Rejection emotions: what are they, why are they so powerful and how can we learn to manage them?

Rejection emotions: what are they, why are they so powerful and how can we learn to manage them?

If you’re feeling particularly sensitive to rejection at the moment, you’re not the only one. 

You’re overlooked for a promotion at work. Your partner seems reluctant to introduce you to their friends. Instagram shows friends meeting up for a drink without you. Rejection is an extremely painful and powerful feeling.

Research led by psychologist Mark Leary, a retired faculty member at Duke University, recently theorised that our feelings tend to be hurt by six kinds of events: criticism, betrayal, active disassociation (such as a break-up), passive disassociation (being excluded), being unappreciated and being teased.

And it’s true. One-sided relationships, fizzling friendships and being left out of workplace cliques are all agonising experiences, particularly in times of global unrest and uncertainty.

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“All of these are events that make people feel rejected,” Leary told Therapy Tips in an interview. “Put simply, hurt feelings are the ‘rejection emotion.’”

He explains that people who are rejected often experience other emotions that are not reactions to the rejection itself, but reactions to the nature or implications of the event. For example, sadness might be triggered when rejections produce a sense of loss, and anger when they feel unjustified.

But just why does rejection hurt so much?

“Why is our ‘rejection emotion’ so strong at the moment?”
“Why is our ‘rejection emotion’ so strong at the moment?”

We’re biologically wired to fear rejection

“The emotional response to rejection is huge, because it’s one of our deepest human fears,” clinical hypnotherapist Marie Fraser tells Stylist. “Rejection can also mean ‘change’ and the brain does not like change because of the uncertainty this brings,” she adds.

Fraser says that our intense response hails back to the days when humans were dependent on their tribe for survival, shelter, warmth, food, safety and community.

“The brain’s job is to keep us safe and on this planet for as long as possible. Way back in the hunter gatherer days, being rejected by the tribe would more than likely prove fatal, because we were unlikely to survive outside of it. 

“Our brains cannot distinguish between a real or perceived threat and that’s why our emotional response to rejection is so acute. It dysregulates the nervous system.”

“We are biologically wired to belong, to be accepted and wanted, it relates back to those ‘survival’ periods of our evolution, and we rely on social groups for our survival,” she continues.

Leary’s research certainly agrees. Importantly, he adds that people don’t need to be actually rejected to have the subjective experience of rejection. Even though we know that our romantic partners accept and love us, they can (unintentionally) make us feel rejected and hurt our feelings in certain situations.

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How to deal with rejection emotion

Rejection can happen in all areas of our life. When you don’t get the partner, keep the job or earn the validation you deserve. The list is endless,” Fraser says. However, that doesn’t mean we have to remain at the mercy of it.

“The emotional fallout is as individual as the person experiencing rejection, and as their healing process will be as individual as they are,” she continues, but shares some key practices that can help mitigate feelings of exclusion.

Fraser stresses the importance of connecting with those who appreciate and love you to remind you that you are good enough, worthy enough and loveable enough.

Engaging in personal development will also boost your confidence and create a more positive mindset. Think about what changes you want to make and explore what’s really behind your feelings. If it’s loneliness, try prioritising strengthening your friendships.

Overall, she says, remember that rejection happens to everyone. It’s never just you.

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Images: Getty