How to Deal With Rejection in a Healthy Way, According to Psychologists

How to Cope With Rejection

I am afraid that rejection and failure and disappointment are a regular feature of ordinary life, no matter how successful someone may be. Any set of circumstances in which one reaches out for something: acceptance, approval, the good opinion of friends and family—the good opinion of anyone at all– there is the risk and, indeed, the certainty of rejection from time to time.

Rejection is so common, we do not usually stop to consider it as such. Only if someone is especially sensitive does a person think in terms of rejection if, for example, a friend chooses not to accompany him/her to the movies, or puts off texting back for a few hours, or chooses to walk to school alone, or forgets to extend an invitation to dinner until the last minute. Only someone especially sensitive takes offense if someone fails to laugh at an anecdote he/she has told. But there are such sensitive people. I spend considerable time in the therapeutic setting trying to convince patients not to be offended when no offense is intended. It is as if these individuals have their antennae out all the time waiting to react to the first sign of rejection. They are sometimes described as “high maintenance” friends because they are so difficult to reassure. But in certain circumstances a possible rejection is usually an active concern for everyone:

I remember a shy man who approached a woman in a bar and said something that happened to be true, but which seemed fake to the woman. He told her she reminded him of a movie star. The woman sneered at him and turned away. There was very little I could say to console him; and it took a year for him to get up enough courage to return again to a singles bar.

Perhaps everyone is alive to the possibility of rejection when approaching someone of the opposite sex. These are chancy encounters, likely to fail more often than they succeed; but they are, nevertheless, important. It is easy to overreact.

There was a student I knew casually at college who was always smiling. He was a bright and friendly guy who seemed to feel comfortable with everyone at Princeton, in a way that I did not, coming from a parochial background in New York City. I remember him tossing a football around and, on another occasion, sitting comfortably in a small class, speaking sensibly about some arcane subject or other. If I had been asked to describe him in one word, I would have said poised. I lost track of him during the years we went to different medical schools, but then we interned together. He was married by that time to an attractive and very bright woman. We socialized briefly, only to lose track of each other once again–and then, years later, once again come to know each other by working together briefly in a professional setting. We were both psychiatrists. He was running a large institution in New York City.

One day, at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, I said hello to him and noticed that he had grown a mustache. “What’s with the mustache?” I asked him. “It’s my separation mustache.” He explained to me when I looked at him quizzically that he and his wife had separated. I expressed the usual regrets. Then, after a moment, he grabbed my arm and pulled me into a corner of the room. “Fred,” he said in a whisper. “Do you remember when you were sixteen or seventeen and you were afraid to ask a girl out because she might refuse?” “Sure.” “It doesn’t go away!” he said, grabbing both of my lapels and shaking me. If this guy, who was good-looking, accomplished and poised was nervous about approaching women, then everybody was, I thought. But that turned out to be wrong.

About ten years ago a middle-aged man came to see me about renewing a prescription for benzodiapenes that he had been taking for years. I always discourage patients from taking these drugs every day as many do, not infrequently for years at a time; but except for undermining that person’s self-confidence, they do not represent a danger in small doses. So, I agreed to write the prescription and saw him at monthly intervals. I never quite understood why he got started on these drugs in the first place.

Although singularly unattractive—balding and about 40 pounds overweight and usually unkempt, he was remarkably undisturbed by the circumstances of his life. He seemed to be in a good mood all the time, although he got into trouble with the police every once in a while by pointing out to them various derelictions in their duty. His relationships with women were interesting, and instructive. Without bothering to spruce himself up, without bothering to comb his hair or in other ways concern himself with his appearance, he would approach any woman. He knew where “the best ones” hung out in Las Vegas, and he would go there and offer himself to one or another, and sometimes two at a time. I would not recommend this approach to anyone; but on occasion—more than a few occasions—it worked! “So, if they say no, so what?” he told me. “So the next one will say yes. I try to line them up so I don’t have to wait long for the next one to come along.” If he suffered any concerns about being rejected, it was never apparent to me.

Avoid rumination and instead affirm your self-worth.

After a rejection, we tend to beat ourselves up over the things that might have led us to be rejected — and might even end up dwelling on these negative emotions, a process called rumination. This habit, however, inevitably causes us to feel worse. “The first thing a lot of people do when they get rejected is to be unkind to themselves, and they start coming up with all kinds of ideas about what’s wrong with them,” Gottlieb notes.

If you have negative thoughts about yourself, Bahar recommends first observing — then challenging — those thoughts. If you have thoughts like “I’m unlovable” after being rejected by a love interest, for example, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s simply a thought. “Tell your mind that you can feel unlovable and still be lovable at the same time,” says Bahar. “It’s just a feeling, it’s just a thought — it’s not a fact.”

To affirm your self-worth, write down some things that are positive about yourself — for instance, come up with a list of some of your strengths and values, and start your morning off each day by reading them out loud to yourself.

