Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Facing rejection head on
Fresh out of college, I was absolutely enamored with the man I was dating. He could do no wrong. We communicated well, had many of the same values and made each other laugh. Walking by the jewelry store in a local mall, I remember stopping in and looking at rings -- you know, just in case. Then, on a cold winter day, I was DUMPED. Kicked to the curb. Poked in the eye with Cupid's arrow. For days, I lay in bed, watching "Little House on the Prairie" and crying. I was angry. I wondered what I had done wrong and what I could do to win him back.
Rejection. From playground pettiness to pink slips, it happens in a variety of ways. "There is virtually no one who doesn't experience rejection," says Mark Leary, a psychology professor at Duke University. And it hits us harder than it did our great-grandparents, he says. A hundred years ago, says Leary, "Life was not as fraught with rejection." Communities served as safety nets. Extended families lived nearby and the people you grew up with were often the people you grew old with. "Today people move from one town to another," says Leary. "We are constantly in a position where we have to constantly prove ourselves."
Rejection is not just emotional -- it is physical as well. One study found that rejection activates the same area of the brain that causes the same reaction to physical pain. "The thought is being separated from caregivers can be just as dangerous as the things that cause physical pain," says Naomi Eisenberger, a professor in the biology department at UCLA. She set up an experiment in which she asked participants to play a game of catch with virtual players on the Internet. The computer players stopped tossing the ball, replicating the feeling of rejection. Eisenberger believes the system that experiences rejection may have "piggybacked" on to the physical pain system at some point as humans evolved.
Feelings of rejection actually protect us, says Leary, much like when you learn the hard way what happens when you stub your toe. If we didn't have an emotional reaction to all rejection, says Leary, we may miss some big signs that could put us in danger.
Now today, in most cases, rejection won't kill us, but it still hurts. Here are a few things to keep in mind when dealing with rejection.
EVERYONE FEELS REJECTED AT SOME POINT
As Leary points out, rejection is just part of life. Sometimes people just won't like us and other times rejection is the result of an innocent oversight.
PUT IT IN PERPECTIVE
Leary says you should step back and ask in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter that the cashier didn't smile at you? Does it hurt more because your ego was bruised or does it really have concrete consequences for your life? (We will get to that in a second.)
When we dwell on minor rejection, we often just make it worse. Leary says, "We can become so concerned about rejection that we become so sensitive that others are turned away." It is often best to just let it go and not try to "repair" the situation.
What if it is a serious case of rejection, like a divorce or you get fired? Leary says the worst thing you can do is run away. "It is a lot like grief," he says. "It's important to acknowledge that." Learn from rejection, he says, but don't let it consume the rest of your life. Keep it in perspective. "Ask yourself," says Leary, "in this VERY moment, is there anything really wrong? Yes some things may have changed, but overall your day will be relatively the same." Focus on the good things going on and whatever you do, don't isolate yourself from others. Now it's your turn. What works for you when dealing with rejection?
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