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Illustration by Holly Warburton

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Guide

How to handle rejection

Whether personal or professional, the sting of rejection awaits us all. These strategies can help you heal and move on

Illustration by Holly Warburton

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Thomas Smithyman

is a clinical psychologist based in New York City. He is the author of Dating Without Fear: Overcome Social Anxiety and Connect (2022).

Edited by Matt Huston

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Need to know

‘If I ask someone out and get rejected again, that’s it. I’m done forever. Last time I tried and failed, it shut me down for years. If it happens again, I would not be able to handle it.’

I was sitting with one of my clients, a smart and especially kind guy. What he told me is something I’ve heard many times before. As a clinical psychologist who specialises in social anxiety, I do a lot of work related to the experience and fear of rejection. In my sessions, I’m forever encouraging clients to face the risk of rejection in the service of finding the connection they seek. If they learn that they can handle rejection, it will lower their anxiety and they’ll be more willing to go for what they want.

It’s true that rejection can be terrible. It is completely understandable to feel its pain deeply, as my client did, and to want to prevent it from happening again. But that’s not always possible and, in trying to avoid rejection, people often give up the pursuit of the things that matter most to them. As I told my client: ‘Your goal is not to avoid rejection. It’s going to happen to all of us. Your goal is to learn how to handle it in the healthiest way possible.’ Showing you how to do that is the purpose of this Guide.

As much as you or I might wish to avoid it, rejection is inevitable. At some point, your proposal for a date is declined, or you’re excluded from a group, or you go through a breakup or the end of a friendship, or you lose a job – there are many other possible scenarios. As the social psychologist Mark Leary explains, the ‘hurt feelings’ of rejection arise when an event suggests to you that someone doesn’t value their relationship with you as much as you want them to. If you’ve been through any of these rejection experiences and have suffered, you are far from alone. All of us suffer in these situations.

In fact, humans are built to suffer when we experience rejection – when our fundamental need for belonging is denied. In conversations about rejection, a word you hear frequently is ‘pain’. Brain imaging research suggests that the pain of rejection and physical pain are actually processed in similar ways by our brain. The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula – areas of the brain that process the unpleasantness of physical pain – also activate when participants are rejected in a virtual game, experience a negative evaluation or recall romantic rejections. Why would physical and social pain be related in our brain? Some researchers argue that social acceptance has been so vital to human survival that evolution has bestowed us with physical pain-like signals to orient us toward any threats to that acceptance.

This psychological pain and a drop in self-esteem are perhaps the most common immediate reactions to rejection. There are a variety of possible responses to these unpleasant feelings. But, all too often, people respond with hostility, repetitive negative thoughts or withdrawal from others. For example:

  • My client from the opening story had shown interest in a woman and gamely asked her out, only for her to decline. He felt the pain so deeply that he vowed not to put himself through that experience again. This is understandable, but it prevented him from satisfying his connection needs – for all he knew, the next person he asked out might have been a great fit.
  • When one of my clients backed out of plans to get a quick drink, her friend, apparently perceiving this as a rejection, responded by berating her over text and then cutting off contact for several months. During that time, the friend ignored her attempts to apologise and repair the relationship.
  • A young man I worked with was ‘ghosted’ after a few dates. He relentlessly tried to figure out what he ‘did wrong’, imagining all the possible flaws that might have driven the other person away. This sort of rumination can make it harder to move forward, and it can also retrigger the pain and self-esteem hit that came with the initial rejection.

Unhealthy responses to rejection such as these have been linked to depression, loneliness, physical health issues and relationship problems. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that there are healthier, more productive ways to respond to a distressing rejection. In this Guide, I’ll describe a number of strategies to help you better tolerate and buffer any pain stemming from rejection experiences. I hope that, by learning that you can handle rejection, you will feel less anxiety about taking risks in the pursuit of meeting your social needs.

The recommendations that follow are based on findings from psychological research as well as insights from my own clinical experience; I incorporate perspectives from mindfulness-based, self-compassion-focused and cognitive behavioural therapies. The guidance may be useful whether you are currently feeling the pain of a specific rejection, are anxious about rejection in general, or simply want to know how best to handle the inevitable rejections that we all experience.

What to do

As you proceed through these exercises, you’ll likely discover what is most helpful for you when you are suffering – your own personal rejection-coping plan. If you are currently struggling with a rejection, use the situation as an opportunity to learn something valuable for the future.

