Often we find ourselves feeling rejected by others, whether real or perceived, and contend with an inner voice which emphasizes a need for complete acceptance by others. We all wish to be admired, agreed with, accepted. It can be difficult when our thoughts or opinions are rejected or disagreed with; when our friends or partners seem to withdraw from us. Our perception of self can be delicate, easily unbalanced and bruised. We refer to this as self-esteem. When people like us, we feel better. When positive regard is assured, we are secure, relaxed and confident. For instance, a parent can re-assure us, make us feel better, be on “our side”.
What happens when we sense or experience rejection in our personal interactions? Research tells us that in our dealings with others, “maximal exclusion doesn’t feel much worse than simple ambivalence” (Buckley et al., 2004) meaning that those who don’t like us will create the same reaction as those who are not bothered by whether or not we attend a function with them. We appear to feel just as bad with extreme rejection as with mild rejection. This results in a negative internal experience which causes a variety of unhappy emotions such as anger, hurt and unhappiness.
So how does this play out? Therapists frequently recognize this schism appearing in relationships. In couples, one client often feels as if their spouse or partner does not “hear” them which is interpreted as a rejection. Adolescents experience peer rejection during social development; friends suddenly exclude them from the group or withdraw from the closeness of the relationship or create new relationships and abandon the adolescent. In both scenarios a feeling of rejection occurs.
The level of hurt experienced by the individual can vary due to the influence of attachment. A partner who has a high level of anxiety about abandonment will experience greater emotional pain than someone who avoids intimacy. An adolescent is susceptible to low self-esteem and can feel such emotional wounds from rejection that depression is not uncommon, and may be severe enough to create suicidal thoughts.
Learning to recognize our emotional reaction and identify how we internalize or interpret a negative experience can assist in maintaining a healthy self-esteem. Cognitive therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy can teach a client to “tune in” to their innermost thoughts and understand how they interpret those thoughts. This can result in behavior change and improved mood. In couples therapy, learning to focus on problematic behavior and individual vulnerabilities as a source of dysfunction in the relationship can decrease negative interactions and feelings of rejection.
Ann Hogan, LCPC