There’s A Reason Rejection Hurts So Much — But It Doesn’t Have To

We're hardwired to feel pain from rejection, but here are 5 ways to take away its power.

Everyone is familiar with the sting of rejection, from getting turned down for a job to unreciprocated love. It’s a distinctly painful feeling that can send you reeling when you experience it and limit you when you try to avoid it, especially when it comes to romantic relationships. But why is it so scary? And how do you stop it from damaging your confidence and love life?

According to licensed psychologist, Guy Winch PH.D, “fMRI studies show that the same areas of the brain become activated when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain.” So much so, in fact, that Tylenol has been proven to reduce the pain rejection causes. Why have humans developed this response to rejection? Winch explains, “In our hunter/gatherer past, being ostracized from our tribes was akin to a death sentence, as we were unlikely to survive for long alone. Evolutionary psychologists assume the brain developed an early warning system to alert us when we were at risk for ostracism.” So if we were keenly aware of any threats of exile, we could protect ourselves by changing our behavior to meet the approval of others. Explains a lot, doesn't it?

If you suffer from flashbacks of embarrassing experiences or poignant incidents of rejection, it wouldn’t surprise you to know that “social pain” is much stronger in memory than physical pain. As Winch puts it, “Our brain prioritizes rejection experiences because we are social animals who live in ‘tribes.’”

So what are effective ways to cope with this in the modern world, particularly when it comes to dating? 

1. Embrace rejection in all forms

This concept might seem absurd at first, and may not be a fit for every personality type, but seeking out rejection can take away its power and painful repercussions. In the words of vulnerability queen Dr. Brene Brown, you should have “a love affair with the thing you’re most afraid of.” Jia Jang did just that when he tried “rejection therapy,” a concept he discovered where you aim to get rejected daily in order to become desensitized to the fear and pain. His funny and heartwarming TedTalk walks us through his experience and is a reminder both of the good in humanity and to not take ourselves so seriously. He shares, “In my case, rejection was my curse, was my boogeyman. It has bothered me my whole life because I was running away from it. Then I started embracing it. I turned that into the biggest gift in my life. I started teaching people how to turn rejections into opportunities.”

Rejection was my curse, was my boogeyman. It has bothered me my whole life because I was running away from it. Then I started embracing it.

–Jia Jang

2. Remember, it’s not about you (really!)

It turns out the “it’s not you, it’s me” cliche holds a lot of truth. How someone feels about you only reveals who they are, not who you are. We all live in our own worlds with our perspectives and desires tinted by our innate traits and personal experiences. This feels obvious but can be hard to keep at the forefront of your mind when dating puts you in the position of being “judged” by others. As Don Miguel Ruiz wrote in his best-selling book The Four Agreements, “Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you… When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.”

3. Rejection is often a blessing in disguise

How many times have you felt like you dodged a bullet when an opportunity didn’t work out like you hoped? The same goes for dating. Many heartbreaks and bad dates litter the path to finding the person you'll be happiest with. I had a friend who used to tell me “thank God they didn’t love us back” in reference to previous relationships we were willing to settle for at the time. When you find your forever partner, you’ll look back at those rejections as gifts that lead you in the right direction.

4. Practice self-compassion

I’m not going to lie, I suck at self-compassion. It does not come naturally to me and it can be the hardest to practice when it’s needed most, like when we’re processing rejection. But to shake rejection’s stronghold you can’t succumb to your inner critic. Dr. Kristin Neff is an expert on self-compassion and defines it like this: “It means treating yourself with the same kind of kindness, care, compassion, as you would treat those you care about — your good friends, your loved ones.” Dr. Neff emphasizes that self-compassion also requires us to recognize our common humanity, “So, when we have self-compassion, when we fail, it's not ‘poor me,’ it's ‘well, everyone fails.’ Everyone struggles. This is what it means to be human.” Neff’s research has shown that people who are self-compassionate are more emotionally resilient.

When we have self-compassion, when we fail, it's not ‘poor me,’ it's ‘well, everyone fails.’ Everyone struggles. This is what it means to be human.

–Kristin Neff

An easy way to practice self-compassion today? To resist the negative feelings associated with rejection, Dr. Winch suggests reviving your self-worth by writing down qualities you love about yourself that are meaningful to you. He also underlines the importance of leaning on your social network to lift your spirits and restore your sense of social support. This will also serve as a reminder that you’re far from the only person who has ever felt this way.

5. Continue being brave

Take the time you need to heal, reflect, and grieve whatever rejection you have been dealt. But don’t get stuck in the pain or paralyzed by the fear of future rejection. Keep moving to remember there are, in fact, plenty of fish in the sea. It’s always worth it to put yourself out there one more time, it’s always worth it to be vulnerable. Like Cheryl Strayed says, “I think that so much of loving well is about courage… I think it’s just about saying, ‘Suck it up and be brave.’ It really is. And a good way to practice it is doing it every day, in every relationship, in every context.”

Editorial Director of Livingly's lifestyle group.