Social pain and self-esteem wounds are often at their worst in the immediate aftermath of a rejection, but there is no time limit for social suffering. I have worked with people who still feel the impact of rejections that happened years ago. They find their minds wandering back to the experience and suffer again in contact with the memory. You can employ the following strategies whenever you are feeling the impact of a rejection.

Rally whatever social support is available

If the pain of rejection comes from a blow to the sense of belonging, then it stands to reason that receiving love, compassion or support can help you recover. That’s why, to the extent possible, it can be valuable to refill your sense of belonging through social connection. Note that this is true even if it comes from a different area of your life; if you’ve experienced a breakup, for example, you don’t need to immediately date someone else in order to feel a sense of belonging. Friends or family might provide the support you need. There is an abundance of research showing how helpful social support is when people feel rejected, and that it can help prevent subsequent problems such as depression or anxiety.

So, if you have close, trusted social connections, seek them out during and after any rejection experience, whether or not they can be present with you in person. Having the space to just express your experience can be powerful. They don’t have to solve the problem, they just have to be compassionate. But ask them for help or advice, if you’d like it. It’s possible that they have been through something similar before and, because they are more removed from the current situation than you are, they might be able to think less emotionally about it. It can be helpful to signal to them that this is important to you, so that they can orient themselves.

If you don’t have this kind of relationship with the people in your life, you can still replenish your sense of belonging simply by spending time with them. You don’t have to be talking about your pain and experiences; you can play a game or do something else together. This can also help prevent rumination about rejection.

Close connections can aid you with the exercises we’re about to get into as well: you can put your experience into words, and they help you to make sense of your situation and brainstorm how to respond effectively. A therapist can offer this type of social support, too – it’s one of the factors that makes psychotherapy so effective.

Of course, not all of us have people whom we can trust to support us through rejection experiences. Most people I work with don’t have access to this, or at least not enough of it. And often they don’t feel comfortable seeking as much support as they would like. The coping strategies we’ll examine next can be used whatever your current level of social support.

Observe and identify what you’re feeling

When you are feeling the emotional impact of rejection, step back and notice what you’re experiencing. This practice – mindfulness – has many potential benefits that apply to handling rejection, including a more consistent sense of social connection and increased friendliness and recovery after rejection. Mindfulness provides distance from the pain of the experience. I like to describe it as the difference between being outside during a powerful storm, and being inside a comfortable cabin, watching the storm through the window. It doesn’t necessarily prevent the storm, but it gives you a refuge from which to observe it.

When you’re ready, I want you to get into observer mode. You can begin by moving your attention inward, toward your body. Your attention is like a flashlight, and wherever you shine it gets brighter. So, shine the flashlight of your attention inside yourself, and just notice the body sensations you are experiencing. What do you notice feeling, and where do you feel it? How might you describe it (warm, tight, buzzing, etc)? Is it static or moving? Which particular sensations grab your attention the most? If you have time, give yourself a minute or two to really focus your attention on your physical sensations. But, if you’re in a hurry, you can do this in as little as 20 seconds.

Next, with the benefit of information from the body, you’re ready to move into ‘negative-emotion differentiation’. This is a simple yet important mindful coping exercise. Ask yourself: What negative emotions am I feeling? When I work with clients, they often tell me they feel ‘bad’ or ‘upset’. These are not very clearly defined emotions, so I ask: ‘What exactly makes up your experience of being upset or feeling bad?’ The point is to get more specific about these feelings. More specific emotions that you might feel after a rejection could include anxious, angry, sad, hurt, envious, lonely, ashamed, guilty, embarrassed, and so on.

If it’s helpful, you can go step by step, asking yourself if you feel:

  • anxiety or any related emotions (eg, worry, fear)
  • anger or related emotions (eg, frustration, annoyance)
  • sadness or related emotions (eg, discontent, grief)
  • guilt or shame
  • any emotions in the happiness category (eg, joy, contentment; these aren’t negative emotions but are still worth noting)

Negative-emotion differentiation has been found to relate to a range of positive outcomes, including less distress among people who’ve been socially rejected. There appears to be something about simply naming emotions that helps reduce their intensity – possibly because it offers a sense of control and facilitates the selection of more effective coping responses.

Don’t worry if you find differentiating your emotions to be difficult at first. A lot of us have learned to avoid tuning in to our emotions (as a way of coping), and there’s evidence that tuning in is harder to do when we feel more stress. But studies have found that, with practice, it is possible to become more skilful at this. (One way is to practise by simply asking yourself What am I feeling? multiple times each day and trying to be specific.)

Once you have gotten more in touch with your emotions, you can gather some information that will be helpful later. Ask yourself: What has caused these emotions? Then observe the thoughts and beliefs that emerge, as well as any urges you have to respond or take action.

