By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple ideas that you can use to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing every day, based on quality research.
This is Episode 81 and this week I’m talking about rejection. In this episode I’ll cover what rejection is, why understanding the impact of rejection matters for good mental health, and how to deal with rejection. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the full transcript.
Watch Episode 19 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV — in this latest episode I’m looking at tips to help you take a break if you’re feeling unwell physically or mentally.
Watch it below or visit the channel on YouTube:
This podcast episode was originally released on 30 May, 2021.
Hello and welcome to Episode 81, and thanks so much for joining me!
This week is all about rejection. A big part of life for most of us is the desire to feel like we belong, and when we experience rejection by other people it can do a lot of damage to our confidence and sense of self-worth (which I covered in its own episode back in Episode 78). So this week I’m going to be looking at how to deal with rejection in order to look after your mental health and wellbeing.
A couple of quick updates before we get into the main part of this episode. I have a new episode of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV out now on my YouTube channel (find the channel here: Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV). This week I’m looking at practical tips to help you take a break if you’re feeling unwell physically or mentally. You can find it on YouTube (and the link is in the description for this episode on whatever podcast service you’re currently using) or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for that and past episodes of the show. And if you like what you see, subscribe to the channel for more weekly content about better mental health.
You’ll notice I only talked about Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV and that’s the second update — after much consideration this week I’ve decided to stop making videos for my second YouTube account, No-Nonsense Advice for Living, for the time being. I’ve been a bit unwell this week with the flu and it’s made me realise that I’m spreading myself too thin by trying to do multiple things, so I’d rather give my 100% focus and energy to Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV instead of just 50%. Let this be a reminder to everyone that it’s OK to make decisions that are right for you without feeling you need to worry about what other people might think, and also please remember that there are only so many hours in the day so, sometimes, something has to give in order to give you some space to breathe. I may come back to that second channel sometime in the future, but for now it’s on hold indefinitely.
And the final thing I want to say before I start this week is a huge ‘thank you!’ to all of you because recently this podcast has hit an amazing milestone: I now have listeners in 135 countries worldwide! I’ve been utterly gobsmacked by that statistic and it feels really rewarding, especially when you consider that this is an independent show that I write and produce on my own in my home office, so thank you to all of you who choose to join me each week — I absolutely appreciate every single one of you and I’m so glad to have you here!
So, with all of that covered, on with this week’s episode about rejection…
In the year 2000 (which was a lot like 1999, except Prince never wrote a song about it), the magnificent Macy Gray sang about being ghosted by some guy she went out with, in her song “Why Didn’t You Call Me”. I’m pretty sure many of us can relate to the lyric, “we had such a good time, hey! Why didn’t you call me?” and aside from the obvious fact that some people are just children trapped in adult bodies and so therefore would rather ghost someone than take 30 seconds out of their lives to say “thanks but no thanks”, the reality is that rejection can sting.
For anyone who has ever picked up a book on psychology or taken a class on the subject, you might be aware of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which is a theory of human motivation put forward by Abraham Maslow back in the 1940’s. The theory suggests that we all have basic needs — food, water, shelter, security, etc.— and that once those needs are satisfied, we begin to focus more on our need for love and belonging before then moving onto more higher-level needs like feelings of accomplishment and achieving our full potential. Now why am I sharing a bit of psychology theory? Well, this stuff is pretty fundamental in terms of attempting to explain what motivates us to do the things we do as well as trying to understand how negative events — like rejection — can cause damage to our motivation and our sense of self. In other words, rejection absolutely sucks and it can really do a number on our confidence. Shortly I’m going to talk about how you can deal with rejection, but as always let’s take a few minutes to look at the topic further — starting with some definitions…
What is rejection?
