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How to Heal From Rejection: 5 Steps to Soothe the Pain

Feel Alone

“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.” ~F. Scott Fitzgerald

I spent years training as a psychologist, waiting for the day I would graduate and finally have time to explore my second passion—writing.

When I opened a private practice I left my mornings free, and over the next fourteen years I wrote six screenplays, two novels, and a children’s book. But mostly I wrote letters, thousands of them, to agents, editors, and producers, asking them to read my work.

They rejected every manuscript I sent them.

After fourteen years of rejection, my mood, my confidence, my motivation, and my hope of ever being published or produced were fading. I felt too drained, too wounded to continue writing. I knew I needed to heal.

Since I was a psychologist, my first move was to check out the latest research on rejection. I was especially curious to see if anything was known about why rejections cause such strong emotional pain. (As we all know, social and romantic rejections can be excruciating.)

What I found was rather surprising. Functional MRI studies have revealed that the same areas of the brain become activated when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain. In other words, rejections hurt because they literally mimic physical pain in our brain.

I also discovered there are five things we can do to soothe the emotional pain rejections elicit, as well as to speed our psychological recovery:

1. Stop the bleeding.

One of the most common reactions people have to a rejection is to become self-critical. We list all our faults, lament all our shortcomings, and chastise ourselves endlessly. Romantic rejections cause some of us to employ an inner dialogue so harsh that it verges on abusive. We then convince ourselves we somehow deserve it.

Yet, by kicking our self-esteem when it’s already down, we are only making our psychological injury worse, deepening our emotional wounds, and significantly delaying our recovery.

2. Revive your self-worth.

The best way to restore confidence, motivation, and especially self-esteem after a bruising rejection is to use a self-affirmation exercise. Self-affirmations remind us of our actual skills and abilities and by doing so, affirm our value in the domain in which we experienced the rejection.

The exercise has two steps. First, make a list of qualities you have you know have value, and second, write a brief essay about one of them. (I wrote about what I believed was my strongest attribute as a writer—my perseverance.) By writing a couple of paragraphs about one of our strengths, we remind ourselves of what we have to offer and revive our self-esteem.

3. Connect to those who appreciate and love you.

Getting rejected also destabilizes our ‘need to belong,’ which is why we often feel so unsettled and restless after a romantic or social rejection. Our need to ‘belong’ dates back to our days of living in small nomadic tribes, when being away from our tribe was always dangerous and sitting among them was a source of comfort.

One way to settle ourselves after a rejection is to reach out to our core group—be they friends, colleagues, or family members—to get emotional support from them and remind ourselves we’re valued, loved, and wanted.

4. Assess potential changes.

At times we might need to reassess our strategy, especially after multiple rejections (or in my case, many hundreds).

Perhaps the friends who’ve fixed us up with romantic prospects who are never interested aren’t the best matchmakers. Maybe our online profile or pictures need to be updated, or it’s possible we’re getting rejected from potential jobs because we need to brush up our interview skills.

My own aha moment (an insight that was obvious to everyone except me) came when a writer friend said to me, “Fourteen years, huh? Have you thought maybe you should skip the novels and write about psychology, since you know, that’s what you do…?”

5. Try again soon.

Another common reaction to rejection is to avoid any situation that might expose us to additional pain. We might not want to date for a while, or go on new job interviews, or make new friends, or in my case, start another writing project.

But that’s an impulse we have to fight.

Avoiding situations only makes us more fearful of them. Hesitant as I was to start writing again, I decided to heed my friend’s advice. I did a few months of research and started writing again. This time, it was a non-fiction proposal for a psychology/self-help book.

I held my breath and sent it to an agent. She liked it and submitted it to several publishing houses.

They did not reject it.

Rejection is a form of psychological injury, one that can and should be treated. The next time your feelings hurt after a rejection, take action, treat your emotional wounds, and heal.

Photo by Tanya Little

About Guy Winch

Guy Winch Ph.D. is a psychologist, speaker, and author whose books have been translated into twelve languages. His new book is, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013). Learn more at www.guywinch.com and on Twitter @GuyWinch.

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  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    Thank You for sharing Dr. Winch…this was really insightful!

  • Anon

    You certainly are tenacious and that worked in your favour 🙂 Good tips here, will take these on-board

  • DJ

    I read your book a few months ago and really found it helpful after a break-up. So please know that although it may have taken 14 years you did a fantastic job with your book!!!