For example, if a friend, family member or someone else has treated you in a way that seems like a rejection, you might check in and discover that you are experiencing anger at not having your needs acknowledged, along with an urge to send a critical message or to complain. You’ll likely notice hurt feelings because you think this person doesn’t value you or your relationship enough. This might come with urges to shut down and avoid people, or perhaps to ‘escape’ through drinking or other means.

The act of stepping back to observe and identify experiences such as these, rather than being lost in them, is the core of mindfulness.

Interpret your experience with self-compassion

After you have listened to yourself and recognised some of your sensations, emotions and thoughts, you’re in a better position to make sense of the rejection you’ve been through in a kind and compassionate way.

There are many unhelpful ways to engage with yourself after you’ve been rejected. You have likely noticed some thoughts and beliefs about what the rejection means to you. But you probably also realise that the thoughts people have when they are feeling strong emotions are not always the most accurate or helpful ones.

You’ll want to be particularly careful about thoughts and interpretations that are self-blaming and that suggest the cause of your rejection is due to unchangeable internal factors, such as being unintelligent or inherently unlikeable. This can make you feel much worse and discourage you from responding in healthy ways; it turns one or more rejection experiences into the assumption of a lifetime of ostracism and failure.

What I encourage you to do instead is to purposely look at your rejection experience from a self-compassionate position. Research indicates that self-compassion can help people to experience rejection, failure and embarrassment with less psychological distress. Many of us have strong inner critics and struggle with showing compassion to ourselves. So how do I suggest you use self-compassion? The research interventions often use writing exercises, and I’ll tell you how to do so as well – for an abundance of reasons, not least of which is keeping your attention focused on the task rather than being pulled in less helpful directions.

A self-compassionate writing prompt for rejection

Take some time to write a letter to yourself. You will be occupying the position of a wise, compassionate person, and writing to the vulnerable, suffering part of yourself. Both offering and receiving compassion have been shown to help regulate psychological distress, and you’re doing both in this exercise. Here are some tips for getting started:

  • It may help to think about what you would say to a loved one who is suffering in the way you are, from a similar rejection. Or, you can identify a specific person you know (or even a favourite public figure or character) who is wise and compassionate, and imagine what they would say to help with the rejection.
  • You can start by acknowledging the situation and the emotions you’ve identified. For instance: ‘Dear [your name], I know you’ve recently gone through a painful rejection experience, and you’re feeling hurt and sad right now. I get that. It’s natural to feel this way.’ Express kindness and concern to yourself: eg, ‘I’m sorry to hear that you’re dealing with this. You deserve kindness and support just like everyone else.’
  • It’s important to remember that you’re not alone with painful experiences. So, in writing your letter, make sure to note how other people also experience rejection. You might write something like: ‘Remember that this is a normal part of human experience. We all go through painful rejections. And we are all built to suffer when we experience rejection, just as we feel joy when we experience connection.’
  • Consider how a wise and compassionate person would interpret the situation. How would they encourage you to understand it? Have them acknowledge your thoughts and worries, and then share their alternative way of seeing it.
  • If you think your behaviour played some role in the rejection experience, kindly accept that, as well as the roles of other people, the context, and the factors out of your control, such as luck. For example: ‘I get that you feel you could have done things differently. But I know you will learn from this, and I can also see that it’s not all your fault. Some of it came down to chance, and everyone has their unique perspective and personal preferences.’
  • Consider whether there are any lessons you can learn from the rejection experience to help you grow.

Additionally, you might use this letter to tap other factors that can help people buffer or cope with the pain of rejection. So, perhaps, remind yourself of what matters most to you in life and why; the positive traits that are part of your core self; your interpersonal strengths; the people (or even pets) you are closest to and why you like them; and/or the groups you belong to.

How often should you do this exercise? Try it once and then, if you can, do it multiple times – research suggests that’s valuable. (One study found that doing this daily for a week improved feelings of depression.) Once you’ve written the letter to yourself, read it. For bonus points, you can read it out loud to that part of you that is suffering, with a focus on using a kind, compassionate tone of voice.

Respond to the rejection with problem-focused coping

In this stage, you’ll figure out what next steps you can take to move beyond the rejection experience to get your needs met, using what’s called ‘problem-focused coping’ – essentially, developing a plan to solve your problem.

Perhaps the single most important benefit of this approach in the case of rejection is that it can help you avoid emotionally driven responses such as social withdrawal or lashing out. While these responses are understandable, the goal here is to increase your sense of belonging and acceptance, so detaching from or clashing with people is counterproductive.

