We’re No Strangers To Rejection, But Why Does It Continue To Hurt?


On a weekday between classes, I found myself at a makeup counter in a department store, trolling the display case for a foundation that might reverse signs of premature aging in a third-year law student.
It was around lunchtime, and the sole white-coated technician behind the counter seemed busy talking shop with an employee across the way in the jewelry department. As I glanced through the assorted samples and tubes and lotions, pretending to know exactly what I was looking for, I felt my phone vibrate. I glanced down at the screen and saw that I had a new e-mail. It didn’t take me long to realize that it was a standard rejection letter—one of many I’d received from various law firms who had informed me, regrettably, that they could not offer me a position at this time.

I’m no stranger to rejection. Like most people, I’ve dealt with all kinds of it: in relationships, academics, and professionally. But there’s something that remains mysterious to me about the feeling of rejection in general. Why does it continue to hurt?

Even though we encounter rejection in many forms on a daily basis, it’s safe to say that becoming conditioned to the experience doesn’t take the sting out of it when it happens. If we think of the common act of getting rejected as something of an endurance sport, shouldn’t our bodies become acclimated to it—stronger and more accustomed to that sinking, painful feeling that we encounter so often and know so well?
Psychologists liken the feeling of getting rejected to the experience of undergoing actual physical pain. In fact, the website PsychologyToday claims popping a Tylenol can serve to ease the hurt and anxiety that rejection can cause. But why?

Most scientists believe that rejection continues to elicit surprise and pain, no matter how frequently it occurs, because it reminds us, on an innate, evolutionary level, that we need to “belong” to a group or tribe for purposes of survival. A fear of ostracism is, therefore, somehow encoded in our brains, preventing us from growing complacent and pressing us, instead, to preserve our best interests and find ways to extend our lifespan.

So, if we can’t get rid of it, how do we deal with the pain? Websites like the Huffington Post, and copious women’s interest magazines (ladies, am I right?) tell us that we need to modify our thought processes. We’re told to repeat mantras like: “It’s not you—it’s them.” We’re encouraged to think that we’re better off without their acceptance, and we’re advised to forget about them and move on. But convincing ourselves that these affirmations are true isn’t so easy.

I think about what it means to get rejected and how it hurts, and I wonder why it even happens to begin with. If we all want to belong in the end, why do we reject each other in the first place?

Rejection doesn’t happen because everything happens for a reason or because it’s “their loss” or because we aren’t good enough. It happens simply because we foolishly believe that we can validate ourselves, our mores, and our decision-making abilities by choosing not to associate with certain people. We feel the need to reject people because we think doing so will make us look better—that it’ll make us appear more discerning and appealing, as individuals, so that we don’t experience rejection ourselves. In other words, rejection hurts, and will continue to hurt, because it’s a backwards, cyclical process; it’s something we do, more often than not, because we worry that it’ll happen to us, in some capacity, later on.

So how to deal? Well, it’s simple. We tone down our quick-to-reject tendencies and look for reasons to accept our fellow rejection victims. We should take the time to acknowledge our desire to belong and use our understanding of it to ease up on one another. Doing so isn’t hard. We can subvert rejection and combat it with acceptance—in its myriad, comforting forms. A compliment, a kind word, a sincere smile from a stranger can all serve to counter our rejection-pain. Validation, in short, is the antidote, and our ability to validate one another can help us get through this rejection-minefield of life a little easier. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want after all? Some indication—some acknowledgment—from the world at large that our choices were justified, that our lives are meaningful, and that we deserve to belong?

That day at the department store, minutes after checking my e-mail, another woman came up to the cosmetics counter and stood next to me. She was close to middle-aged, and she was testing lipstick shades on the back of her hand with one of those weird, long-stemmed q-tips that you can only find at doctor’s offices and makeup counters. After a few minutes, she looked down at her wrist and cocked her head slightly.

She asked me, “Does this one look OK, do you think?”

I glanced first at the deep red stripe on her hand and then briefly at her face.

“You’ll look great,” I said.

And I meant it.