In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, ‘social belonging’ is placed right after physiological needs – such as water and air, and safety needs – like protection from the elements. Most of us probably experience this to be true; that the need to be loved and wanted is high on our list of needs.
When we feel rejected – whether it’s in love, from our family or friends, or in work or creative pursuits – this rejection can feel incredibly painful. Rejection can send us into depression or anxiety, and can make us question our value as a person.
Rejection is Bound to Hurt
Modern neuroscience backs up Maslow’s psychological theory of our strong need for social belonging. Studies have shown that social pain activates the same regions of the brain as physical pain does. A team of researchers, led by Dr. David T. Hsu, at the University of Michigan Medical School, found that our brains release the same chemicals to dampen pain signals when we experience social rejection as when we experience physical pain. So it makes sense that we would want to avoid rejection, just as we would want to avoid physical injury.
In the same way that we will avoid putting our hand in the fire once we’ve learn how much it hurts, some of us will avoid starting new relationships, chasing career goals, or trying new things; we’ve felt the sting of rejection before, so we don’t want to put ourselves through that again. It seems that we are hard-wired to find rejection painful. But does that mean we are helpless when faced with it? Although mindfulness can’t stop us feeling the pain of rejection completely, it can help to take the edge off.
Remember to Breathe
When we feel pain, whether it’s emotional or physical, we tend to tense up. Even our breathing tenses up; it might become shallow and irregular. We’re not accustomed to relaxing into pain and allowing it to be. It hurts, and so we want to fight against it! Yet this only makes our experience even more painful.
The simplest and most powerful thing that we can do when we’re in emotional turmoil is to remember to breathe. Taking deep, measured breaths can help take us out of our mental chatter (which is probably moving at the speed of a runaway train after a rejection) and back into our bodies. Each breath is like an anchor to the present moment. And if we get caught up in our minds again? We simply notice this, and use the next breath as another anchor.
Once we’re more calm and grounded, we can look at some of the thoughts and beliefs we have about rejection, and how they might be adding to our suffering.
Breaking Free of Rumination and Self-Criticism
If we’ve been rejected, we may end up ruminating on what we could have done differently; how we could have done more to make people want us. Thoughts like “What’s wrong with me?” might be echoing around in our minds. If we’re not mindful, we may start coming up with harsh answers to these questions. Before we know it, we’re caught in a downward spiral of self-blame and self-criticism.
Yet by noticing our beliefs about what rejection means to us, and reflecting on the reality of the rejection, we can take a step back and view it with a little more objectivity. For example, if we get turned down for a job we really wanted, rather than believing in the emotion-packed thought of “I didn’t get the job because I’m useless”, we can re-direct our attention to what’s actually real, which is that we either didn’t have the right kind of skills for the job at this time, or that we did have all of the necessary skills, but for some reason or another, a different candidate stood out and was chosen. The decision to choose another person over us probably has less to do with us than we may believe, and is 100% nothing to do with our overall value as a human being.
Learning from Rejection
Viewing rejection with more objectivity will not only take some of the emotional sting out of it, but it can also help us use that rejection in a more productive and positive way. Taking it less personally gives us the opportunity to take lessons from it. So in the example of being turned down for a job, rather than sinking into depression about it and giving up on our hopes and dreams, we can take note of what we need to improve on for the next time.
Of course, being rejected in love or from family is different, and is harder to turn into a positive. Yet even in our most heart-wrenching rejections there is space for growth, as long as we treat ourselves with compassion and patience, and keep the self-blaming in check. And if we’re unable to feel kindness towards ourselves, we can at least keep breathing consciously until we’re able to find some self-compassion for our predicament.
Simply acknowledging that rejection will hurt, whatever we do, can in itself be a relief. Much of our suffering comes from wishing that our experience was different to how it currently is. But mindfulness helps us to see and accept this moment, however we happen to find it, even if our moment is filled with feelings of unworthiness. The trick is to remember that unworthiness is a transitory feeling, never an absolute truth about us.
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