You are chatting with three friends at the college canteen. A fourth classmate approaches your group and invites the other three to see the new house his family has moved into.
On Facebook, you usually receive a lot of ‘likes’ for your photographs and friends comment on your funny posts. However, in the past two weeks, no one had reacted to your jokes or endorsed your pictures.
At a meeting in the office, your boss asks everyone to present their views. However, when you try to get a word in, your boss evades eye contact with you and instead invites someone else to speak.
As the examples indicate, social rejection can take many guises. At its core, however, is a feeling of exclusion. In some instances, it may be outright and deliberate; in others, it might be more benign and even unintentional. But when we feel excluded, it is an almost ubiquitous human tendency to feel a negative emotion ranging from discomfiture to displeasure to deep distress. And, at times, we scold ourselves for feeling out of sorts, especially if the rejection is more subtle. In fact, we tell ourselves that we must be imagining things and try to continue with our daily grind, but the pain still gnaws at us.
More pertinently, when others complain to us about being left out or being a misfit, we usually don’t feel that sorry for them. For example, when a kid complains that others are not including him in a game of football, parents typically brush aside the child’s angst, saying, “I am sure they will include you if you ask nicely.” Likewise, when an adult confesses to us that she is feeling singled out in her apartment, we may think that she is blowing things up. In his book, Emotional First-Aid, psychologist Guy Winch says that rejection is one of the most common psychological injuries that can be inflicted on us. Yes, despite it being so prevalent, or possibly because of that, we tend to “underestimate the pain rejections elicit.”
Pain of rejection
But new research indicates that the pain we feel when we are ignored or snubbed is as real as physical pain, at least in terms of our brain’s neurochemistry. In his book Social, psychologist Matthew Lieberman describes how his team simulated social rejection in the laboratory while subjects were in an fMRI scanner. They had people play a game called Cyberball, where they had to throw a digital “ball” to two other people who were connected online. In fact, the two other people didn’t really exist but were “preprogrammed avatars” that stopped throwing the ball to the subject in the scanner after a short while. To their surprise, the researchers found that when subjects were rejected while playing Cyberball they activated the same brain circuits involved in physical pain. Moreover, they found a correlation between activity in the pain centres and the distress reported by participants.
Thus, the hurt we feel when are rejected socially is a real phenomenon but how we respond to that hurt can determine how we feel about ourselves in the long run. Columbia professor, Geraldine Downey, says in an interview in Research (August 12), a university publication, that people differ in terms of their “rejection sensitivity.” Like most things, those who have it to a moderate degree tend to thrive socially. They may pick up on negative social cues but are able to adjust. People who are “good at self-control or good at delay of gratification” tend not to react negatively to rejection.
So how do we optimise our response to rejections? Winch says that being excluded clouds our thinking and could also foment aggressive responses in us. Thus, we have to learn how to temper the hurt that rejections cause. First and foremost, we have to learn to talk back to our “self-critical” thoughts. For example, when you are rejected after a job interview, you may automatically start thinking, “I am not good enough for the job. I lack the personality to impress the interviewers.” Winch suggests that we cultivate the habit of providing “counterarguments” to these self-defeating thoughts. Think of positive attributes about yourself. Think of situations where you won over people with your wit or humour or generosity or kindness. Winch sagely tells us to be kind to ourselves when we are rejected. The pain of the rejection will hurt; we should avoid making it worse by listening and believing our critical self.
Further, we have to remember that first rejections typically hurt the most. However, you are likely to feel less pain with subsequent rejections. However, in some domains, Winch cautions, further rejections can cause us to get into a downward spiral. If you feel that you are not coping well with your rejections, it may be prudent to seek help from a counsellor.
The writer is the Director of PRAYATNA. E-mail email@example.com.