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

Updated November 25, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In life, we are going to interact with people who are going to tell us, “No.” Whether in relationships, job environments, or anywhere else we might request or propose something – rejection is something we will all experience. 

Maybe we wanted a toy as a child, and our parents told us, “No.” Some adults feel so overwhelmed by the prospect of rejection that they choose not to fill out a job application, pursue an exciting opportunity, or approach a person they find attractive. 

The worst that can happen in these situations is that they receive a “No” response, and yet, rejection can cause palpable pain and anxiety for many people. Why is this so? How do some people handle rejection well while others feel devastated? In this article, we will explore how the brain is wired to react to rejection and how we might use better strategies to respond when we experience rejection.

Overcome Rejection With Help From A Licensed Therapist

How The Brain Reacts To Rejection 

Societal acceptance has, in countless ways, enabled human civilization to evolve. Over time, our brains have developed ways to ascertain threats to our acceptance

There are two main components of a “rejection” that our brains perceive: the actual response of “No” and the explanation, if there is one. Hearing “No” can feel like ripping off a bandage. It is clear, and whatever hope we may have had for a different outcome is no longer realistic. The brain manages emotional pain and the same manner it does physical pain; meaning, we may act in different ways to eliminate or reduce the pain.

When we hear the explanation for a perceived rejection, we may become defensive, lash out, shut down, or feel panicked. These responses may be linked to previous experiences in childhood or adolescence when we felt intense emotions connected to rejection.

Feeling ignored is one of the most frustrating forms of rejection. We submit that application and never hear back from the company. We ask someone out, and they never respond. The lack of closure can cause us to feel uncertain about ourselves and our future. In our minds, we might assume that the person we’re waiting to hear from thinks so little of us that they won’t even dignify us with a response.

Feeling ignored may also influence us to feel a sense of false hope. Maybe the job application got buried, or they're holding onto it until the time is right? Perhaps the person we asked out wanted to reply, but forgot, or has feelings for us as well but doesn't want to act on them. Many choose to ignore others – instead of directly telling them, “No” – because they want to avoid confrontation or they don’t like to cause others to feel pain. Some people don’t want to be “the bad guy” and rationalize avoidance as a loophole. Ultimately, if we do not get a response or receive a response we don’t like, it may be best to consider the experience a lesson learned and move on.

How To Embrace Rejection

What’s motivating to know is that rejection is not a person. It is an experience we can explore and use as an opportunity to build resilience. One reasonwhy people become highly successful is that they handle rejection well and keep persisting. While there is no right solution for everyone, here are four ways to overcome rejection and move toward happiness and success.

Realize It's Not Personal

When we apply for a job or make another proposal, it's easy to take a rejection personally. However, it is important to understand that we were likely not the only one who sent a proposal. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of proposals, and there are many reasons why we may not have gotten picked. While talented, we may not have been the best fit for the job at the time.

With regard to dating, some people might reject us not because they dislike us, but because they don’t think we’re compatible. People rarely make decisions with the primary intent of causing someone to feel rejected. Often, we feel as much because we are not satisfied with someone else’s choice. Perhaps their choice was less about pleasing us and more about determining what’s best for them.

Read Inspirational Stories

From celebrities who experienced significant social mobility toeveryday people who continue to overcome challenges and maintain a positive outlook, inspirational stories can compel us to see rejection as a stepping stone, versus a barrier.  We have heard stories of famous authors, like J.K. Rowling, who submitted their stories and experienced rejections hundreds of times. They kept trying, and eventually, found the person who was willing to publish their works. Many aspiring authors might submit their works once, maybe twice, and upon experiencing rejection, throw in the towel and believe they aren't cut out to be a best-selling author.

Try Achieving Your Goal In A Different Way

Despite the pain we may feel with each rejection, those who keep trying may become desensitized. The first few times we’re rejected, it can feel painful. Eventually, our ability to understand why we keep getting rejected may lead us to success. Part of this is based on our ability to take rejection as constructive criticism.

For example, if we consistently hear feedback from our former relationship partners that we are too nit-picky or non-committal, there may be an opportunity there for us to question our own behavior. 

In other situations, maybe we’re going about something in an effective way, but we should apply our efforts in a different context. This could mean sending a resume to a different company or pursuing a different type of romantic partner.

Overcome Rejection With Help From A Licensed Therapist

Seek Counseling

Some people find it difficult to handle rejection even if they've tried all of the strategies described above. In cases like those, seeking online counseling may be an appropriate next step. 

Participating in therapy can help improve your self-esteem, teach you techniques on how to be more assertive and confident, and enlighten us as to why we may be experiencing frequent rejection. Online therapy can be particularly effective for people experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, such as loneliness, fear, stress, and despondency. 

In addition to its effectiveness, online therapy has considerable benefits for the person seeking it. Second, people can schedule online therapy sessions on their own time – there is no need to take off from work or pay for a babysitter.

Remember this: no matter how talented or likable we are, we are going to face rejection. By learning to process emotions associated with rejection and practicing strategies designed to capitalize on rejection as a teachable moment, we can keep persisting towards our goals.

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