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Rejection: A painful survival tool

Rejection: A painful survival tool

Life coach Maryam Ghouth examines the cause, effect and remedies for rejection

Rejection is by far one of the most distressing experiences known to humans. Whether we are rejected by someone we know, someone we dislike or someone entirely new, it just hurts.
The strongest and fittest of us all have experienced rejection at one point in our lives and thanks to the expansion of our social networks, the possibility of it happening is much higher.

Why does it hurt so much?

University of California social psychology professor Naomi Eisenberger and Purdue University psychology professor Kipling Williams found that social rejection increased activity in two brain regions that also show increased activity in response to physical pain.

In other words, the same pathways of the brain that light up when we experience physical pain, light up when we experience rejection. The connection is so strong that painkillers can actually relieve our emotional wounds.

An interesting observation here is that recalling a painful rejection can flood us with many of the same feelings we had at the time of being rejected. Physical pain does not trigger memories to the extent that emotional pain does because emotional memories root themselves in our subconscious mind.

Why did we evolve a response to rejection that is synonymous with physical pain?

In Psychological Bulletin, the social and evolutionary psychologist Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary describe rejection as an evolutionary advantage. It is suggested that the brain developed an early warning system to alert us when we were at risk of being ostracised from our tribes. Those who experienced the pain of being rejected were at an evolutionary advantage because they were more likely to correct their behaviour and consequently more likely to remain in the tribe – survival of the fittest.

What motivates us to reject others?

Feeling pain from rejection as a means to correct our behaviour and remain in the tribe confirms that our need to belong is fundamental to our wellbeing and survival. On that basis we can assume that the reason we reject others is rooted in wanting to promote our chances for survival, reproduction and growth as a species.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a ‘hierarchy of needs’ that every person aspires to fulfill. Some of our decisions to reject others may be governed by our motivation to satisfy these needs. A perceived inadequacy, disadvantage, harmful behaviour, lack of chemistry or incompatibility are just some of the reasons for why we may see someone as unfit to team up with or join our ‘tribe’ and journey.

However, what we deem as threatening to our survival may be based on our own cognitive biases. Sometimes our biases are built on inaccuracies or insecurities rather than on valid reasons to reject another person.

For the sake of narrowing down the scope of scenarios relating to why we may reject others, here are three examples that fall within the realm of romantic rejection:

1) Scarred by an experience resulting in fear of commitment, intimacy, rejection or abandonment.
2) Having low standards or feelings of inadequacy resulting in preferences that are rooted in low self esteem.
3) Having narcissistic tendencies with avoidant attachment styles and an extreme craving for admiration and recognition.

The reality is that decision-making is a complex process and there is a myriad of factors that influence it. But on a positive note, sometimes being rejected is a reflection of your greatness and uniqueness and often has nothing to do with you personally.

How do we respond to rejection?

To avoid social exclusion and its negative effects on our evolution, we have evolved many powerful reactions to rejection.

Negative self-talk and rumination: the most common reaction is to bemoan all our inadequacies and beat ourselves up about what we have done to cause it.

It is natural to reflect on experiences that have happened to us. However, when reflection entails repetitive negative cognition it becomes harmful and can lead to depression. An extension to this reflection, is the compulsive emphasis on the distress we have experienced and the million possible causes and consequences over and over again as opposed to an emphasis on its solutions.

Despair and loneliness: Helen Fisher, author of The Anatomy of Love, suggests that the diminishing activity of dopamine following rejection produces lethargy, despondency and depression. While scientists believe that despair may come in handy during moments of distress, as it signals a cry for help and support and pushes people to make better decisions in the future, it can lead to feelings of loneliness. We tend to avoid contact with people out of shame, embarrassment or deep sorrow and end up avoiding circles of friends, colleagues and loved ones as a result. We become isolated with heightened sensitivity to rejection and weaker social skills making it difficult to foster new relationships, which perpetuates our sense of despair and loneliness.

Abandonment rage: coined by Psychologist Reid Meloy, abandonment rage stresses the heart, raises blood pressure and suppresses the immune system. Though rage feels better than despair and helps us extricate ourselves from dead-end relationships in order to resume our quest for new opportunities, it can lead to feelings of regret, guilt and vengefulness and in worse cases, violence and dangerous behaviour towards others.

Self-sabotage: some people resort to unhealthy self-sabotaging habits such as binge eating, heavy medication or substance abuse as an outlet to escape the pain. And others fill the void by obsessively seeking validation elsewhere through meaningless interactions that may serve as a distraction initially but leave us feeling emptier in the long run.

Renewed passion: finally, according to Schultz who had written about the multiple reward signals of the brain in Nature Reviews, many people who have been rejected experience a more intense desire to reconnect with the ones who have rejected them due to our brain’s neural reaction to delayed reward. Though it may benefit us to correct our ways and rekindle a relationship, we can sometimes chase after the wrong one and for the wrong reasons.

How do we overcome rejection?

According to Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts, the most damage to our self esteem is actually done by us. When we are rejected, we worsen the consequences of that experience by deepening the pain or resorting to harmful behaviour. Boosting our self-esteem, can act as a buffer and help us become emotionally resilient when things go wrong.

Self-affirmation: it is important to understand that rejection may not be down to something wrong with you and embrace the different qualities that make you who you are. An exercise in support of this is referred to as self-affirmation. These self-affirmations are generated by positive yet truthful perceptions of ourselves.

Positive reflection: as we are bound to reflect on our experiences, rather than falling into the trap of rumination, we need to work towards self-development and improving any traits or behaviours that we feel do not align with our values and purpose. This involves positive learning, broader perspectives and clearer actions that enable personal growth.

Questioning the wounds: pay attention to your feelings and try to understand where they are coming from and how valid they are. By questioning the validity of your negative feelings and viewing each challenge with a fresh pair of eyes, you are able to eliminate much of the self doubt you feel and disassociate your current experiences from past wounds.

Build more meaningful relationships: invest time and energy in healthy and loyal connections as this feeds our need for belonging and makes up for rejection elsewhere. Social belonging is paramount and the relationships you build play a huge role in your wellbeing. Seek out meaningful ones and spend less time on empty relationships that simply act as void fillers.

Healthy habits: fill your life with stimulating, fulfilling and confidence building experiences. They can be recreational, charitable, physical or mental but either way, they take up healthy space in the mind, allowing less room for negative thoughts to breed.

Educating ourselves about rejection and remembering that we can take steps to address the wounds will accelerate our psychological healing and alleviate the damage caused to our self-esteem.

And recognising that rejection is often not personal nor based on rationality can help us remove many of the failings we hold ourselves accountable for. Quoting one of my favorite philosophers, Blaise Pascal, “the heart has reasons that reason doesn’t understand”.

Maryam Ghouth is an accredited life coach and NLP licensed practitioner based in Dubai and London


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