Rejection =/= Reject: Guidelines for Giving and Receiving Rejection
I often hear musings on the nature of rejection in polyamory. With more opportunities for relationships come more opportunities for rejection, right? Not necessarily; but there does seem to be a decent amount of rejection, and sometimes a misunderstood perception of what that means.
First, let’s neutralize the word “rejection”. Some people equate this with “reject”, in the derogatory sense. As if being rejected somehow makes you a loser or undesirable. This simply is not the case. The word itself means, “to refuse.”1 We also reject medications, ideas, opportunities and beliefs.
All of us, at some point, have been on either end of the transaction; we’ve all been rejecters and we’ve all been rejected; it’s a normal and necessary part of life. Remember when you didn’t want to share your schoolbooks with Johnny that one time? Or when Sally didn’t want to eat the pasta you made because of her gluten allergy? Same thing. Rejection is a process, one that proves useful throughout this journey we call life.
Being rejected helps us build “thick skin” and gives us coping mechanisms for future rejections. Even so, it sucks to experience. We’re social creatures, so being ostracized by members of our group is inevitably going to sting, and rightfully so. In fact, experiencing rejection activates many of the same brain regions that are activated when we feel physical pain (so it really is like being punched in the gut).2,3 It’s important for us to feel that pain because it helps us adapt to complex social structures. The person being rejected is affected negatively, often manifesting in heartbreak, anger and humiliation.4 We hear how rejection lowers our self-esteem, but unless someone has preexisting self-esteem issues, experiencing periodic rejection should have no effect in the long run.5
Here are some tips on how to handle rejection gracefully:
- Don’t take it personally. Usually the reason someone has for rejecting you have little or nothing to do with you directly. Many people report external factors like time constraints, circumstances and personal obstacles.
- Try to think positively. As cliché as it sounds, finding the silver lining can act as a barrier to long-term anguish. Rejection is a necessary and adaptive part of life, meant to teach us valuable lessons about ourselves.
- Pay careful attention to the situation. Sometimes the reasons people give are temporary, sometimes they aren’t; these are things you’ll want to know moving forward. By making inferences and overanalyzing the situation you risk unnecessary heartache. Attempt to gain more information before allowing your emotions to take over.
- Take care of yourself. Rejection hurts, and you are justified in your emotional response. Allow yourself the catharsis to cope with and process your feelings, rather than pushing them away or self-medicating. Treat yourself with a positive experience, something that induces dopamine (e.g. exercise, laughter, art).
- Maintain your confidence. This is a small setback, it’s not indicative your worth. Don’t catastrophize the situation by convincing yourself that you’re worthless. Do something you’re good at, to remind yourself of your strengths.
- Remember that everyone gets rejected sometimes. This isn’t a unique experience, and it only means that you’re part of the human race. It takes courage to be vulnerable; sometimes it doesn’t work out, but pat yourself on the back for being strong.
- Never give up! Again, this is a minor isolated setback. It will happen again, and next time you’ll be more prepared. Realize that by never trying you accomplish nothing. Pick up the pieces, move on, and keep being your awesome self.
Even though it’s not often discussed, rejection doesn’t just affect the person being rejected, however. It negatively affects the rejecter as well, often times plaguing them with anger, guilt, scriptlessness, and risk of interpersonal disruption.6 In many cases, when the rejected person persists, the rejecter experiences annoyance, uncertainty, further guilt and aversion. Rejectors generally report more negative affect from a rejection experience than the person being rejected!4
Here are some tips on how to reject someone with compassion:
- Give yourself time to choose your words carefully. You’re dealing with someone else’s feelings so treat them with respect. Take time to carefully construct your message so you can minimize discomfort and misunderstandings. Move forward how you might want to be rejected if you were in their position (because, chances are, you have been).
- Start with a positive statement about them or your relationship. Remind them how much they mean to you before you let them down gently. If you don’t already have a relationship, then remark on how great they seem.
- Allow them some time to react. Don’t rush the process; people need a few moments to sort out what just happened and might need your patience. Give them the courtesy of your time rather than storming off in a hurry.
- Don’t give in. I repeat, DO NOT say “yes” to their advance out of pity or guilt. You’ll be doing nobody any favors and by leading them on you’re disrespecting them far more than you would be by being honest. This rarely ends well.
- Be encouraging. Close the conversation by reminding them how great they are and how much you value your relationship with them. Offer to spend time with them in the near future, or some kind words to part with.
Just remember, being rejected does NOT make you a “reject” and rejecting someone does NOT make you a bad person.
2 Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302(5643), 290-292.
3 Kross, E., Berman, M. G., Mischel, W., Smith, E. E., & Wager, T. D. (2011). Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(15), 6270-6275.
4 Baumeister, R., Wotman, S., & Stillwell, A. (1993). Unrequited love: On heartbreak, anger guilt, scriptlessness, and humiliation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 64(3), 377-394.
5 Blackhart, G. C., Nelson, B. C., Knowles, M. L., & Baumeister, R. F. (2009). Rejection elicits emotional reactions but neither causes immediate distress nor lowers self-esteem: A meta-analytic review of 192 studies on social exclusion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13(4), 269-309.
6 Baumeister, R. F., & Wotman, S. R. (1994). Breaking hearts: The two sides of unrequited love. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.