You cannot find peace by avoiding life. - Virginia Woolf in The Hours
Research shows that seemingly insignificant forms of feeling rejected, like someone not liking your photo on Facebook to bigger life events like being fired or broken up with, light up the same areas of the brain as physical pain.
Rejection hurts. Literally.
And like most human behavior, it makes sense.
It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because back when we were cave men and women and we did something that was out of line with the social group, we were kicked out.
And being rejected meant social exile, which meant being left to fend for ourselves in the savanna.
And without the group, we wouldn’t have lasted very long on our own in the wild.
So the human brain became hardwired to be very sensitive to rejection.
To avoid doing anything risky which meant avoiding rejection which meant avoiding exile which meant avoiding death.
Or as a shortcut:
REJECTION = PAIN
And because we don’t especially enjoy pain, most of us learned ways of avoiding the possibility of rejection.
By not taking risks.
By avoiding social situations where we might not succeed or where others might be critical of us, like public speaking.
By comparing ourselves to others to make sure we are not doing anything ‘wrong’.
By avoiding situations where rejection is possible, like online dating.
By trying to behave flawlessly - to reach a state of perfection where we are beyond reproach.
By developing these amazing pro-social skills like empathy and compassion…for others - while simultaneously being really hard on ourselves. Because criticising ourselves before anyone else can is a sort of pre-rejection meant to help us avoid real rejection.
Isn’t it fun being human and having a brain that still hasn’t gotten the memo that we no longer need tribes to survive, that we no longer need to be so harsh and critical of ourselves or so sensitive to rejection by others simply to stay alive?
Many of us are also very sensitive to rejection because of our learning histories. Perhaps we had a parent who felt very rejecting. Perhaps we were teased or bullied at school. Perhaps we had the impression that nothing we did was ever enough to the adults around us and this brought on a sense of rejection.
And as children, not being rejected meant surviving because we depended on adults to take care of us.
But we are adults now. We can take care of ourselves. We no longer depend on the approval of others to survive.
Rejection is painful but it is no longer dangerous.
Knowing this, perhaps we can validate that the possibility of rejection is painful…and if we are really honest with ourselves, we know that even though the potential of rejection feels awful - we will survive. We won’t die. We CAN deal with it.
Even if it feels like it would be the end of the world.
Even if our body and old-school survivalist brain tells us otherwise.
Because what’s the alternative?
If we try to avoid any form of potential rejection, our lives become small.
And even though the old survivalist brain might be freaking out, the newer, more evolved, wise part of the brain knows that we sometimes need to face the possibility of rejection in order to do the things that matter to us.
Because anything worth doing in life like
Connecting with others
Falling in love
Following a dream
…never has any guarantees. These things require vulnerability and therefore always contain the potential of rejection.
And because our brains are hardwired to avoid rejection, we can’t switch this fear off.
Instead, we can realize that despite what the old, survivalist part of the brain is screaming at us, we’ll be OK. That if what we want to do doesn’t work out, it will be painful and disappointing...AND we will survive.
And rather than fighting this fear of rejection which isn't going anywhere, we can see it in a more constructive way.
1. A signal that we are moving towards our values.
Because in order to even face the possibility of rejection, we have to be moving towards something.
Interestingly, the etymology of the word rejection come from the Latin to be ‘thrown back’. And we can’t be thrown back if we are not moving - or if we are hiding or running away.
So we can start to see the fear of rejection as the courage to be moving towards something that matters to us.
If we are not moving towards something and simply staying in our comfort zone, we run no risk of rejection.
If we never write a manuscript we will never get a rejection letter.
If we never go on a date we will never face the possibility of rejection.
If we don’t fully invest in something and do a half-assed job, we avoid the possibility of not succeeding and have the certainty of failing (but then tell ourselves that it’s because we didn’t really try anyway).
What we end up with is a smaller life - with less pain perhaps, but also with less of the things that truly matter to us.
2. As simply meaning NO
So we give something to the world and it throws it back at us.
Not for me.
Not quite this.
Not the right fit
That is it. We don’t have to interpret it as something like: I’m not good enough and I am going to die alone.
It simply means NO.
And everyone has the right to say no, for whatever reason - in the same way that we have the right to ask, to try, to show up, to open up.
It does not mean YOU SUCK.
It just means NO. It is NOT a statement about your worthiness.
3. As a path to growth.
When something doesn’t work out, we can always choose to learn from it instead of seeing it as a sign of our unworthiness.
A job interview doesn’t work out?
This doesn’t mean that we are incompetent and will never find a job.
It simply provides information:
Perhaps we weren’t the right fit, perhaps even though we were a good fit - someone else was an even better fit or had better connections, perhaps we need to brush up on some skills, or maybe this even gives us information that we don’t really want to work in this industry anymore and that allows us to be honest with ourselves and start looking into something new. (oof that was quite a run-on sentence!)
And who knows where this NO will lead to?
No makes way for yes.
And now that you know, you can readjust.
As Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön writes:
When there's a big disappointment, we don't know if that's the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure. Life is like that. We don't know anything. We call something bad; we call it good. But really we just don't know.”
Even when rejection feels real, even when it hurts - it doesn’t mean it has to stop you from doing what matters to you.
Because living a ‘safe’ life of avoidance hurts too, and often in a more lasting way than the fleeting pain of rejection.