Here’s the simple model of problem-focused coping that we’ll use:

  1. Clarify the problem.
  2. Generate a range of potential options for dealing with it.
  3. Consider the pros and cons of each option.
  4. Identify the best option and concrete steps to achieve it.

You should have a fairly good sense of the problem at hand by now, but naming it makes it easier to identify and narrow down solutions. This will mean using the information you’ve gathered in the previous steps, and summarising it – perhaps by describing the situation, the potential reason for it, and the emotional and practical impacts. For example: ‘I asked someone out after we matched online, and they never responded. It mustn’t have been a good fit or good timing for them. I’m feeling shame and the desire to avoid people. But I still want to meet someone to date.’

You will then need to spend time brainstorming as many potential solutions as you can. (I encourage you to write these down.) After that, you can consider what each option has going for it. Let’s discuss some possible types of solutions that you might consider.

Sometimes, it’s worthwhile to attempt to repair after a rejection. This might make sense when a rejection experience results from conflict with a friend, family member or long-term romantic partner. In a recent example, one of my clients had a longtime friend tell him that he wanted to end the friendship. This is a clear rejection and it triggered an emotional reaction. However, because my client valued the friendship, he opted to attempt a repair. In this case, he sought to gather information to understand why the rejection occurred, and then asked what he could do to be a better friend. He followed through on this, and the renewed friendship is stronger for it.

Other times, the appropriate response will be acceptance and healing. Many rejections take place within situations that can’t be fixed. Further attempts at reconciliation might simply lead to repeated experiences of rejection. The focus then moves to acceptance and taking care of yourself. Your plan for achieving this could include engaging in behaviours such as regular mindfulness and self-compassion practices, as well as spending time investing in things that you value, such as other social connections, time in nature, spiritual practice, reading and so on.

One client had repeatedly tried to create a closer relationship with his older brother. When he learned that he had been excluded from his brother’s birthday celebration, he experienced this as a significant rejection. The work at this point was to accept that a close relationship could not be forced. As he took care of himself using techniques discussed here, he had the breakthrough realisation that his two closest friends effectively played the role of brothers in his life. So he was able to accept his distant relationship with his brother and focus on meeting his needs for belonging through his close friendships.

A similar process happens with the end of many romantic relationships. Though some relationships can be repaired, others cannot, and so the focus must shift to acceptance, recovery and investment in other relationships.

Often an effective response to rejection involves creating new opportunities for meeting your needs. For example, if a group of your friends keeps not inviting you to things, you might need to look for or strengthen other social connections to satisfy your need for belonging. The easiest way to start is often to look at the other social connections in your life (friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances) and consider whether there are people you could see yourself growing closer to. You can then pick one or more of these relationships to invest in – by texting/calling, inviting, sharing more about yourself and asking more about them – and see if the relationships grow.

In the work world, a job loss is a powerful rejection, threatening multiple psychological needs, including the needs for belonging and acceptance. Unfortunately, the job search process almost always involves rejections, too. Self-compassion can be an important factor in tolerating these rejections, but it won’t solve the problem – you still have to pursue a job. The amount of effort you put in matters, but research suggests that we must also focus on searching systematically. That could mean setting clear job-search goals, plans to reach them, and regular times for reflecting on progress toward those goals.

I often talk with my clients about the similarity of the job search and the dating process, and the lesson applies to other forms of rejection as well: you must take care of yourself, but you also have to keep looking for and attempting connection.

Key points – How to handle rejection

  1. Rejection is painful. It hurts to get the sense that someone doesn’t value you or a relationship with you in the way you want them to – whether it’s a potential date, an employer or a loved one.
  2. Some responses to rejection can make it worse. The urge to lash out, isolate yourself or ruminate on what happened may be strong. But there are more productive options.
  3. Rally whatever social support is available. Seek out company and connection to refill your sense of belonging. Supporters from one area of your life (eg, friends, family, a romantic partner) can help you cope with rejection in another area.
  4. Observe and identify what you’re feeling. Differentiating and naming your emotions can reduce their power and help you choose an effective response.
  5. Interpret your experience with self-compassion. Write to yourself from the perspective of a wise, compassionate person, acknowledging your feelings and seeking insight from the experience.
  6. Respond to the rejection with problem-focused coping. Consider possible solutions – such as trying to repair a relationship, accepting and healing from the rejection, or cultivating new opportunities – and take concrete steps toward one of them.

Learn more

If you find yourself preoccupied with rejection much of the time, especially in your close relationships, consider whether you might be dealing with rejection sensitivity.