Rejection is when another person avoids you or ignores you. It’s related to lots of miserable-sounding words like abandonment, exclusion, shunning and desertion. In other words, it’s where someone decides they don’t want to be around you or talk to you for whatever reason, or where they choose to push you away on the basis of some personal aspect they don’t like or agree with. It could be someone you’ve dated deciding not to see you again, it could be a friend deciding that the friendship has run its course or that they no longer wish to be associated with you for whatever reason, it could be a family member rejecting you because they don’t agree with who you are or they demand that you see things their way and their way only, or it could be an acquaintance or work colleague who excludes you for some reason… or it could be a million and one different scenarios.
Whatever the situation is, here’s what they all have in common: most types of rejection can feel brutal, especially since they go against our instinctive desire to belong, to feel seen and valued and respected as a human being.
Sometimes rejection can follow a situation like a major argument, and sometimes rejection can come out of nowhere. No matter how it comes, the result is usually confusion, hurt, anger, sadness, self-doubt and all those other shitty emotions. In short, rejection can be life-shattering and it can take months and even years to learn how to process your emotions so you can deal with the situation and move forward. Which leads me to the next part of this episode…
Why understanding the impact of rejection matters
And it matters because rejection can be extremely painful, both mentally and physically. Let’s start with the physical. According to the American Psychological Association, or APA, (and I quote):
“As far as your brain is concerned, a broken heart is not so different from a broken arm… [a] University of Michigan [study] scanned the brains of participants whose romantic partners had recently broken up with them. The brain regions associated with physical pain lit up as the participants viewed photographs of their exes… Physically, rejection takes a toll. People who routinely feel excluded have poorer sleep quality, and their immune systems don’t function as well as those of people with strong social connections.”(source: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/rejection)
So there is evidence to suggest what we all pretty much know anyway, which is that rejection really does hurt. Now let’s consider the psychological side of that hurt now, and again I’m going to quote from the same APA article:
“[Rejection] causes a cascade of emotional and cognitive consequences, researchers have found. Social rejection increases anger, anxiety, depression, jealousy and sadness. It reduces performance on difficult intellectual tasks, and can also contribute to aggression and poor impulse control.”(source: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/rejection)
So rejection can have some pretty negative consequences for us, both mentally and physically, but the good news is that most people eventually find a way to process their feelings and move beyond them — as with all things it takes time, effort and perseverance.
Here’s the challenge: we need to understand the impact that rejection is having on us because it’s all too easy to let one rejection define us, which it doesn’t. If your self-esteem and self-confidence takes a hit then you might start questioning other aspects of your life, and that is a recipe for further issues. It’s not uncommon for these situations to lead to substance abuse, depression or other issues, so being able to identify what you’re feeling (and then doing something about it) is absolutely essential.
The thing with the pain of rejection is that we’re feeling it because we’re hard-wired to want to belong (we human beings are, after all, social creatures who have evolved over millions of years by staying together in groups). However there’s a different way to look at the pain of rejection, which is choosing to see it as a sign that something needs to change (regardless of whether you want it to or not). And since all you have direct control over is yourself and what you do, say and feel (and, more specifically, what you choose to do with your feelings), then it means that you are in control of what happens next. Nobody can break you without your permission, and I know that’s a really hard message to hear sometimes (especially if you’re slap-bang in the middle of feeling rejected by someone) but you can either choose to let the situation tear down your self-worth or you can choose to learn from it in order to grow. Either way, the choice is yours when it comes to how you deal with rejection.
So how do you do that in a healthy way? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode.
