Many clients come to therapy with severe rejection wounds. They might say things like, “I just don’t understand why anyone would ever treat anyone like that” or “What did I do to deserve this?” or “Why can’t I even feel wanted?”.
It’s an unfortunate place as these feelings can be extremely demotivating and isolating. But rejection sensitivity is not an insurmountable problem. Here I’m going to talk about three ways you can opt out.
#1. Focus on the present and the future, not the past
All of our rejection experiences have one thing in common: they happened in the past. Whether it was a relationship that didn’t work out, an interview that went awry, or a test that didn’t go as planned, it’s over.
While that may sound dismissive (sure, these things don’t feel good and can certainly hurt in the present), it’s the honest truth. It’s up to you to leave the past in the past.
Psychologists say that people have different “time perspectives”. Some of us, because of our personality, are more focused on the present and the future. Others are more nostalgic and prefer to spend their mental energy remembering good times.
Other people fall into the unfortunate category of “past negatives.” These people tend to repeat past experiences that are hurtful or anxiety-provoking, such as the times they experienced rejection. These are often the people who have had a debilitating experience of rejection. They fear rejection so much that they close themselves off from others or give up potentially rewarding experiences because they don’t think it will work well for them.
But the only thing that separates someone who has a “past negative” focus from being more future or present oriented is themselves. Your thoughts and emotions flow from your behavior. When you do things to realign your behavior for the present and future (e.g., incorporating mindfulness practices into your everyday life, sticking to an exercise program, engaging in solution-focused psychotherapy, or setting ambitious goals), you can ask yourself You find your thoughts drifting less and less to those hurtful places of rejection, eventually fading out of your consciousness altogether.
#2. Learn to recognize imaginary rejections
We all experience rejection; it is part of life. However, some people are so hypersensitive to it that they begin to see rejection where there is none. You can assume that a person’s body language conveys a sign of irritation or boredom when in fact there was none. They could baselessly infer someone’s opinion of them by hearing them second- or third-hand from someone else.
Duke psychologist Mark Leary, an expert on rejection sensitivity, says the following about our flawed perception of rejection:
“We tend to have negative rather than neutral reactions when we learn that someone feels neutral about us. This means that most people are likely to go through life more rejected than they actually are. In addition, a history of actual rejection—for example, from neglectful parents or rejecting peers—appears to reinforce this tendency. In that sense, the first step in meeting your concerns with acceptance and denial is to examine the evidence as objectively as possible, trying not to sugarcoat or read too much negativity into the reactions of others.”
In other words, examine yourself the next time you perceive rejection in an ambiguous situation. Don’t be afraid to have a friend or family member perform the scenario, who may be able to offer an unbiased perspective on the situation. And try your best to infer acceptance, not rejection.
#3. Count your wins as well as your losses
As humans, we tend to preoccupy ourselves with negative information. This mindset has an evolutionary basis – focusing on the potential threats around us has protected us in unsafe conditions.
Unfortunately, it can lead us to misperceive how much hurt, insult, and rejection we actually experience. One way to combat this mindset is to keep track of both your consents and disapprovals. Life gives and life takes. Make sure you celebrate and savor your victories at least as much as you mourn your losses. This can help you keep life’s inevitable rejections in context.
None of us want to feel like our experience of rejection dictates our lives. To protect yourself from falling into this trap, (1) remember to focus more on the present and future and less on the past, (2) learn to fact-check your imaginary denials, and ( 3) remember that you probably have a win (or two) for every loss. Finally, it’s important to build a strong support structure (friends, family, resources, etc.) that will allow you to bounce back quickly from setbacks.