Sticks and Stones: Boost Self-Esteem to Cope with Rejection

boy in cape outsideSocial rejection is a reality most people face as they move through life. Whether as a child, adolescent, or adult, these experiences can be deeply wounding emotionally, psychologically, and even physically. For some, factors such as low self-esteem may influence their ability to cope with and respond to rejection.

Recent research explored how individuals respond differently to social rejection based on their self-esteem and ways of processing emotion (Kashdan et al., 2014). Daily online diary entries were collected from the participants for a period of three weeks to assess their levels of self-esteem and emotion differentiation. This was followed by one day of in-person neuroimaging brain scans, which were recorded while the participants received social feedback via a virtual ball-throwing game.

The virtual game involved a group of players tossing a ball around on screen, essentially. For the first round, the study subjects were included in group tosses. For the second round, they were blatantly excluded.

Not surprisingly, those with low self-esteem and “low negative emotion differentiation” displayed a “toxic combination” in response to social exclusion; their brain scans revealed high levels of social distress in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and anterior insula in response to rejection. Negative emotion differentiation is defined as being adept at using “negative” emotions to “capture one’s felt experience” (Kashdan et al., 2014). So if a person is low in this capacity, it means he or she does not handle or process the negative feelings associated with rejection easily.

On the other hand, having high self-esteem is associated with a general sense of being included and accepted; if rejection does occur or negative social feedback is doled out, these individuals tend to experience less distress. Though they are not immune to the sting of rejection, their perception of how others feel toward them is more prone to being positive, and their coping strategies tend to be more effective.

Ultimately, the idea with emotion differentiation is that a person’s way of responding to and acting on emotion matters more from a behavioral perspective than the emotion itself. If someone experiences rejection, yet has a strong sense of self to fall back on, he or she is less likely to fall into depressive symptoms and isolation than someone who does not have a strong sense of self.

A similar study found that along with emotional distress in response to social rejection or loss, researchers observed activity in the area of their participants’ brains associated with physical pain, the posterior insular cortex. This suggests that not only does social rejection hurt on an emotional and psychological level, but it is also physically perceived in the body as pain (Sissa, 2014).


  1. Kashdan, T. B., DeWall, N. C., Masten, C. L., Pond Jr., R. S., Powell, C. Combs, D., Shurtz, D. R., and Farmer, A. S. (2014, March 4). Who is most vulnerable to social rejection? The toxic combination of low self-esteem and lack of negative emotion differentiation on neural responses to rejection. PLOS One. Retrieved from;jsessionid=E23CA6951C62694DEBD046D9A78B1F79
  2. Sissa Medialab. (2014, February 27). The pain of social exclusion. Retrieved from

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  • Sara

    March 6th, 2014 at 1:53 AM

    I think low self esteem works like a bank. The person with higher self esteem may not suffer the depressive symptoms first time but constant rejection will still chip away and if it happens too many times it will be as low as those in the study classified as suffering low self esteem.

  • Toni b

    March 6th, 2014 at 3:58 AM

    When you have low self esteem it has to be doubly hard to face rejection. You would automatically go that place where you are beating up on yourself and feeling like a failure when in truth it probably has very little to do with you.

  • Jonathan

    March 7th, 2014 at 3:58 AM

    There will be times though, mo matter how high your self esteem is, that words will hurt you. No matter how confident you are in yourself, there are always going to be those times and those people who have a knack for hurting you and for some reason their rejection pulls down how you think of yourself. If you have high self esteem then maybe it won’t hurt quite as bad or create a wound that is quite as deep, but the hurt will be there and I am nt sure that there is any real way to protect against that.

  • brandon p

    March 7th, 2014 at 11:02 AM

    Alrighty then, lets say we have intuited that my problem is low self esteem. What next? What steps should I then begin to take to improve that?

    Its not as easy as talking yourself up, this is something that is generally built over years of time. So how do I, at this stage of my life, start rebuuilding something that was lost to me a long time ago?

  • Ella

    March 9th, 2014 at 6:24 AM

    From the outset of life it is our responsibility as parents and society as a whole to build and create high levels of self-esteem in our young people. If we don’t find the opportunity to provide this for them while they are still young, it is inevitable that they will go through life always feeling as if they are lacking and are less then others. We don’t want that for our children, they deserve so much more, so much better than that from us.

  • tim

    March 10th, 2014 at 2:58 AM

    You know there are times when someone says something critical to you or about you that yeah, the pain does start to feel like it’s physical in nature too.

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