How to deal with rejection
So rather than a 1, 2, 3 step-by-step approach, the how-to this week is a collection of things you need to factor in to how you deal with your feelings as well as what you do next. So, in no particular order, let’s begin with…
Feel what you need to feel — I think sometimes we can be so focused on wanting to feel good that we forget the purpose of negative emotions: even though they’re horrible and they make us feel like shit, strong feelings of rejection or sadness or whatever happen to us because we care. If someone you really couldn’t care less about rejects you, does it even register as anything more than a minor annoyance? No. It happens when there’s some kind of emotional connection tied into the situation, like an intimate relationship or a family connection. Even at work, it can often be linked to wanting approval from someone or to maintain our reputation. So if you’re feeling rejected then feel what you need to feel, because if you fight it or ignore it then it’s probably just going to come back and bite you in the backside sooner or later regardless. The key here is to recognise that feelings and thoughts are not facts; usually, they are reflections of our emotional state and whether or not our needs are being met. If you’re feeling rejected then clearly your need to be accepted isn’t being met, so acknowledge that and accept it. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to your emotions; they are what they are. How you feel is how you feel. You can do things to make yourself feel better and more positive (which I’ll come back to in a few minutes) but if unpleasant feelings creep back in from time to time well then so be it. Those feelings are there for a reason; as I discussed back in Episode 26 about grief, when we suffer a loss of some kind we often have all these feelings that we have nowhere to put and that can cause us pain. The only way through it is through it, and that requires you to focus on taking things one day at a time. There are two main things here: first, your feelings will not last forever and that’s good news, but it also can be a pain because you know that you’re going to be stuck with them for a little while (potentially). But that’s the second thing to remember, which is to not allow yourself to wallow in it — which I know is easier said than done when you feel miserable, so let’s talk through a few mindset things to be aware of as you’re dealing with all these feelings. First…
Step back and remind yourself it’s not personal — which I know is quite possibly the most annoying piece of advice ever because often when we’re rejected it feels really, really personal! But here’s the deal: when someone rejects you, it’s about them and their choices. Unless you went out of your way to do harm to that person (in which case you need to do some work on yourself because ‘do no harm’ is the foundation of good mental health, since what you put out into the world creates the world around you… so you get what you give!), so other than you causing harm it’s really not about you. Maybe the person is fearful about a relationship moving too fast and they’re not ready for that, maybe a family member is set in their ways and not willing to accept others as they are, maybe a colleague pretended to be friendly with you so they could manipulate a situation or gain an advantage. Whatever the reason, it’s about the choices that somebody else made — you’re just collateral damage. Which leads me to my next point…
Accept that what other people do or don’t do is about them — people do some really shitty stuff to other people! The worst is rejecting someone or pushing them away without ever explaining why, and no matter how hard you might hope for an answer you are very unlikely to ever receive one. You can either accept that or create misery for yourself by clinging on to futile hope. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a big fan of hope because it makes life worth living (and I covered hope in its own episode back in Episode 17), but there’s hope and then there’s self-torment. Don’t torment yourself or make your recovery from rejection conditional on what someone else does or doesn’t do. Unfortunately some people dislike confrontation so much that they would rather avoid you for the rest of their life than have an adult conversation with you for five minutes. And, unfortunately, some people have not really matured beyond high school. So just bear that in mind; not everyone has actually matured, unfortunately!
Remind yourself that you cannot make another person do or say anything — which, I know, is another annoying piece of advice but it does not change the fact that it’s true! This becomes particularly difficult when it’s someone we’re romantically attached to or it’s a close family member or long-term friend. It was the great philosopher, Cher, who sang, “No matter how hard I try, you keep pushing me aside and I can’t break through — there’s no talking to you…” Now, if Cher can’t change someone’s mind then none of us can, considering that she invented the ability to turn back time. In all seriousness though, what are you going to do, badger the person until they finally see the light? Good luck with that. People do what they do and you cannot make them do anything. I talked about control back in Episode 48 and you might find that episode helpful if you’re struggling with this in a current situation, as well as Episode 32 about letting go and Episode 36 about acceptance. And speaking of acceptance, my next point is…
Accept things as they are rather than wishing they were different — again, some horrible advice here in the respect that it’s actually solid advice but it’s horrible because facing reality feels like shit when you’re a bit brokenhearted over being rejected. You really only have two choices: you can either focus on wishes or you can focus on reality — only one will bring you peace of mind in the long term, and it is not making wishes.
