How to Handle Rejection?

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein, written by `Blueheart
– published on December 23, 2022

Rejection is common. From being told as a young child that our parents are too busy to play with us, to receiving a rejection letter from that job we had pinned all our hopes on. Throughout our lives we’ll come up against different forms of rejection time and time again.

But why do some types of rejection impact us more than others? And why do some people manage to just shrug it off and go again, while others take everything to heart so much? Let’s explore…

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Illustration by Marta Pucci

Why does rejection hurt?

While it’s completely normal to experience rejection in everyday life, we often find it affects us more than we would expect it to. Perhaps you found there’s a party that some of your friends are going to but they haven’t invited you. Or perhaps you offered your help to a colleague but they went with someone else. There's no getting away from the fact it stings a little.

It happens even in healthy long-term relationships, often unintentionally. As we head to bed and ask for a snuggle, our partner rolls over and says they’re tired. We go in for a kiss with our spouse as they’re getting the dinner ready, but they wriggle away to stop the pasta boiling over.

Of course, these examples sound small and excusable, but a pattern of small rejections over time can build into a bigger thing. It’s hard to shake that feeling that pops into our head that there must be something wrong with us, or we’re un-liked for some reason. It can feel really painful.

Is it possible for rejection to feel like physical pain?

Yes, it is. In fact, that’s exactly what it feels like for some people. Just over ten years ago, scientists conducted an experiment(1) using a functional MRI machine, asking participants to recall a recent rejection. They found that the same areas of the brain were activated as when we experience physical pain.

But perhaps more interesting is why. Why does the brain respond in this way? As with many things to do with temperament and behavior, it’s thought this pain of rejection stems from an instinctual need to survive. Our primitive ancestors were not particularly safe alone, they needed to live in packs, to hunt and gather food and to protect their young. So perhaps this pain mechanism is supposed to act as a warning sign. A message that indicates we’re in danger of being ‘kicked out’ of our safe space, our group or tribe. Perhaps this ‘pain’ is there to tell us it’s time to change our behavior, to try harder to fit in.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the brain is wired to respond to rejection in the same way it does to physical pain. Which means we need to come up with ways to understand and manage this response to lessen its impact on us.

How do we react when we feel rejected?

When we delve into rejection, we find it actually means more than just being told we aren’t wanted. It’s actually a spectrum of feelings. Rejection can mean being told we don’t belong or we are not valuable. It can feel as though we’re being treated unfairly or being disrespected. And it can be pretty subtle. How we feel about rejection often hinges on our reading of the situation rather than anything that is directly said by the person we believe is rejecting us.

We once heard the feeling of rejection being described as similar to being 'untethered'. We like that because it encapsulates the lack of stability we feel. Our innate need to belong is impacted and we are left feeling unsure of our position and value to those around us.

Unfortunately, much of our reaction to this feeling of rejection is self-made. The person ‘rejecting’ us is not, in the majority of cases, intending it to be a slight on our character: to them, it is simply a reflection of what they need from us in that moment. Nevertheless, our brain goes into overdrive, we react emotionally instead of rationally, we only see the negatives, becoming self-critical and finding reasons why our failures have led to this point. We tend to react with a flash of anger and indignation followed by self-loathing. 

Turning on yourself, however, is very rarely the answer, and can be extremely emotionally damaging. But what is the answer? How can we override this innate reaction?

Understanding is key. Yes, our brains are wired to find it difficult to face rejection, but there is still a wide spectrum of ways in which people are able to respond. And a knowledge of attachment styles might well hold the key.

Principles of attachment theory

Attachment theory tells us that the type of care we receive from our earliest caregivers shapes the way we view ourselves both as children and later in life. Humans rely on bonds with others to feel safe and secure. Babies rely on their primary caregivers for everything: feeding, changing, soothing, love. And the extent to which they receive this consistently can impact their feelings about themselves as they grow up and the way they feel and behave in relationships with others.

Much research has been done in the area of attachment theory but, put simply, the more consistent love and care we are shown when we are young, the more likely we are to view ourselves in a positive light and believe we deserve to be loved. If we receive insensitive or inconsistent care, we are more likely to think negatively about ourselves and we are more likely to expect that others will disappoint us.

Are adult attachment styles different?

