by Susan Schneider
You weren’t invited to the party, but all your friends were. Ouch! You got the letter or phone call from a potential employer that began, “Thank you for applying, but….” Ouch again! The church you’ve always loved tells you that people who identify as LGTBQIA+ cannot belong.
No doubt, we’ve all experienced the sting of rejection in various ways and to varying degrees. It’s not news to anyone that it can be excruciating. Interestingly, scientific research finds that social rejection hurts us by mimicking physical pain in our brains.
In a study, University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross, Ph.D., and his colleagues scanned the brains of participants whose romantic partners had recently broken up with them. Participants viewed photographs of their exes while having their brains scanned by an MRI machine.
The study found that the brain regions associated with physical pain lit up like they did when a person is burned by hot coffee.
In other words, whether it comes from a broken romantic or family relationship, an employer (or potential employer), or a cherished community, being rejected literally hurts. We feel ashamed, vulnerable, sad. What we hear (whether or not it’s what is intended) is, “You are not good/smart/beautiful/qualified/enough. You are not enough.”
After the initial unpleasant jolt, what are the long-term effects of a person feeling like they don’t measure up to others’ expectations? Because we all need to feel we belong, rejections damage our self-esteem and confidence. “Humans are inherently social creatures. We crave connection and meaning to others. When faced with rejection, or lack of acceptance, it’s hard for us not to internalize negative thoughts about our self-worth. Rejection brings up the existential crisis of ‘alone-ness,’ which is painful and hard to ignore,” explains therapist Jor-el Caraballo. Our natural response to being fired or getting picked last for a team is not only to experience pain but actually to make it worse by becoming fiercely self-critical. We call ourselves names, lament our shortcomings, and feel disgusted with ourselves.
Those actions are not particularly helpful, but it seems to be common. What varies are the ways we move on. Whether you were the victim of cyber-bullying or your dearest friend cut off all communication with you, it is perfectly normal to feel pain. How long it takes to recover and how we go about recovering is important. According to C. Nathan DeWall, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, social rejection can increase anger, anxiety, depression, jealousy and sadness. It reduces performance on complex intellectual tasks and can also contribute to aggression and poor impulse control.
These conditions are intensified if a person routinely feels excluded. These people tend to have poorer sleep quality, and their immune systems don’t function as well as those of people with strong social connections (Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2011). Some people—seeking to regain a sense of balance or control—respond by becoming aggressive or angry. Depression, substance abuse and suicide are not uncommon responses to feeling chronically excluded.
So what do we do to recover more quickly and in a healthier way?
We begin at the beginning. We remind ourselves that we are created in the image of God. We have value and worth because we are, as the psalmist writes in Psalm 39, “fearfully and wonderfully made.” It might help to remember and perhaps even write down our better qualities or attributes, or list some accomplishments of which we are proud. Go for a walk and thank God for the beauty you spot in a leaf. Make something—a painting, a loaf of bread, a memory box—and delight in how something new can emerge.
Sometimes we can’t manage to recover on our own. At these times, it is good to connect with those who help us feel like we are wanted and precious. Call your grandma if she’s always happy to hear your voice. Cuddle with your pets since their affection is boundless and unconditional. Listen to inspiring music. Ask a trusted colleague to reinforce what it is you do well. Go out with friends who make you laugh. Ask someone to pray with and or for you.
While it is important to acknowledge the hurt we have experienced, ignoring those who tell you to “shake it off” is also key to avoiding dwelling during an episode.
According to a recent study, reliving a difficult emotional event—even long after it has passed—reactivates the part of the brain that felt pain at the time. In other words, each time you walk through the negative experience again in your mind, it will hurt in a way that remembering what it felt like to break your arm will not. Don’t get stuck replaying that rejection experience in an endless loop in your head.
Rejection happens to all of us, and it is always awful. It does not, however, define us. Our inherent value comes from God, who promises: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;” (Isaiah 49:15-16a).
The Rev. Susan Schneider is lead pastor at University Lutheran Church, Seattle, Wash. Her passions include pursuing art as a spiritual path and engaging in social justice as an expression of faith. She is passionate about ensuring a welcome for LGTBQ+ people and other marginalized populations–particularly within communities of faith, but also in general.
Read the Faith Reflections article, “What we learn about rejection from Jesus” by Susan Schneider.