It could be that you’re spinning out over a text left unread. Maybe you were sent a form rejection letter from a potential employer after three rounds of interviews. Maybe your college best friend is dodging your calls. Whatever the case may be, rejection hurts, emotionally and, it turns out, physically. Here are 10 lesser-known facts that describe the effects rejection has on our emotions, thinking, and behavior.
Let’s begin by examining why rejection hurts as much as it does:
1. Rejection piggybacks on physical pain pathways in the brain. fMRI studies show that the same areas of the brain become activated when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain. This is why rejection hurts so much (neurologically speaking). In fact, our brains respond so similarly to rejection and physical pain.
2. Tylenol reduces the emotional pain rejection elicits. In a study testing the hypothesis that rejection mimics physical pain, researchers gave some participants acetaminophen (Tylenol) before asking them to recall a painful rejection experience. The people who received Tylenol reported significantly less emotional pain than subjects who took a sugar pill.
3. Rejection served a vital function in our evolutionary past. In our hunter/gatherer past, being ostracized from our tribes was akin to a death sentence, as we were unlikely to survive for long alone. Evolutionary psychologists assume the brain developed an early warning system to alert us when we were at risk for ostracism. Because it was so important to get our attention, those who experienced rejection as more painful (i.e., because rejection mimicked physical pain in their brain) gained an evolutionary advantage—they were more likely to correct their behavior and consequently, more likely to remain in the tribe.
4. We can relive and re-experience social pain more vividly than we can physical pain. Try recalling an experience in which you felt significant physical pain and your brain pathways will respond, “Meh.” In other words, that memory alone won’t elicit physical pain. But try reliving a painful rejection (actually, don’t—just take my word for it), and you will be flooded with many of the same feelings you had at the time (and your brain will respond much as it did at the time, too). Our brain prioritizes rejection experiences because we are social animals who live in “tribes.” This leads to an aspect of rejection we often overlook.
5. Rejection destabilizes our “Need to Belong.” We all have a fundamental need to belong to a group. When we get rejected, this need becomes destabilized and the disconnection we feel adds to our emotional pain. Reconnecting with those who love us, or reaching out to members of groups to which we feel strong affinity and who value and accept us, has been found to soothe emotional pain after a rejection. Feeling alone and disconnected after a rejection, however, has an often overlooked impact on our behavior.
6. Rejection creates surges of anger and aggression. In 2001, the Surgeon General of the U.S. issued a report stating that rejection was a greater risk for adolescent violence than drugs, poverty, or gang membership. Countless studies have demonstrated that even mild rejections lead people to take out their aggression on innocent bystanders. School shootings, violence against women, and fired workers going “postal” are other examples of the strong link between rejection and aggression. However, much of that aggression elicited by rejection is also turned inward.
7. Rejections send us on a mission to seek and destroy our self-esteem. We often respond to romantic rejections by finding fault in ourselves, bemoaning all our inadequacies, kicking ourselves when we’re already down, and smacking our self-esteem into a pulp. Most romantic rejections are a matter of poor fit and a lack of chemistry, incompatible lifestyles, wanting different things at different times, or other such issues of mutual dynamics. Blaming ourselves and attacking our self-worth only deepens the emotional pain we feel and makes it harder for us to recover emotionally.
8. Rejection temporarily lowers our IQ. Being asked to recall a recent rejection experience and relive the experience was enough to cause people to score significantly lower on subsequent IQ tests, tests of short-term memory, and tests of decision making. Indeed, when we are reeling from a painful rejection, thinking clearly is just not that easy.
9. Rejection does not respond to reason. Participants were put through an experiment in which they were rejected by strangers. The experiment was rigged—the “strangers” were confederates of the researchers. Surprisingly, though, even being told that the “strangers” who had “rejected” them did not actually reject them did little to ease the emotional pain participants felt. Even being told that the strangers belonged to a group they despised such as the KKK did little to soothe people’s hurt feelings.
10. There are ways to treat the psychological wounds rejection inflicts. It is possible to treat the emotional pain rejection elicits and to prevent the psychological, emotional, cognitive, and relationship fallouts that occur in its aftermath. To do so effectively we must address each of our psychological wounds (i.e., soothe our emotional pain, reduce our anger and aggression, protect our self-esteem, and stabilize our need to belong).