The Science Behind Rejection: Healthy Ways To Process Getting Told ‘‘No’’

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated April 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Rejection is something everyone will experience from time to time. Whether it’s a job you interviewed for and didn’t get or a potential partner who turned you down, being told “no” can be a frustrating and even distressing experience. Even when a person tries to put it lightly, there are few “rejected” synonyms that can soften the experience, with a noun like “denial”  or a verb like “repudiate” doing little to ease the pain of rejection or avoid hurt feelings. Despite the difficulty of this situation, it’s normal for human beings to experience these feelings, and there are ways to get through rejection. Let’s look at how the brain processes rejection and examine healthy ways to cope when you experience it.

Overcome rejection with help from a licensed therapist

Why does rejection hurt so much?

The endogenous opioid system is the set of neurons in the brain that’s responsible for controlling social distress and reward. Interestingly, the system is also in charge of managing physical pain. One study measured participants’ neurological responses to social rejection and acceptance situations. This brain system showed significant activation of certain brain regions in response to rejection, indicating that our experience is similar to physical pain. Rejection hurts—quite literally, according to neural evidence.

Social acceptance and connection are core human needs. Humans are wired for relationships and community, and our brains are set up to react strongly to threats to this part of our lives due to human evolution and natural selection.

Research shows that “individuals who are socially active with satisfying social relationships” report above-average happiness levels, lower levels of anxiety and depression, and higher resilience to stress.

On the other hand, being abandoned or having a lack of social connections can lead to more significant psychological distress, social anxiety, and low self-esteem. It may even inhibit a person’s ability to form positive social relationships in the future. When looking at the wealth of scientific evidence, it’s easy to see why we’re built to avoid rejection and why we feel it deeply when it does happen.


How to cope with rejection

There’s no getting around it: Rejection can be painful. Synonyms like “deserted” do an efficient job of describing how it can feel to get rejected, while more synonyms like “forsaken” and “jilted” can help describe the deep emotional pain rejection can create. However, it’s an inevitable part of life, so building resilience in this area can be helpful. Read on for a few strategies you can try to deal with rejection better.

Remember that it’s usually not personal

It’s often easier said than done, but it can be helpful to consider your rejection from the other party’s perspective. A person who has denied you rarely intends for their actions to be hurtful. Usually, they’re just doing what’s right for them. Let’s say you didn’t get that job you applied for, for instance. It's likely they did not want to deny you intentionally - or all the people who also applied for the job - but rather they may have found a candidate whose experience was a slightly better fit. This can be a small comfort in some situations. 

Focus on the positives

While it’s typically easy to zero in on what we’ve lost when we get rejected, it can be helpful to dismiss the negatives and think about what we’re gaining. For instance, let’s say you’ve been left by a potential date. You might remind yourself that you’re unlikely to have a healthy, fulfilling relationship with someone who’s not as interested in you as you are in them. Not getting the chance to build a connection with them also frees you up to form a relationship with someone else who may be an even better match.

Use it as a growth opportunity

It’s impossible in every case, but sometimes rejection can catalyze growth or self-improvement. Inquiring why someone chose to rebuff your proposal could give you valuable insight into how to improve your chances next time, for example. Asking someone who decided to end your relationship after a few dates if there’s anything you could do differently could yield fruitful feedback to help you build a healthier connection and maybe even avoid heartbreak with the next person. Seeing rejection as an opportunity rather than a setback may help you healthily shift your perspective.

Practice self-care

Some rejections may hurt more than others, with one example being if a family member chooses to renounce you. In these and similar instances, fully experiencing your feelings about the situation can be essential rather than trying to suppress them or avoid talking about them. Studies show that avoidance of grief can prolong the grieving process. That’s why taking good care of yourself after rejection can be helpful. You might treat yourself like you’d treat a friend or loved one who had just been through the same thing. Rather than thinking harmful phrases like “I’m such a loser!”, use kind words when engaging in self-talk, Give yourself time to rest, indulge in a favorite treat, journal, exercise, or chat about it with someone you trust. Duke University recommends mindfulness exercises to help recharge after a rejection. Let yourself feel the disappointment, hurt, anger, sadness, or any other emotions you may be experiencing so you can move past them.

Overcome rejection with help from a licensed therapist

How a therapist can help

Handling rejection can be challenging. Processing it with a trained professional is another way to help yourself get through it. A counselor or therapist can assist you in identifying the emotions you feel and why, cultivating a more realistic perspective about what happened, and helping you rebuild the self-esteem or courage to continue putting yourself back out there. Whether you’re concerned you may have a mental health condition like depression or social anxiety or want a listening ear to help you work through difficult emotions, a therapist can help.

Suppose you’re nervous about meeting with someone in person, have trouble locating a provider in your area, or feel more comfortable attending therapy sessions when you do not have to leave your home. In that case, virtual therapy is one option to consider. Research suggests that online therapy can offer similar benefits to in-person sessions. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who can help you with the challenges you may face via phone, video call, and online chat. Regardless of your format, you can feel empowered to seek support and guidance if you struggle with rejection.


Processing and recovering from rejection of any kind can be difficult, and even the word “rejection” can be painful but we’ll all experience it at one point or another. The strategies in this article may help you cope and build resilience for the future. If you feel like professional support can help you overcome your feelings of rejection in a healthier or more efficient way, you can reach out to a licensed online therapist at BetterHelp for guidance.
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