In dealing with the sting of rejection recently, I realized how badly I had internalized the messages I was getting — or really, thought I was getting. Because no one has ever come out and said, “You’re not fun, you’re not very smart, you’re not pretty enough, and you have too much baggage.” That was just what I was telling myself.
I googled “rejection and mindfulness” to learn a little more about what was going on. First, I found a great article on “Understanding Rejection: How to Mitigate Its Effect On the Brain.” It starts off discussing “contingent self-worth,” or basing our sense of self-worth on how much stuff we have, how successful we are or how much people like and accept us.
Of course, building up your sense of self-worth would be one step to helping rejection hurt less. (And it does hurt; research shows that social rejection actually activates the same regions of the brain that physical pain does.) Building up your independence and resilience also are important pieces in handing rejection well.
In the article, psychologist Arnie Kozak says:
It’s helpful to ask yourself, ‘what’s really on the line here?’ You can then see if your sense of okay-ness is really undermined by the rejection. Often, we worry how we’ll be perceived by others and that is just another contingency. Rejections aren’t the end of the world, but sometimes we can react as if they are. Being turned away from one opportunity makes you available for another. Ultimately, I encourage people not to take things so seriously. If that reaction arises, mindfulness practice can help people to back away from it and keep things in perspective.
I liked that a lot, because so frequently, what’s on the line is … not much. So I didn’t hear back from a guy who I had hoped might be a potential romantic candidate, even though he had been the one to approach me and ask me out. What was on the line? Clearly, a guy who doesn’t have the time, interest or capability to communicate with me clearly. Whoopity-de-doo.
Another article, “Our Need for Acceptance and the Pain of Rejection,” discusses breaking free of rumination and self-criticism, which is apparently my forte:
If we’ve been rejected, we may end up ruminating on what we could have done differently; how we could have done more to make people want us. Thoughts like “What’s wrong with me?” might be echoing around in our minds. If we’re not mindful, we may start coming up with harsh answers to these questions. Before we know it, we’re caught in a downward spiral of self-blame and self-criticism.
I don’t know if I have ever blamed anyone but myself for rejection. My initial instinct is to always assume I’ve done something wrong, said something wrong or even been something wrong. But when we’re mindful, we can examine the messages we’re telling ourselves, and we can examine their truthfulness. We can realize that frequently, the rejection wasn’t about us at all. Maybe there was another candidate that was better qualified. Maybe he wasn’t over his ex. There are a thousand reasons that we can’t know behind someone’s motivations.
And finally, we need to embrace the suffering to some extent. I have been reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s “No Mud, No Lotus,” and this passage struck me:
When you’re overwhelmed by despair, all you can see is suffering everywhere you look. You feel as if the worst thing is happening to you. But we must remember that suffering is a kind of mud that we need in order to generate joy and happiness. Without suffering, there’s no happiness.
What can I grow in this mud of rejection? What is it teaching me about myself and the work I need to do? What wisdom can it impart to me? The lotuses I am hoping to grow are Self-Worth, Resilience and Mindfulness.
What will you grow?