The Common Misunderstanding That Makes Rejection More Painful Than It Should Be

Handling rejection can be a simple once you realize this one crystal clear distinction.

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The most common response we have when we get rejected is to become intensely self-critical.

We review all our faults and shortcomings and call ourselves names, triggering further feelings of shame, guilt, or embarrassment. This is about as emotionally unhealthy a response as we could have and it can have lasting effects on our mood, self-esteem, and emotional resilience. We need to stop doing it.

Why We Get Wrong About Rejection

According to a 2020 study, the emotional pain we feel when we get rejected registers in our brains very similarly to physical pain. In other words, we are wired to experience rejection, practically any rejection, as a highly painful experience.


Our mind responds to pain by trying to make sense of why it happened so we can avoid similar pains in the future — so we review our faults, inadequacies, and the 'mistakes' we (might have) made.

And yet, more often than not, rejection has more to do with the other person's issues, the fit, the timing, or the circumstance, than anything that's 'wrong' about us.

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Misunderstanding of rejection #1: We believe the intensity of our hurt feelings is directly related to how much we care about the person who rejected us.

Nope. Or rather, not necessarily. Certainly, romantic rejections can really hurt, but studies have repeatedly demonstrated that we're simply wired to experience all rejections as painful — even those in which the person who rejected us is someone we actually despise!

Misunderstanding of rejection #2: We believe the damage to our mood, confidence, and self-esteem is caused by the rejection itself.

Sadly, no. The majority of the harm to our self-esteem, confidence and mood is self-inflicted and occurs after the rejection when we indulge our mind's demand to become intensely self-critical. Doing so only deepens our emotional wound and makes it harder to recover emotionally and psychologically.


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To feel emotionally connected to those around us we need to have 'emotionally connective' interactions — conversations or experiences that reinforce our bond and/or rekindle the closeness we once shared.

Step-by-Step Guide to Recovering from Rejection

The first priority is to soothe our emotional pain by reviving our self-esteem and self-worth because then we'll be in a better frame of mind to examine our own accountability and responsibility without becoming self-critical (e.g., "I shouldn't have started that argument," and not, "I'm such an idiot! Why did I start that argument?").


The best way to revive our self-esteem after a rejection is to use self-affirmations. To do so, follow these steps:

1. Make a list of all the meaningful qualities you know you have that are valued by others.

Examples of such qualities include being emotionally available, supportive, having beautiful eyes, being easy going, etc.

Or, if the rejection was in the employment domain, qualities such as a strong work ethic, being a team player or great project manager, etc.

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2. Write about it.

Choose one of the qualities you listed and write two paragraphs about why the quality is valuable, how it's been appreciated in the past or how it would be appreciated in the future, and why it matters.


For example: "I have a radiant smile — when I flash my smile I almost always get a smile back, even from harried baristas and airport check-in clerks. My ex said my smile lights up the room and penetrates straight to their heart. New people enjoy meeting me because my smile makes them feel seen and welcomed," etc.

3. Do this 1-2 times a day for a week.

Or for however long you're still feeling bad about yourself. The urge to be self-critical after a rejection is very strong, so you'll need to be mindful and determined to resist it.

For example, you might note that you were too eager and that you should have held back more — a useful note to remember for next time — but once you've identified that, repeatedly thinking of how stupid you were for being too eager is damaging and does not add any value.

Self-affirmations are effective in boosting self-esteem, but positive affirmations are not.


Positive affirmations (generic statements such as, "I'm beautiful and deserving of love!") do not boost self-esteem when you're feeling down because your mind won't believe them (after all, you just reviewed all your physical shortcomings) and they can even make you feel even worse.

Self-affirmations, which are crafted by you and are based on your specific strengths, ring true and are, therefore, far more effective.

Come up with explanations for the rejection that are about them, not you.


Make sure they're plausible — the other person wasn't over their ex, they weren't really looking for a relationship, they have commitment issues, they're disrespectful and immature (because they ghosted you), they're not emotionally available, etc.

All of this will help you regain confidence, promoting a better mindset and more hope for whatever comes next.

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Guy Winch is a distinguished psychologist and acclaimed author. His work has been featured in The New York Times and Psychology Today.