When we are young, our main attachment figure will most likely be our primary caregiver, usually a parent or guardian. In an ideal world, this person gives us a secure base from which we can go off and explore the world and then a safe place to come back to. If you’ve ever tried to drop an infant off at kindergarten for the first time, you’ll likely have experienced the effects of separation anxiety. This distress at being away from our safe haven is natural – it not only drives a desire to be closer together but it also strengthens that bond in the future.

Adults, particularly those in romantic or codependent relationships, experience attachment differently. When we grow up, it’s natural that our primary attachment figure will change, most often to our romantic partner. But while the needs we have may change and develop, and the way we express them may have moved on, that attachment style that we developed in our formative years will almost certainly affect the way we relate to our partner. In fact, our style of attachment will influence how we respond to conflict, how accessible we are to our partner when they need us, how emotionally engaged we are with them, and how we read and deal with feelings of rejection.

More about that last one later, let’s just back up a little first.

What are the four attachment styles?

There are four main attachment styles, which are based on where you tend to fall on two scales - attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance. It’s worth noting that your childhood attachment style is not a precursor to behavior in your future relationships. These things can and do change as you experience new relationships and learn more about yourself or address any issues or traumas that exist in your past.

We suggest you simply read these, see which one resonates the most, and allow it to help you understand more about the way you and your partner tend to react in given situations.

Secure attachment style

If your parents were consistently available and responsive to your needs as a child, it would have been easy for you to maintain a secure connection to them. That means it’s likely that as an adult you trust others, feel worthy of love and can accurately read others and react to difficult situations without becoming overly emotional.

Secure people are able to enjoy a closeness with their partner but also be happy to have some time away from one another without anxiety or concern.

It's thought around 50% of people have a secure attachment style.

Anxious attachment style

As a child, you may have noticed that your parents were not so consistent. Sometimes you felt they were warm and loving, other times less so, perhaps prone to irritability or snapping for seemingly no reason. This kind of situation is anxiety inducing, never knowing where you stand. Children with an anxious attachment style may grow up with a more negative view of themselves, believing themselves to be unworthy of love and needing lots of reassurance to feel safe and secure in a relationship.

Adults who grew up in this situation develop a tendency to monitor the mood of those around them. They stay on high alert for signs of rejection so that they can try to address the situation or head it off before it happens. They often feel an acute sense of fear if they feel a situation is escalating into a conflict that could result in disappointing or losing their partner, even if just temporarily or in the heat of the moment.

Of course, this sometimes means reading too much into the meaning of other people’s behavior, particularly in romantic relationships. When it comes to rejection, people with this kind of insecure attachment style can find it incredibly difficult to deal with the perception of being pushed away.
They spend their time trying to feel as close as possible to their partner emotionally. So, particularly if they can’t make sense of the rejection, it can be incredibly hard to let go.

Roughly 20% of people have an anxious attachment style.

Avoidant attachment style

An avoidant attachment style stems from a childhood with absent parents, either physically or emotionally. These children did not get their needs for closeness and reassurance met. As youngsters, those with avoidant attachment can become increasingly self-reliant, denying their own need for closeness and bonding and looking for parental approval through over-achievement.

As an adult, however, this sense of independence and the learned idea that others cannot be trusted or relied on can lead to distance in relationships. It is hard to intimately get to know someone with an avoidant attachment style as it takes a lot of time and patience before they’ll let you in. That said, fear of rejection holds no threat for people with this mindset as it only proves to confirm what they already knew: that the only person they can truly rely on is themself.

Roughly 25% of people have an avoidant attachment style.

Disorganized attachment style (or fearful-avoidant attachment style)

If you nodded along to both the anxious attachment style and the avoidant attachment style descriptions above, but couldn’t quite place yourself, there is a chance you fit into this final category.

Children whose infant-caregiver relationships were chaotic or traumatizing in some way can sometimes struggle to find ways to adapt or gain control over their feelings. And they often have difficulty understanding themselves. 

When you grow up in a place where the ones who are supposed to love you the most are the ones who are hurting you in some way, it can be extremely disconcerting. You might feel you have an intense and unresolved need for closeness and safety, but at the same time you’re not sure what that looks like. When someone tries to get too close, the automatic reaction is to push them away through fear.

This difficulty to trust or understand your needs can perpetuate into adulthood, impacting relationships. It can make it hard for your partner to truly understand your feelings and emotions, perhaps because you don’t understand where it comes from yourself. Rejection, for those who are fearful-avoidant, can also feel terrifying. 

