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How to handle rejection and bounce back stronger

By Hugh Wilson
How to handle rejection and bounce back stronger
Related articles
Dates, mates, jobs: we all suffer rejection every now and then, but scientists say we can bounce back stronger than ever.

Boy, rejection isn't nice. Whether it's from a girl you fancy, an employer you really want to work for, or a circle of people you thought were your friends, rejection can hurt. Happily, scientists have been doing a lot of research into rejection, and now think they know why it hits us so hard, what its consequences can be and how to put it into proper perspective. So here's what rejection is all about, and how to get over it and get on.

Rejection really hurts
When people say they feel the "pain" of rejection, they don't mean they feel actual physical pain. Or do they? In fact, rejection can hurt in an almost physical way. In a paper published earlier this year, researchers at the University of Michigan found that the areas of the brain that are activated by physical pain are also activated by social rejection.

"These findings are consistent with the idea that the experience of social rejection, or social loss more generally, may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain," said psychologist Ethan Kross, who lead the research.

In other words, when your date turns you down, or a group you really want to join rejects your application, it stings in a way that's closely associated with real, tangible pain.

Rejection: the gift that keeps on giving
Studies have also shown that rejection is — in some ways — worse than the short, sharp, shock of physical pain, because it has consequences that are more far-reaching. That's partly because our old friend evolution has taught us to take rejection very badly indeed. Thousands of years ago, being rejected was no joke. Individual humans were weak, slow and easy prey, so our instincts evolved to make us terrified of being cast out from the protection of the group.

Today, that means we do something called 'catastrophising'. We've yet to escape the instinct that thinks of rejection as a personal catastrophe, and that can lead to some very self-defeating behaviour. For example, if you've been rejected for a certain type of job two or three times you might stop applying for that type of job. Psychologists call it "learned helplessness".

In a nutshell, the fear of rejection stops us going for the things we want, because we fear rejection more than we desire success. We also tend to take the molehill of rejection and turn it into a mountain. Psychologist Jessica Witt studied American football field goal kickers and found that, after a series of failed kicks, they perceived the goals to be smaller and narrower than they actually were.

Now transfer that finding to the dating game, or job hunting, or whatever it might be. What it means is that, after a few rejections we assume our objective is much harder to get than it actually is. If we think something's really difficult, we tend to give up on it altogether.

How to handle rejection
All this evidence leads inexorably to one scientifically-verified conclusion: rejection is a bummer. But it's a bummer that needs a little perspective. Rejection no longer pitches us naked and alone into the dark, scary jungle, alive with the sounds of hungry predators.

In our safer world, we can afford to take more risks with rejection. If you're feeling rejected, remember that rejection is an inevitable part of a life well lived. The only way to avoid rejection is never to go for things — girls, jobs, friends, courses, clubs, ambitions — where rejection is possible, and what sort of life is that?

There's also a page in the famous job hunting manual, What Colour is Your Parachute?, that contains nothing more than the word 'no' written hundreds of times, except for the word 'yes' written once, right at the end. The message is simple enough. In most situations, it doesn't matter how many times you're rejected, because you only need to be accepted once. It's particularly true for job hunting, getting on college courses and so on, but it works in other spheres too.

After a series of rejections, it might take just one date to give you your confidence back. One acceptance can put you back on the road to success.

Thinking clearly about rejection
The problem with rejection is that we tend to blow it out of all proportion, so one way to deal with it is to shrink it back to size. Some psychologists suggest we change the way we talk about rejection. Instead of saying, "I was rejected," what we should say is, "my proposal/suggestion/application was rejected, this time."

Because what we need to bear in mind is that our request is being rejected, not us. The girl at the bar didn't say no because you're a loser, she said no because at that time she didn't want to go on a date. If we recognise that rejection is specific to one set of circumstances (that girl, that job) it stands to reason that when we next make an approach, the circumstances may be different, leading to a different outcome.

But we all personalise rejection. We didn't get the outcome we wanted because we did something wrong or — worse — because there's something wrong with us. But that's rarely true. It's far more likely that we didn't get the outcome we wanted because of factors outside our control.

Maybe she had a boyfriend or had just been dumped. Maybe, on this occasion, the company found a candidate who had done exactly the same job before. None of that's your fault, so don't beat yourself up about it. Rejection says nothing about you as a person, and everything about the factors that prevailed at that time.

Learn from any feedback
By all means use any feedback you get to refine your 'offer' — whether that's to be a potential boyfriend, employee, club member, student or whatever. For example, you may need to get more experience in a certain area to be considered a prime candidate for a particular type of job. Or you may have to recognise that she's right and your chat-up lines are a bit cheesy.

Learn, but don't let rejection get you down. Evolution may have hardwired us to take rejection badly, but rational thinking allows us to give it its proper perspective. The next time you're feeling rejected, blame circumstances rather than yourself, take any feedback positively and get back in the game.

Because the key thing with rejection is not to let it put you off trying. As long as you keep at it, you'll get there in the end.

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