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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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