Coping with Rejection: Building up Interpersonal Relationships Instead of Breaking Them Down

Rejection stings; you have tried to form a connection with someone and they deny that bond (Blackhart, 2009). One of the most important ways of responding to rejection is understanding that rejection does not take away any aspect of you as a person (unique qualities, personality traits, etc.). LIFE Intelligence gives you the skills to cope with rejection in a healthy manner by rebuilding social connections to lessen the pain caused when you feel those connections have been cut.

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Social Connections

Social connections, or interpersonal relationships, are an innate part of being human (Blackhart et al., 2009). In addition, self-esteem is directly linked to a person’s sense of belonging (Blackhart et al.,2009), so we need to be connected to others to thrive and live happy lives. Friends and family provide the support we need to pursue our goals; this begins in adolescence with our peers and teachers and continues throughout our entire lives (Orehek et al., 2018). The people we form close, trusting relationships with are sources of advice, companionship and guidance when we are faced with situations difficult for one person to solve (Orehek et al., 2018). Even introverted people, like myself, have a need to spend time with their friends! Close friends are the people we can relax with, have fun, and talk to when facing a personal problem.

Understanding Rejection

Why does it hurt so much to be rejected? Our brains have an intricate wiring of neurons and there is an overlap in these neurons for both physical pain and social rejection. Essentially, the pain of rejection is equivalent to the pain one feels when they stub a toe or break a bone. Pain is a motivational signal that tells us we need to adapt to change the behavior that caused the pain. Rejection works in a very similar way as a form of social pain; it tells us which groups or situations we should, or should not, try to get involved in (Driscoll et al., 2017).

Aside from the literal pain of rejection, consider the emotional impact of being rejected. A study conducted by Blackhart et al. (2009) showed that rejection causes a greater emotional impact than acceptance. This is likely because rejection, or ostracism, leads to dehumanization, or the sense that one is less of a person than other people, specifically those being accepted (Bastian & Haslam, 2010; Mao et al., 2018). Ostracism is very similar to rejection. It involves “targeted refusals of social interaction, such as by repeatedly and intentionally not replying to someone who attempts to converse” (Blackahrt et al., 2009). Ostracism/rejection threatens the 4 basic psychological needs of people: sense of belonging, control, self-esteem, meaningful existence (Mao et al., 2018). Feeling ignored never feels good and repeatedly being rejected can gradually take a heavy toll on one’s mental health.

Rejection can occur in any setting: the work environment, friend groups, romantic partners, and even strangers. Williams et al. (2000) conducted the Cyberball study, a virtual game in which participants tossed a ball around in a circle. This study looked at the reactions of the participant whom the ball was rarely thrown to and discovered their sense of belonging decreased and mood worsened because of this rejection, or ostracization, from the game. This decrease in mood occurred even without knowing the people who had thrown the ball; it shows that rejection has a strong impact on people, no matter whom the source of that rejection may be.

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Using Rejection as a Guide to Stronger Relationships

Everyone has their own coping strategies that work best for them in difficult situations, like rejection, but did you know there are maladaptive coping strategies? Adolescents commonly respond to rejection with rumination (Zimmer-Gembeck, 2015) but oftentimes, overthinking the situation can cause more harm than good. Avoidance of social groups and rumination can cause severe social anxiety and depression to develop over time (Zimmer-Gembeck, 2015). The first thing I usually think of when I am rejected is, why? Specifically, what about me? It’s easy to get caught up in that frame of mind but when you face rejection, remember that it is not about you personally; maybe it is just about the group dynamic or a clash of interests that caused that rejection. It does not mean your unique qualities are anything less than great; you just have to find the people who will accept those qualities and allow your talents to flourish.

Another common response toward stressful situations, such as rejection, is suppressing one’s emotions, but this can have similar long-term effects on interpersonal relationships as rumination or avoidance (Gardner et al., 2020). When we suppress our emotions and bottle things up, we can quickly get stuck in a negative frame of mind considering the painful emotional impact of rejection or other stressful events. This may be a partial reason for why rejected individuals respond by refusing to help others as retaliation and have decreased feelings of trust (Mao et al., 2018). It is incredibly important to find people you trust who can help you work through difficult situations by talking through your emotions and the stress you have been ruminating on (Gardner et al., 2020; Zimmer-Gembeck, 2015).

One of my favorite sayings is “when one door closes, another opens.” Rejection may hurt deeply, but consider some of the hidden positive outcomes or effects. If you have been rejected by friends or potential romantic partners, you still have the opportunity to find different people who will accept you and could be sources of new, closely connected social groups. As previously discussed, rejection informs us of which groups or situations we should try to get involved in (Driscoll et al., 2017); more specifically, groups that you have common interests with and feel valued in.

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Practice Healthy Coping Strategies with LIFE Intelligence

Self-care app LIFE Intelligence gives you the tools to cope with rejection in healthy ways that will strengthen your interpersonal relationships. Use the Mood Wheel to reflect on your experience of rejection and then use the Coping Mechanisms to work through those feelings and learn how to ask others for help. These healthy coping mechanisms can also be applied to other stressful situations and can serve as building blocks for you to develop a strong mindfulness for yourself. LIFE also provides small readings and journaling reflections that teach self-confidence, mindfulness, and how to build strong relationships.

Chiara Nicholas
July 19, 2021

Bastian, B., & Haslam, N. (2010). Excluded from humanity: The dehumanizing effects of social

ostracism. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(1), 107–113.

Blackhart, G. C., Nelson, B. C., Knowles, M. L., & Baumeister, R. F. (2009). Rejection Elicits

Emotional Reactions but Neither Causes Immediate Distress nor Lowers Self-Esteem: A Meta-Analytic Review of 192 Studies on Social Exclusion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13(4), 269–309.

Driscoll, R., Barclay, P., & Fenske, M. (2017). To be spurned no more: The affective and behavioral

consequences of social and nonsocial rejection. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 24(2), 566–573.  

Gardner, A. A., Zimmer, G. M. J., & Campbell, S. M. (2020). Attachment and emotion regulation: A

person‐centred examination and relations with coping with rejection, friendship closeness, and emotional adjustment. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 38(1), 125–143.

Mao, Y., Liu, Y., Jiang, C., & Zhang, I. D. (2018). Why am I ostracized and how would I react? — A

review of workplace ostracism research. Asia Pacific Journal of Management, 35(3), 745–767.

Orehek, E., Forest, A. L., & Barbaro, N. (2018). A People-as-Means Approach to Interpersonal

Relationships. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(3), 373–389.

Williams, K. D., Cheung, C. K. T., & Choi, W. (2000). Cyberostracism: Effects of Being Ignored Over

the Internet. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(5).  

Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J. (2015). Emotional sensitivity before and after coping with rejection: A

longitudinal study. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 41, 28–37.

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