“This doesn’t mean just talking yourself up, but thinking about what makes you, you,” explains Becker-Phelps. By helping you hold on to the things that are a part of you, these self-affirmations will help you feel stronger just by recognizing who you really are and how you identify yourself, especially in the face of self-doubt that often comes with rejection.

how to deal with rejection

The most important thing to remember is that life doesn’t boil down to this one rejection — there are always plenty of people who are on your side. To remind yourself that you haven’t been completely shunned by the world, turn to your friends and family; make sure that you’re still feeling truly connected with other people around you. If you’re trying to figure out how to deal with rejection from a crush, for instance, you might want to turn to your friends for moral support and some quality BFF time.

“Connection is so important because it reminds us of all the things that we can’t remember in that moment: It reminds us of how lovable we are … that people care about us … that we’re worthy,” Gottlieb says.

Even if you can’t actually spend time with a loved one at the moment, try taking some time to just think of someone who’s important in your life. In fact, you can even find a picture of them — preferably a photo of you two enjoying your time together — and set some time to look at it each day while reminding yourself that this person supports you.

“Sometimes by repeating that and seeing the pictures, you start to take it inside and then you kind of carry it in your heart more strongly,” Becker-Phelps shares. “So when a difficult situation comes up and you feel rejected, you can go back to the image of that person — even just in your mind — and feel comforted by them because you’ve been practicing feeling comforted.”

Sometimes, it can boil down to just everyday things in your home or work routine that might influence how you respond to rejection. Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep, or haven’t been eating well lately. These things can definitely make it harder to handle rejection in a healthy way — so one thing you can do to cope better is to work on leading a healthy lifestyle.

This means focusing in on eating well, exercising frequently, and staying hydrated, all of which can help you stay strong in the face of rejection. “The healthier your lifestyle, the more resources you have then to deal with difficult situations,” notes Becker-Phelps.

Cultivate a Health Response

Handling rejection means seeing it in its proper context. If your boss is critiquing your work, instead of experiencing it as a rejection of you as a person, you can appreciate that there’s an opportunity for growth, or conclude that this particular work relationship may be a bad fit.

Roth suggests compiling a personal inventory. “Ask yourself, What are the areas where I’m sensitive or triggered?, and use those as a signal to do some deeper work.” Maybe it’s around body image, work, or dating. “Ask, Where did I pick up the story that I’m not good enough in this area? Then you can try to uproot it.”

This is often not an easy exercise, she admits, nor is it an intellectual one. You may wish to work with a therapist who uses tools such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy, or sensori­motor therapy to help you ­uncover the roots of an old story and find a new one.

There’s no avoiding the fact that rejection is disappointing. But when you’ve established supportive and healthy stories about your own self-worth and know you can rely on others for emotional support, then rejection can just be that: disappointing. Not devastating, and not an indictment of your identity or your capabilities.

With practice, rejection can even help build muscles of resilience, determination, and compassion. “Athletes train by encountering obstacles and getting over them,” notes Conte. “Each obstacle or rejection can fuel your fire and define the way you pursue your passions and dreams.”

Six years after losing her job so painfully, Guentzel agrees. “That experience taught me the power of being kind and thoughtful with others,” she says. “And it was a good reminder that I’m the one in charge of my own path, success, and happiness.”

What to Do When You’ve Been Ghosted

Last spring, I sent a book pitch I’d been working on to a literary agent in New York City. He responded promptly and, I thought, enthusiastically, issuing an invitation to talk further. I was over the moon. But my next email to him went unanswered. And the next.

Without knowing, I didn’t have any closure, just a lot of stories and self-doubt. I didn’t know whether I should try contacting him again, or if I had hit a dead end. I had been ghosted.

Ghosting is the modern phenomenon of simply disappearing from someone’s life without acknowledgment or explanation. It may now happen with greater frequency given the ease of digital disappearance — not to mention how often our messages to each other get buried beneath hundreds of others.

You can be ghosted by a friend, family, a romantic partner, or a professional contact. One minute there’s a line of communication and connection, then suddenly the line goes dead. You’re left on your own to figure out what happened and what it means.

“Ghosting happens because, as a culture, we’re not great at conflict,” says holistic psychologist Anna Roth, PhD. “In some ways people feel they’re being kind by not saying, ‘I’m not interested,’ but our brains like completion.”

Denying people closure can make it more difficult for them to move on. There’s peace in truth, even when that truth is difficult; it allows us to complete the circle. Knowing this can encourage us to avoid ghosting others.

If there’s a ghosting situation you feel particularly anxious about, try to see that as useful information. “That tells you this is something you really want. Use it as feedback about your desires, not about your worth.”

Visualize a line drawn crosswise between you and what you want, whether it’s a job, a relationship, or a literary agent. “Go to the line and say, ‘Do you want to meet me?’, but don’t hold yourself hostage to others’ response or lack thereof,” she advises. “You can complete the circle yourself by saying, ‘I did everything I could, now I’ll release it and we’ll see where it goes.’