Many of my career counseling clients come to me because they’ve been repeatedly rejected by potential employers. Many of my relationship counseling clients come to me because they feel rejected (unloved or unappreciated) in their marriages or partnerships. And a number of my psychotherapy clients see me to overcome the wounds that a series of rejections has inflicted on their self-esteem.
NO ONE likes to be rejected. This is true in both the your professional life and / or in your interpersonal relationships (whether it be with a spouse, date, or friend). So whenever rejection occurs, it’s pretty likely to be disturbing. The disturbance could range from mild annoyance to total devastation (in the event of a cheating partner, for example). But HOW you deal with the unpleasantness of rejection is of great significance to the eventual emotional outcome and, at least to some degree, is amenable to improvement.
For some, virtually any form of rejection is devastating. The rejection is viewed as an indictment of their entire being, and they feel worthless, incompetent, or unalterably unattractive. These people are overly dependent on the perception others have of them to validate their self-worth. The Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz” summarized this proposition when he said: “a heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others”. There is truth to that statement. But a larger truth is that our worth comes from our living our own unique lives to the fullest of our ability, and treating others lovingly and respectfully. Whether or not others approve, accept, or reject us shouldn’t be the primary determinant of our life path.
In childhood, people often absorb the idea that if they’re rejected they’re just plain no good. This can come from being teased or shunned by playmates, or by unintentional or sometimes even intentional comments from parents. The profound sadness of feeling worthless usually traces to one or more early experiences that occurred way before the cognitive abilities were developed enough to make sense of the rejection. As adults, however, those cognitive abilities are developed, and should be put to use.
Perhaps the most important of these cognitive skills to develop is what Martin Seligman (www.authentichappiness.org) , probably the leading figure in the field of Positive Psychology, calls “the optimistic explanatory style”. An optimistic explanatory style takes an event and intentionally interprets it in an optimistic or positive way (or at least in a way that casts minimal reflection on the “rejectee”). For example, if you drive past your neighbor’s house, wave at her, and she fails to acknowledge you, you might conclude that she was momentarily preoccupied and didn’t register your greeting. A pessimistic explanatory style would tend to interpret the neighbor’s lack of response as an indication of antipathy. To take a much more serious example, the discovery of your spouse’s extramarital affair could be viewed at one extreme strictly as a commentary on your worthlessness or lack of intelligence, beauty, or success or, at the other extreme, strictly as a commentary on the weaknesses, failings, or inadequacies of your partner. I think it is self-evident which of these interpretations will ultimately lead to quicker healing.
We now know that some people are in a sense genetically disposed to a pessimistic, depressive way of looking at the world, while others come into the world quite the opposite. Genetics, however, is not destiny. By practicing applying an optimistic explanatory style to the circumstances that feel like setbacks in your life, you can gradually improve your ability to look at events from more a more positive and energizing perspective.
Rejection provides an ideal, if admittedly challenging, arena in which to practice developing a more positive explanatory style. For example, rather than focusing so intently on trying to discover which characteristics or actions of yours led to your rejection, or what you could have done to prevent it, think about rejection in more ‘neutral”, less individually specific terms. Phrases like “If the train didn’t stop at my station it must not be my train” or “You can’t please all of the people all of the time” are truisms that may take a bit of the sting out of being turned down. Coming at rejection from almost the opposite angle, another approach would be to look at the rejection as a learning opportunity. By paying attention to read flags or feedback you may have ignored, you can become better at making smarter choices going forward, and thereby minimize the likelihood of rejection next time you venture forth.