Turning “I Can’t Handle Rejection” Into “I Can Overcome Anything”

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

"I can't handle rejection" is a common sentiment many people share—so while it’s not unusual, it may be limiting. In many cases, it’s possible to learn from an experience of rejection and use it as an opportunity to grow. Below, we’ll explore the impact of rejection and why it can be so painful, and then we’ll share some strategies to help you develop resilience in the face of this type of difficult emotional experience.

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Why rejection hurts

Interpersonal rejection can feel emotionally painful, whether it’s being excluded by friends, turned down for a date, or passed over for a job promotion. In fact, older research suggested that social pain activates the same part of the brain that physical pain does as an explanation for why it can be so distressing. More recent theories contest this conclusion, however, instead suggesting that the same parts of the brain are activated in both processes due to the presence of conflict in rejection, or perhaps because all “negative affective processes” light up the “pain” part of the brain—not just social pain. 

Regardless of the neural mechanics, rejection hurts. Evolutionary scientists suggest that we’re wired for social connection and to feel the sting of rejection as a protective measure. Since the basic survival needs of early humans were unlikely to be met if they were rejected socially and left to fend for themselves, our brains may have developed a strong social need over time.

The potential impact of rejection

Our evolutionary need for social connection may also be linked to why the experience of chronic loneliness, even today, can have such negative potential effects—including increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, dementia, depression, anxiety, and early mortality. Someone who feels rejected and isn’t able to healthily manage the related emotions may shy away from trying again to connect with others, which could lead to loneliness and its potential consequences. This is one key reason why learning to be resilient in the face of rejection can be important, since continuing to pursue connectedness can benefit one’s health. 

It’s also worth noting that social rejection can have a variety of other negative effects on a person’s psyche, particularly if it’s frequent and/or not managed in a healthy way. In some cases, a person may internalize rejection, falsely believing that it’s related to their own worth or value as a person. This can lead to low self-esteem, social withdrawal, anxiety, or depression. A person who strongly feels the pain of rejection could also lash out toward others or develop people-pleasing tendencies in an effort to be accepted, neither of which are generally considered to be healthy or constructive behaviors. 

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Overcoming the “I can’t handle rejection” mindset: Four strategies

Rejection can appear in various aspects of our lives, from professional setbacks to personal disappointments. The experience of rejection is something you generally can’t control—but what you do have more control over is how you respond to it. First, note that some mental health conditions may make a person more sensitive to rejection, such as depression and social anxiety disorder. Some forms of neurodivergence may as well, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder. In cases like these, meeting with a mental health professional for support is usually recommended.

In general, however, shifting your mindset when facing rejection could help you more effectively cope with this type of experience and minimize some of its potential negative impacts. Here are some strategies that may help.

  1. Put it in perspective

It can be helpful to remember that rejection is a natural part of life and that virtually everyone you’ve ever met, known, or heard of has experienced it at some time or another—including some of the most successful and famous people in the world. This reminder may make it easier to put things into perspective and avoid letting the experience consume your thoughts.

While it may feel disappointing in the moment, it's typically essential to learn to separate the experience of rejection from your overall self-esteem and self-worth. Remember that an instance of rejection is not reflective of your overall abilities, value, or potential for success. In fact, although not necessarily true in every case, rejection is sometimes a key part of growth and the journey toward success, so shifting your perspective to see what you might learn from this experience or how you might look back on it in the future could help, too.

  1. Shift to a growth mindset

Having a growth mindset means that you believe that you’re able to grow, change, and improve with time and effort. Its opposite is a fixed mindset, which means believing that you have little capacity to change and that your qualities and abilities are largely fixed. Telling yourself that you can’t handle rejection is an example of a fixed mindset. Telling yourself that you’re working on skills and strategies that will help you better manage rejection over time is an example of a growth mindset.

One study on the topic suggests that those with a growth mindset were better able to handle instances of romantic rejection in particular. It reports that, after recalling an experience of romantic rejection, they experienced less shame, anger, embarrassment, and frustration, felt less badly about themselves, and were more likely to think optimistically about their dating life in the future. In other words, believing that rejection doesn’t affect your inherent worth and that you can overcome it and find new connections in the future could be powerful.

  1. Acknowledge your emotions

It's normal to feel a variety of difficult emotions after experiencing rejection, such as sadness, anger, frustration, embarrassment, or confusion. Letting yourself feel them is okay and can even be beneficial, since bottling up one’s emotions can lead to negative outcomes in terms of emotional and physical health. Engaging in mindful awareness of what you’re feeling without internalizing it so it affects your self-esteem or ruminating on it so it affects your mental health can allow you to let the feelings pass over you so you can then move forward.

  1. Practice self-compassion

Being kind to yourself is usually an integral part of coping with rejection in a healthy way. Self-compassion allows you to respond to this type of difficult experience with understanding and care rather than harshness or self-judgment. It's like having a comforting friend who reassures you rather than an authoritarian teacher or parent who reprimands you. Not only may self-compassion decrease rumination, anxiety, and fear of failure, but it can also boost feelings of happiness, connectedness, and optimism.

How therapy can help in handling rejection

If you often think, "I can't handle rejection," seeking therapy could be a transformative step on your path to gaining confidence in your ability to overcome all kinds of interpersonal and emotional challenges. A licensed therapist can support you in the process of developing a sense of resilience by building effective coping mechanisms and learning to reframe challenging experiences. They can also help you address any mental health condition(s) that may be impacting your sensitivity to rejection or your ability to manage it.

Get support in shifting your mindset on rejection

Therapy is often most effective in a setting where you feel comfortable. If you’re not interested in or able to meet with a provider in person, you might consider online therapy instead. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist and then meet with them virtually from the comfort of home. Research suggests that therapy conducted virtually can be as effective as therapy conducted in person in many cases, so it’s generally up to you to choose the format that best suits your preferences. 

Takeaway

Rejection can be a painful experience, but there are healthy and powerful strategies that may help you cope with it. Examples include shifting your perspective, adopting a growth mindset, acting with self-compassion, and speaking with a therapist. With time and practice, you may be able to shift your mental narrative of not being able to handle rejection and develop skills for coping in a healthier way.

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