overcome rejection, you must connect with people who love you.
- Vulnerability is a relationship requirement and a rejection target. If you fear rejection, you might hold up a bulb of garlic when you see the word “vulnerability.” Yet without this vital relationship skill, your mate cannot ever truly connect with you, and may, in turn, reject you. Real intimacy is possible only when both partners become vulnerable. If you can transform what you choose to do with rejection, vulnerability might not feel so scary.
- Risk is necessary for your emotional growth. When you choose to love someone, you risk loss. Whether by death, divorce, or separation, the risk of rejection is present. Is it better to love and risk loss or rejection than to not love at all? The answer is yes, plain and simple. Science shows us that we are wired to seek connection, belonging, and acceptance. Avoiding rejection closes the doors to many potentially fulfilling relationships.
Destructive responses to rejection shut you down to all relationships. Constructive responses teach you about yourself and others. Rejection is not easy. Your response sets the stage for your relationship experiences. What do you choose?
Weir, Kirsten (2014). The Pain of Social Rejection. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/rejection.aspx
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