Accept you may never know for sure why you were rejected — this one doesn’t apply to everyone (because some people will happily tell you to your face why they’re rejecting you), but often we can find ourselves rejected with no warning or with only a surface-level explanation. Closure is not a given. You may never find closure and as frustrating as that is, you need to accept that fact and, instead, you may just have to learn to live with uncertainty (a topic I covered back in Episode 25, although I will say that was recorded at the beginning of the pandemic so you’ll find it definitely looms large in the content covered in that episode… but there is still some really good, solid advice about dealing with uncertainty in that one).
Maintain your dignity — which is a more positive way of saying do not beg. This is especially the case when it comes to romantic rejection; I might be in a long term relationship now, but I remember all-too-well the sting of rejection and the instinct to want to do whatever you have to do to fix the situation. Don’t. Your dignity and self-worth is more important than getting someone back who has rejected you. It will hurt, but you need to let the relationship go. Mourn its loss by all means and, like I said before, feel what you need to feel, but do so with dignity. As I mentioned earlier, you may find Episode 26 about grief to be helpful here.
Process your feelings and work through them — it might seem funny that it’s taken me this many points to get to one about processing it, but there’s a good reason for that: if you just jump into solution mode then you’re ignoring the most important part, which is to feel what you need to feel before you try to push forward. Take some time to reflect objectively on the situation and consider what it is that you’re really feeling; chances are that it’s about much more than just the specific situation where you’re feeling rejected and more about deeper issues that you’ve been carrying around for some time. You can work through that in many different ways, including working with a counsellor or therapist (which is always high on my list of recommended steps to take), and you may also find Episode 7 about baggage to be helpful, because it goes into some detail about how to dig deep and explore the ‘why’ behind how you’re feeling.
And then, finally, there are a few simple things you can do which can have a positive effect in both the short-term and the long-term. Spending time with people who you have healthy and positive connections with can lift your mood (because, as noted in the APA article I mentioned earlier, positive social interactions can release opioids which give you a natural mood boost), as can exercise. You may also find journalling helpful as it’s a means of getting your emotions out… I also find it helpful to write strong negative emotions down and then burn the paper to symbolically release the negativity, but that’s a personal choice and you find what works for you in terms of healthy and constructive activities. Also, trade unhealthy situations for healthy ones by seeking out healthy relationships or leaning into the ones you already have (let me just say here that does not mean that if you’re dealing with romantic rejection you should just rush out and find someone new… quite the opposite: take time for yourself and spend it with supportive people so you’re in a better place emotionally before you pursue anything romantic, because then you’re better equipped to make healthy and thoughtful decisions about potential partners in the future).
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to rejection and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: When we find ourselves rejected by another person, it’s painful. Rejection is a surefire way to activate all of our insecurities and doubts and deepest fears, and even if we know logically that what someone else does is not about us… it still hurts. Instead of fighting that, choose to accept that and feel what you need to feel, but do so in a constructive way. You cannot change what has or hasn’t happened, and all you can control is what you do or say next… so, make healthy choices and keep moving forward one step at a time. With time, effort and perseverance, you will learn to adapt and you will discover lessons that you can take from this current situation to help you be the best version of yourself possible.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an unknown author, and it is:
“Sometimes rejection in life is redirection.”Unknown
Next week I’ll be talking about expectations. You can have all the expectations you like in life but you’re not in control of external events, so we can often find ourselves frustrated, angry or disappointed because things don’t go the way we might have hoped. So how do you deal with that and how do you manage your own expectations in a healthy way? So next week I’ll be discussing what expectations are, why understanding the difference between healthy and unhealthy expectations matters for your mental health, and how to manage your expectations. Spoiler alert: I’ll be talking about realistic optimism as part of this one!
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday 6th of June. And join me for Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube, with new episodes released every Wednesday.
Head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for links and all past episodes and, while you’re there, join the mailing list for my weekly newsletter. You can find the website links in the description of this episode on whatever podcast service you’re using.
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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