Anyone who enters the dating world is bound to encounter rejection. Whether your online messages to dating prospects go unanswered, you have a great first date but never hear from the person again, or you get dumped after things were just starting to heat up, all rejections have one thing in common — they really hurt. What makes rejection even more painful is that any effort to understand what went wrong can easily lead to bouts of self-criticism and self-blaming.
Did they reject you because you’re not tall enough, smart enough, attractive enough, rich enough, educated enough, or hip enough? What was the reason? Then you start to second guess everything you did and said. You berate yourself for disclosing your fascination with sea urchins, for ordering noodle soup and making slurping noises, or for joking about how you got the scar on your middle finger.
All this self-punishment makes you feel utterly miserable and you wonder when you became so weak, needy, or desperate. You must be, otherwise you wouldn’t hurt so much, right? Wrong.
Recent studies placed people in fMRI machines (scanners that look at what happens in our brains when we’re thinking or doing something) and asked them to think about a painful and recent rejection. What they found was shocking. The same pathways in the brain became activated when people experienced a rejection as when they experienced physical pain. In fact, the overlap was so substantial, that when researchers gave people the pain reliever Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and put them through a rejection experience, they reported feeling significantly less emotional pain than those who did not receive Tylenol. That’s why rejections hurt as much as they do, not because there’s anything wrong with you — because you’re simply wired that way.
Fortunately, there are three steps you can take to ease the emotional pain you’re bound to feel after being rejected:
Argue with self-criticism. Although it’s natural to feel self-critical after a rejection, there is little point in ‘going there’. Most rejections have much more to do with compatibility and chemistry than they do with any specific shortcoming or flaw. Even if you seemed to click with the other person, the reality is, you just didn’t click enough. And if they felt insufficient compatibility, you would likely have felt it yourself at some point as well. Therefore, there is utterly no point in trying to blame yourself or any perceived flaw you might have. Unless the person looked you in the eye and said something specific such as, “Sorry, I’m just not into dimples,” chalk it up to insufficient chemistry. And if they give you the, “It’s not you, it’s me,” speech — believe them. In fact, even if they don’t, assume it’s them nonetheless. It probably is anyway, and your self-esteem will thank you for it.
Revive your self-esteem. Now that you’ve given your self-worth a breather from self-criticism, you need to help it revive. The best way to revive your self-esteem is to remind yourself of qualities and attributes you possess that you believe are valuable. Specifically, make a list of qualities you have that are important in dating and relationships such as being loyal, caring, supportive, considerate, a good listener, a great cook, a good kisser, and as many others as you can think of. Choose one of these attributes and write a brief essay (a paragraph or two) about why the quality matters to you, why a future partner would find it valuable, how you’ve expressed it in past dating or relationship scenarios, or how you would do so in the future. Write one or two essays a day until you feel better about yourself. Keep in mind that for the exercise to have the desired impact on your self-esteem — you must write it out. So don’t skip that crucial step and do it in your head — write.
Restore a sense of belonging. One of the theories about why rejection causes such sharp emotional pain is that in our distant past, being ostracized from our tribe was pretty much a death sentence. Consequently, we developed a mechanism to warn us of when we were at danger for being ousted from our tribe and as a result, we became exquisitely sensitive to rejection. The legacy of those tribal days is that even minor rejections can destabilize our ‘need to belong’, to feel as though we’re accepted and loved by our core group. To address this often unconscious pang, reach out to good friends or family members and try to see them in person. Doing so will remind you that you are a valued and respected member of your ‘tribe’.
Rejections are an extremely common emotional ‘injury’ and they always hurt. But taking these three steps will help you heal the emotional wounds they create, recover your confidence and bounce back quicker and stronger than you would have otherwise.
Guy Winch is a psychologist, speaker and author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter and check out his blog!