In fact, many times this fearful style can lead them to perceive threat and rejection all around them. They have often not developed the mechanisms to deal with loss earlier in their lives and therefore struggle to make sense of things. Particularly if they have found it difficult to let someone in in the first place.

Roughly 3-5% of people have a disorganized or fearful-avoidant attachment style.

How to respond to rejection in a healthier way (no matter your attachment type)

As we’ve already discussed, how perceived rejection makes you feel is very much driven by your brain’s wiring as well as your past experiences of loss and rejection. It is a subconscious reaction and one that it is hard to avoid in the moment. But given time to reflect and practice feeling your feelings, you will become more aware and find you can have a more rational reaction to these kinds of situations.

Here are a few quick wins when it comes to staying more mentally healthy around perceived rejection:

Be kind to yourself
When you recognize you’re responding in a negative emotional way, take a deep breath and commit to loving and caring for yourself. Try some positive self-talk. Remind yourself that the other person is not saying you’re a bad person or that you have done anything wrong. If you find yourself feeling down or struggling to get past it, go for a walk or get your body moving by doing something you enjoy.

Stop looking for ways you failedIf you notice negative thoughts creeping in, try to deliberately replace them with positive ones. Tell yourself those negative thoughts are not correct and look for evidence to support that idea. Some people find writing things down, or journaling, helps them to process things in a more rational way.

Find connection elsewhere
Suffering acute rejection may make you want to crawl away and lick your wounds in private, but that’s probably the worst thing you can do. Instead, give your soul what it craves: connection. If your partner ‘rejected you’ and went out with their mates, FaceTime a friend you haven’t seen for a while and have a chat. Or WhatsApp a couple of friends from work to see if they fancy a last minute drink.

When rejection involves sex

There’s only one thing worse than rejection when you’ve applied for a job, for example, or rejection by a group of old acquaintances who forgot to invite you to the pub. And that is when it happens in your most intimate relationship: feeling rejected by the one person who is supposed to love you the most. Particularly when you’re at your most vulnerable or outside your comfort zone. When you’re in the bedroom, or initiating sex, sensing disinterest in your partner can truly feel like a reflection of your entire being. “My partner doesn’t love me anymore.” “My partner finds me repulsive.” It’s so easy for those thoughts to creep in, particularly if these rejections recur.

Unfortunately, what may seem to the one who is tired and ‘doesn’t fancy it tonight’ to be a simple refusal can fester in their partner’s head to the extent that it becomes a big deal. The rejected partner or spouse might stop trying, withdraw or disengage from the relationship. Over time, they might begin to feel anger or resentment towards their partner and even feel lonely, despite being in the relationship. And that's not good for mental health or self-esteem.

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Dealing with sexual rejection in your relationship

Sexual rejection can be tricky to navigate. Here are a few things to think about. We cover the subject in a lot more detail in the Blueheart app, offering some great practical advice and exercises to try either alone or with your partner.

Be empathetic about rejection
You might choose to discuss up front with your partner and be open and honest, cut the rejection off at the pass as it were. If you become aware that your partner is making advances but there is a reason you don’t want to proceed, then be direct. Tell them the reason but reassure them, too. Show empathy for how they may be feeling and make sure they realise you do find them attractive, love them and want to pick up another time.

Be direct about how you feel
If you are the one feeling rejected, you may feel like it would be a tough conversation to have with your partner. But it is more than worth the difficult conversation if you want to reduce the impact on your relationship and your mental health. 

Choose your time wisely
Pick a time when everything is calm and you have a moment to yourself, try to avoid a confrontation during the height of emotion. Explain to your partner that you feel they are turning away from you more often. Tell them how it makes you feel. Try to avoid phrases like “You make me feel…” because they may sound accusatory and may cause your partner to react defensively. Instead, focus on your own emotions. Try to be completely open and honest and hear them out when they respond.

How to ask your partner for what you want

When you open up to your partner about how their response is making you feel, consider whether you think they’re open to you taking it to the next step. The only true way to improve matters is to be honest with your partner about what you want and need from them; what it is you feel you’re not getting at the moment. But we understand that this can feel like yet another difficult conversation.

Are you struggling with feelings of rejection? Check out our short course Dealing with Rejection on the Blueheart app to learn more about what might be going on. You’ll also find expert tips and techniques to help you respond to those feelings in a healthier way. 

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1. Kross, E. et al. (2011) “Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(15), pp. 6270–6275.