The pattern in rejection sensitivity is a heightened concern about being rejected by people who matter to you; a tendency to see rejection in ambiguous or neutral situations; and a response to perceived rejection that is intense, often involving aggressive behaviour. The biggest issue with rejection sensitivity is that it can be self-fulfilling: the terror about rejection can trigger behaviour that drives others away, causing the rejection that is so deeply feared. This, in turn, strengthens the rejection sensitivity.

If this sounds like your experience, you can utilise components of the rejection-coping plan to target rejection sensitivity. The overarching goal is to create space between emotional triggers and habitual, defensive responses such as yelling, or isolating and shutting down. This space can be used for self-soothing and reappraising the situation.

You can use the mindfulness-based approaches described in the What to Do section above to focus your attention internally, and identify your emotions and your thoughts about a perceived rejection. Keep in mind that these thoughts are simply theories of what happened, not facts. They may often be unrealistic and driven more by past experiences than by what’s happening in front of you. Be sceptical if you find you are ‘mind reading’ (assuming you know what other people are thinking) or ‘fortune telling’ (assuming you know what’s going to happen in the future).

Looking at the situation from the perspective of a wise and compassionate outsider can also be helpful if you are dealing with rejection sensitivity. How might that person interpret the situation? Would they be certain that it was a serious rejection or might they consider it a more minor problem? Would they perhaps see other possible interpretations of what has happened (eg, maybe your partner or friend is not pushing you away, but is having a bad day at work, or is exhausted)? From a distance, is there any evidence that goes against the idea that you’ve experienced a serious rejection?

Since rejection sensitivity can be associated with aggression or social isolation, it’s advisable to practise expressing yourself in ways that promote being heard and understood by others. When fears about rejection are expressed through blaming or accusations, people tend to react defensively. They will likely find it easier to listen to you and engage when you own and communicate your feelings. This might sound like: ‘I’m feeling really insecure today and I’m afraid that you’ll leave me – maybe because you haven’t been texting me as often.’ This can leave space for solutions, compromise and resolving the issue. Clearly, doing the work of mindfully clarifying your emotions can be useful here; if you don’t know what you’re feeling (aside from ‘upset’) and why, it’ll be harder to communicate with someone whose rejection you fear.

It’s important to know that sensitivity to rejection isn’t a character flaw, but rather a way of seeing the world based on past experiences of painful rejection. It’s understandable that, if you’ve gone through intense rejection before, especially when you were young, then you’ll be more likely to expect it and have a stronger reaction to it. Knowing this can help you have more self-compassion and less shame or self-criticism.

Because rejection sensitivity can be related to traumatic experiences such as childhood maltreatment or neglect, you might find it beneficial to look into getting treatment from someone trained in dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). DBT has components that teach mindfulness, target biases in thinking, and train effective interpersonal behaviours, all of which can be valuable for someone with an elevated sensitivity to rejection.

Links & books

In my book Dating Without Fear: Overcome Social Anxiety and Connect (2022), you can find a comprehensive guide for overcoming social anxiety and fear of rejection in the context of dating. In Chapter 8, I describe how I learned to handle rejection and overcome my fear by deliberately getting rejected every day until it no longer bothered me.

The website of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center provides a selection of free guided meditations – ranging from brief exercises to longer sessions – that can help you develop your mindfulness skills. You can start with the short body scan, which takes less than three minutes and will help you get connected with your body before you practise emotion differentiation.

In this YouTube video, I guide you through the negative-emotion differentiation exercise discussed in the What to Do section above, helping you identify and distinguish emotions as a way to work on your self-regulation skills.

Kristin Neff is one of the world leaders in self-compassion, and her website provides a range of tools to help you be kinder and more understanding towards yourself. These include self-compassion journaling and changing critical self-talk, as well as guided practices like the ‘loving-kindness meditation’.

The podcast We Regret to Inform You: The Rejection Podcast delves into the stories of celebrated actors, writers, musicians, artists, inventors and entrepreneurs who have encountered career rejection on their way to success. Each episode aims to shed light on the valuable insights gleaned from each person’s perseverance through adversity.

Not feeling alone in our pain is very important, and it can help if we can laugh together in our shared experiences. To this end, consider listening to two other podcasts that lead with human vulnerability in the format of live storytelling: the Moth and Mortified. The true personal stories they present can be funny, emotional and cathartic. Storytellers express their youthful rejection experiences in the Moth episode ‘Return to Sender’ (2018) and in the Mortified episode ‘Breaking Up Is Hard to Do’ (2017).