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Got Rejected? How You Respond Can Damage Your Emotional Health

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Getting rejected hurts -- a lot! We usually compare rejections to what it feels like to sustain a physical assault (e.g., 'a punch in the stomach,' 'a stab in the heart,' or 'a slap in the face') and for good reason. Recent studies using fMRI brain scans demonstrate how the same pathways in the brain get activated when we experience rejection as get activated when we experience physical pain.

Given how painful rejections are it should come as no surprise that many of us respond strongly to them, not just emotionally but behaviorally as well. While some of our responses are useful and adaptive others can actually be damaging to our long-term emotional health.

Typically when we do something that causes us physical pain (e.g., touch a hot stove) we learn pretty quickly not to do it again. But most situations with the potential for rejection are not ones we can avoid -- at least not without paying a price in terms of our happiness, wellness, and life satisfaction. For example, unless we put ourselves in the dating world, we are unlikely to find a romantic partner, if we don't lobby for a promotion at work we are less likely to get one, and unless we make efforts to meet new people when we relocate to a new city, we are likely to become lonely.

Yet, it is natural to want to avoid such situations in the aftermath of a fresh rejection. Taking a few days off from the dating website or waiting a few weeks before commencing a fresh round of lobbying at work won't do us too much harm, especially if we use that time to heal from our emotional wounds (for example by using self-affirmation exercises to revive our self-esteem or reaffirming our social worth by connecting to our core groups).

However, we need to strike a balance between giving ourselves time to heal and not falling into a pattern of avoidance. Waiting too long can allow a fear of rejection to take root and with it, a mindset that can actually increase our likelihood of encountering further rejection.

Let's look at how this happens. For illustration purposes, consider a scenario in which we were blindsided when the person we were dating for a few weeks breaks up with us unexpectedly. The following strategies might seem reasonable at first but they come with a price.

1. You decide to avoid dating for a few months until you feel 'stronger.' While sitting out a few days or a week is fine, taking too much time off is not. As a rule, avoidance always increases anxiety. It simply makes the thing you're avoiding seem scarier. This is especially true if you do not use the 'time-out' to actively treat the emotional wounds you sustained from the rejection. Therefore, when you decide to reenter the dating pool you are likely to be even more fearful of rejection than you were previously.

2. You resume dating in a timely manner but decide to 'hold back' and be more reserved. Here again, the strategy might seem reasonable at first, at least in theory -- the less 'invested' you are in the person (or situation) the less hurtful it will be if it doesn't work out. But in practice this kind of strategy is likely to create a self-defeating prophecy. Holding back and being reserved will not allow your date to get to know you nor will it make you appear very interesting, engaged, or worthy of a second date (similarly, maintaining a low profile at work will not make your boss more likely to think of you as worthy of a promotion).

3. You're willing to give it your full effort but you decide to lower your expectations of the outcome. Lowering expectations is a good technique for managing potential disappointment -- if you do not lower them too drastically. While it is probably unwise to head off to a first date hoping to meet your future spouse, it is equally unwise to do so expecting it to 'probably be a waste of time'. Further, the risk of lowering your expectations is that by doing so, your motivation, enthusiasm, and optimism get lowered as well. As a result, you're harming your chances of success more than you're protecting yourself from the possibility of failure.

The general problem with each of these three strategies is they often serve as entry points into a vicious cycle of avoidance and hesitancy that increases your likelihood of future rejection. The next rejection you encounter then makes you even more hesitant and avoidant, which makes you more likely to get rejected, and so on. Such mindsets can be difficult to break once we get caught up in them, which is why they present a risk to our happiness, life satisfaction and long-term emotional health.

The bottom line is that rejections are a fact of life -- we all experience them and we all hurt when we do. The best thing we can do is to soothe our emotional pain, take steps to revive our self-esteem, and to connect to our core groups (e.g., family, close friends, or softball team) and by doing so remind ourselves that others value and love us even if our date (or boss) does not.

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