Rejection happens to everyone, but the person isn’t being rejected as a whole.
I hear it all the time. In my office, at an airport, at a party, at a wedding reception, pretty much anywhere. I hear about people feeling rejected by someone or the other — a girlfriend, a boyfriend, a spouse, a boss, a friend, an interview panel, a University, a co-worker, a person or persons belonging to a different socio-economic class or caste, a sibling, pretty much anyone or any institution, with whom one can have a transaction. Some experience a sense of relief, some others bewilderment, but most are hurt, sad, angry and maybe even hostile. And, mercifully only occasionally, some may find the pain and mortification too much to handle and end up coming to the drastic conclusion that their lives have no further value and may harm themselves. Or they may angrily plot and even execute a vengeful act against the rejecter, like throwing acid on an unresponsive object of desire or affection.
Rejection happens to everybody. Certain severe forms of rejection such as child neglect or abandonment, social ostracism and oppression on account of caste, social class, religion and the like, are more intensely painful, are more closely related to hierarchical power equations, result in feelings of unimaginable helplessness, have deeper psychodynamics and merit being considered separately. I will therefore confine this exploration to the more quotidian forms of rejection which, for the sake of convenience, can be classified as taking place in the inter-personal and social spaces.
Social rejections, wherein we are either subtly or belligerently excluded or marginalised from a group of people we consider ourselves or aspire to be a part of, has a direct impact on our ‘need to belong’, the second tier in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. Although in the animal kingdom, social exclusion often results in extreme consequences, even early death of the excluded creature, it’s not always as catastrophic for the human race, only because there are a large number of social groups we can belong to, unless the group that rejects us defines our primary social identity, as do groupings like caste and religion to many of us. Inter-personal rejections, as in being rejected by a parent, a child, a lover, a spouse, a friend, a sibling, a co-worker and so on, take place in the context of a specific one-on-one relationship in which we have invested our emotions, expectations, time and energy. As a result of this investment, we start looking at ourselves through the eyes of the other person. When, for whatever reason, the other person disinvests from the relationship, particularly when our investment remains intact, we experience a sharp stab of rejection for our self image takes a beating. For, after being rejected, when we look at ourselves through the eyes of the rejecter, we don’t any more like what we see.
If the relationship is not really a close one, we may feel upset for a bit, but we’ll bounce back soon. But if the relationship was a deeper one, it’s going to take longer. Whether the rejection is inter-personal or social, it can happen either passively (excluding, freezing out or denial of privileges) or actively (bullying, harassment, aggression). Neuropsychological research using sophisticated techniques has revealed that the pain experienced by those rejected follows the same neural pathways that physical pain does. Which explains why some of us who, from childhood, are either hard-wired or conditioned to have a lower threshold for physical pain, experience and respond to emotional pain in an identical manner. This, of course, doesn’t mean that a couple of paracetamols are going to do the trick for you if you’re rejected, since whatever the neural pathways, the cause of rejection pain is a certain maladaptive thought process that requires to be corrected.
As I see it, the final switch that sends us spiralling downwards when we are rejected, is the thought in our minds that says, “You don’t value me enough”. And we usually extend this quite irrationally to include, “because, I am not good enough”. What we fail to appreciate is that a rejection of a relationship or the rejection of a transaction is not tantamount to the rejection of the person as a whole. There could be hundreds of reasons why one may be rejected. All that the rejecter is saying is, “I’m not in a position to continue in this, because there are aspects of this relationship that don’t work for me”. Or that “I’m not ready for this at this point of time in my life”. Or, “although you possess the required skills, you may not really fit into our company’s culture”. In other words, it’s not a rejection of you, but an assessment, right or wrong, of the perceived differences between you and me. If we keep this in mind, and never allow anyone else that much of control over us that we feel completely devastated when they distance themselves, we might never need “rejection therapy”, an online game that gets you used to being rejected by rejecting you over and over again in hundreds of simulated situations. And just as we value pleasure more when we have experienced pain, or profit more when we have suffered losses, so too do we appreciate the joy of acceptance more when we have mourned the grief of rejection.