  • anon

    How do you heal yourself if you were rejected by a parent?

  • Dina Strange

    I love reading this site, yet i feel its very human centrist. How about we talk about the suffering that animal experience each day at our hands – the way we eat them, use them for fur, for entertainment in our circuses or aquariums…how can we feel happy as species when so many other species suffer at our hands.

  • DamitaJo

    Thanks for writing this. I’m on a journey to overcome an overwhelming fear of and sensitivity to rejection. When you mentioned feeling physical pain when you are rejected, I could totally relate. I’m also an aspiring writer who has yet to get my ideas off the ground. Your entire story was an inspiration to me.

  • Hi Dina! I didn’t write this post, but I run the site and choose what posts to publish, so I thought I would chime in. I appreciate that you shared your thoughts on this. I think this indeed an important topic, however my intention for Tiny Buddha is to share stories and insights about overcoming adversity and thriving. Perhaps some day I will start a sister site that focuses on our animal counterparts, as I agree they warrant our love and attention! =)

  • Dina Strange

    I don’t know if this helps, but perhaps parent him/herself went thru traumatizing experience and then they took it out on a child. I know it’s hard to forgive considering that they perpetuated the pain instead of stopping it in its tracks, yet forgiveness perhaps is the only way to go from that point on. And ensuring that you won’t make the same mistake with your child.

  • caroline

    Thank you. It is amazing how persistent you were – an inspiration. Thank you for sharing .

  • Audrey Meyer

    Great piece! I love the fact that you brought in a little science which provided a broader context within which to understand this very human experience. It helped me a lot. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Rebecca Lane

    Humans are indeed animals.

  • Guy Winch

    Thank you, DJ!
    I’m so glad you found the book helpful.
    Very best wishes!

  • Guy Winch

    Glad to hear!

  • Guy Winch

    My pleasure, Audrey.
    I do find the combo of science and human stories to be a good mix for understanding emotions, adversity, and how to heal from difficult experiences.

  • Guy Winch

    Thank you, Caroline!

  • Guy Winch

    Thanks and good luck with your writing!

  • Guy Winch

    Thanks!
    Being tenacious really helps when you’re an aspiring writer (or aspiring anything).

  • Calmer

    Thank you for this post. I needed something to loft me up on ‘blue Monday’. Really inspiring.

  • helen

    Hi I would like to offer something that helped me with my healing process. My mother left when I was nine. I’m now 33 but I didn’t seem counselling until I was in my mid twenties because it was too painful, too challenging to deal with. I was frightened to open the box in case the pain was too much and I couldn’t put it back! But I did. And what really helped me was to recognise that there is this huge void in my life. This huge gaping hole that has been left. I then realised that this void will never be filled. I will never have that relationship with anyone. Once I fully accepted that and became ok with it, i stopped trying to fill the void with meaningless relationships and substances I began to build my life around the void instead. So in other words the rejection and the void became incorporated into me. As a result I am now able to have wonderful relationships which are made of themselves, not being attempted to fill in the void from the past rejection, complete with all the old baggage. I hope Ive made this sound clear. Its not easy but I wish you love and I hope you find peace on your journey. X x

  • Kiki

    What if you were rejected by a friend of yours, he didn’t come right out and say it but it’s pretty obvious and it really hurts so bad that I feel jealous. It’s making me depressed and I am worried about the future now. What should I do

  • PN

    First, don’t be surprised, there seem to be seldom any replies here. Second, relax, can you remember the times when you have not met him yet? Were you very unhappy then just because of not having met him yet? Can’t you imagine enjoying some other kind of happiness than sharing your time with him? Don’t despair, there are some 3,5 billion other guys in the world. You will surely find the one that will be worth you. And after all you live for your own satisfaction, and other guys are nothing more than tools to achieve this. Some seem more smart than others, but they are just the tools. Good luck 🙂
    If you can find consolation in other guy’s suffering, go to the post below (XY) and read my story 🙂

  • Missn

    This is an older web posting but hope someone still monitors the site. Reading this I wonder if I wrote the one below about rejection by a parent. Mine gave me a one-way ticket to the frozen north where I have been homeless and live with a broken arm. Am sure she probably thought at the time that she was trying to help me and coming here is what I wanted but it has almost killed me. I think it happened because I was overly attached to her and not to God…this is what I am thinking…so relinquished control to a person rather than hold onto the Creator. I am trying to heal from this and would really appreciate some support and guidance. Thanks

