Whether it’s professional or personal, we all experience rejection at some point in our lives and it can take a long time – months, or even years – to recover. Vogue provides advice to help expedite the bouncing back process…
Marilyn Monroe was told by modelling agencies she’d have more luck as a secretary; Michael Jordan was cut from his high-school basketball team; Lady Gaga was dropped from her first record label; Einstein was expelled from school; and the world’s highest paid author, JK Rowling, saw her first Harry Potter book turned down by publishers over and over again.
Rejection happens to all of us. And regardless of the context, the experience of being unwanted, of feeling that you’re not enough, can feel too much to bear.
Of course there are the “big” rejections–infidelity, being fired, losing a friend; but it’s arguably easy to make sense of the hurt caused by huge life events. What’s harder to understand is the subtler pain of rejection in the digital sphere– a friend not replying quickly to a message, a colleague not following you back on Instagram, or an unchecked comment on a mass Whatsapp group. With smartphones dominating modern life, dating apps, social media and the passive-aggressive, read-between-the-lines nature of texts and email all provide fertile territory for daily emotional wounding.
Our reaction to rejection is both neurological and primal: we care because our brains are wired to do so. “The pain of social rejection is similar to physical pain, and both are processed in the same regions of the brain,” explains Dr Martina Wicklein, Senior Teaching Fellow for Neuroscience at University College London.
During hunter/gatherer times, as Yuval Noah Harari explores in his book Sapiens, humans would hunt in groups to boost their chance of survival, and rejection from the group effectively meant a death sentence. Rejection therefore acts as an early warning system to alert us to the risk of ostracism. This is why it hurts – and aside from emotions such as hurt, anger, fear, and shame, it can even produce physical responses, like nausea, cramps, and chest pain (see broken heart syndrome).
And it doesn’t stop there. “We remember emotional pain for longer and in more detail than physical pain, which makes sense for us as social animals,” says Wicklein. “Social contexts and rejections are nuanced – thus it might be important to be able to relive the whole scenario to analyse and compare it with what is currently happening.” No wonder many of us find ourselves lying awake at night, obsessing over our most excruciating moments.
Nevertheless, there are times when a thicker skin would be very welcome. In 2009, Canadian web designer Jason Comely created a unique method for overcoming his own fear of rejection: he sought it out, over and over again. For more than nine months, Comely put himself in daily situations where he was likely to be told “no” – asking a stranger on a plane for her phone number; requesting a tour of the kitchen in a restaurant; applying for a job for which he had zero qualifications.
After some initial serious embarrassment, Comely ultimately found it liberating. “It was about reframing rejection as something good,” he explains. “Once I got into that mindset there was this freedom. It was amazing. I realised my comfort zone was more like my cage.” Comely turned his experience into Rejection Therapy, a social self-help card game that has been played by thousands of people worldwide, and will soon be made into an app. Journalist Max Grobe, 28, is one of those who picked it up, shortly after he moved to London in 2015. “It was a game changer,” he says. “The rush of fearlessness allowed me to keep a sense of humour in most situations, no matter how dire or socially awkward. It relabelled rejection as something that a) doesn’t hurt me and b) is completely manageable.”
He’s not the only one. Jia Jang found Rejection Therapy so beneficial, he wrote a book about it (Rejection Proof), before buying the rights to the game in 2016 and recording a hugely successful TED talk on the topic. “It’s not like we’re not used to rejection,” he says. “We all get rejected every day. Our goal is to make you see it in a completely new light.”
This was the experience of Whitney Gardner, a 31-year-old mother and entrepreneur from Idaho, USA, and one of the thousands of people to have completed 30 days of the game. “I asked two women in the park if I could braid their hair, to which their reaction was unkind,” explains Gardner. “It felt horrible. And it happened in front of my boys! I decided to quit. But then it hit me: ‘You won! The challenge was to actively seek a “no”, and you did that.’” “It sounds ridiculous,” she continues, “because you’ve just been asking silly questions for a month, but it changes your life. I learnt to be bolder, braver and more resilient.”
If this doesn’t feel like the right approach for you, there are less scary ways to steel yourself against future rejection. “Spread your sense of self, identity, and self-esteem across many areas of your life (work, family, friends), so that if a rejection is experienced in one area, there is a resilience,” advises psychotherapist Sara Rourke. Basically, make sure you’re not carrying all your emotional eggs in one basket.
And if you’re experiencing a painful rejection right now? “Allow yourself to feel the feelings that come up, so that they don’t get suppressed and fester,” suggests Nicky Clinch, who describes herself as a transformational life coach. “Remember that your pain is a clear sign of how much you wanted that thing in the first place. Use that opportunity to reinforce how much you care. Once you have moved through the painful feelings, you can use this reminder to motivate you.”
The good – and bad – news is that the relationship between rejection and self-esteem is symbiotic. Higher self-esteem leaves you less susceptible to feeling knocked down by rejection, whereas recurrent rejections can leave you feeling completely defeated. “Repeated experience can lower self-esteem and perpetuate critical and unhelpful internal narratives, such as ‘I am unlovable and always rejected’,” says Rourke, who sees this frequently with clients who have experienced ghosting – the complete and sudden disappearance of someone they’ve been dating, most commonly on apps. (Interestingly, Rourke says that some of her clients with high levels of social anxiety find dating apps hugely beneficial, because they lower the risk of being rejected face to face.)
Don’t internalise a rejection. “Being rejected is not a reflection of who we are inside,” says Clinch. “Yes it is a disappointment, yes it hurts, but focus on the idea that everything happens for a reason, and on the fact that you tried. There are no mistakes, only more opportunities to learn and grow. Is there something to reflect on in you? Something you may need to improve, grow, evolve, strengthen–so that the next time you try, you’re in a stronger place than before?”
Whatever method you choose, remember that if you weren’t right for that person or situation, then they weren’t right for you. Acknowledge the disappointment and pain, but don’t beat yourself up. “Imagine if it were your daughter or son who was going through that–would you berate them further or reassure them and love them?” asks Clinch. “Treat yourself with the same compassion and kindness.”