  • Somegirl

    A child falls and scratches their knee, they cry because it hurts. You clean it, kiss it to make “it all better” and leave it without a bandage so it can get air. The child says “it hurts” and you tell them “it will heal in time. Take care of it and keep it clean and it will get better quicker.” We treat the injury with love and purposeful attention. The child will still play even though they’ve hurt their knee. They will acknowledge it and show their friends and tell the story. As it heals they might push on it to test it and see if it still hurts and are reassured when the pain is less. They are confident in their ability to heal.
    When most adult feel pain we push it away we wrap it in layers of disappointment, self loathing, rejection and blame – essentially dirty bandages. We do not give it purposeful attention or treat it with love. We do not test it to see if the pain has lessened and we do not reassure ourselves in our ability to heal. Most adults bury it and ignore it and expect it not to fester.
    With our children we tell them that it’s not their fault that they fell and it’s not the sidewalks fault they got a scraped knee. Things happen, we can not change them, we can only change the effect they have on us. People can be as hard as that sidewalk, they can harm us by being unmoving or rough but that is THEIR nature and not a reflection of us or a reflection of other sidewalks.
    Children are brave and they believe us when we tell them that we can’t change what’s already done, all we can do is give purposeful attention and love to the injury and heal. Adults could learn a lot about how to care from themselves if they only treated themselves with the same care as they would a child.

  • Parth Rocker

    But if She says NO because of her Family and i only want her as my Partner so what should i do??

  • Anabelle Vedrana

    Great question Dina. I myself am vegan because I don’t believe humans themselves can be happy and build just and non-violent societies as long as we enslave, torture, use and abuse other non-human species. Our fellow earthlings do not only suffer because we sacrifice them for hamburgers, steaks and other meals of pleasure that we can survive (and thrive) without, but because we systematically exploit their reproductive system for their own breast milk, and separating them from their children in the process (imagine how cruel is this, and yet, so many people are not even aware they take part in this cruelty – we are brainwashed by centuries long tradition to think this is ok and acceptable), then grounding up billions of male chickens at one or two days old – ALIVE because they happened to be born as male and thus are useless to the egg industry. We literally kill billions of small birds just by consuming their mother’s eggs, and we don’t have a problem with this. Yet, if we saw wounded (baby) bird that fell off its nest most of us would try to help.
    Then using animals for leather, wool, fur, cosmetic products, torturing them in the name of “science”, closing them in zoos, circuses as you said, using them as other forms of entertainment, killing millions of perfectly healthy dogs and cats in high kill shelters because nobody wants them anymore, and we call it “euthanasia” to hide from ourselves what we do. It is truly horrific what we do. I don’t believe we will ever achieve happiness or at least some inner peace as a species, collectively, until we evolve and start respecting other inhabitants of the planet Earth too. But unfortunately there is a long way to get to that point.

  • Jeanie Scheed

    Rejection from parents seems to make healing difficult. But – this experience just happened, so anyone else who wants to try it, go for it. I was disowned by my parents, and told i was dead. Twenty years later, they’ve both died. Though it all, i never once cried, until about eight months ago. Now: Unable to stop crying. Today, while hanging out in the kitchen (crying!) I finally said out loud, while focused on my parents, “Your choice was not okay for me. I deserve love and compassion.” Said a few more things, too, peppered with salty language. The tears immediately stopped. I can’t assume a “healing” long-term, but i can assume that small steps towards re-balancing can happen at any time, any place. Be well!

  • Shaz

    With hypnosis, I went back to when I 1st felt the rejection from my Mother. I was 5-6mths old. How do I get over that because it’s still affecting my whole life. I’m 56 now :'(

  • Georgeson Decosta

    I love this girl so… so fucking… much! But… the other day, I told her my feelings for her… and she said she isn’t interested in me… EVERY SINGLE DAY I SEE HEE AT SCHOOL, I try my hardest to keep a smile sometimes even to not tear up in front of her. But the moment I go home, I jump on my bed and all the tears go. I keep crying and crying. I can’t stop thinking of her!!! I don’t want to stop loving hee but I somehow need to. I wish I never met her. This pain just doesn’t go away. .. I am crying while typing this..m Her name is Alexis…. Alexis… I love you….☺