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Why Rejection Actually Strengthens Your Mental Health

No one likes being rejected.

It hurts.

There’s a reason rejection hurts so much, and that’s because just like other forms of pain, rejection is a natural feeling the body and mind produce to let you know that whatever you did went horribly wrong, and you should feel bad about it.

That’s not a very scientific explanation (we’ll get into that in a little bit), but everyone knows that there’s a very specific emotional feeling associated with being rejected.

It’s not just a feeling of disappointment or embarrassment – being rebuffed hurts. But it can also be a source of incredible mental power and courage.

How do I make such a leap, you ask?

Rejection begins with the choice to take a risk, and being brave enough to take that risk despite the fear of rejection is what can help you grow as a person.

But before I get into my argument for why rejection can help you gain true mental strength, it’s important to learn a little more about what rejection is, and just why it’s so painful.

Why Rejection Hurts So Much

The first and biggest piece of information anyone should know about rejection is that the body is actively involved in feeling it.

That’s right – the brain wires pain from rejection and physical pain in much the same way.

It goes so far as to be affected by pain medication – research shows that the over-the-counter analgesic Tylenol has more effect on people’s perception of rejection than a prescribed placebo, meaning you can numb the pain of a rejection with common painkillers.

Rejection also spurs the body to produce natural painkillers, much like an actual wound.

Mental resilience, research shows, is partially dependent on the release of these opioids, to the point where it’s suggested that people with anxiety, depression, panic attacks and other signs of emotional instability are more likely to experience pain through rejection, and less likely to heal when consoled.

Evolutionary psychology – which attempts to explain how behavior is shaped by changing societal, environmental and other external factors over countless generations – gives us a working theory on why rejection hurts so much by suggesting that it’s based on tribal survival.

Back in the day, society was extremely interdependent.

Everyone had a job to do, and people naturally relied on one another to survive.

There were hunters, and gatherers, and builders – and there were some days where one person gathered or hunted more than another, and sharing among the tribe was common.

It’s not that much different from today – only back then, a lone human was much more at the mercy of mother nature than in modern society. Being outcast and exiled wasn’t just a dent in someone’s honor or identity – it was a death sentence. Or at least, that’s what we can gather from available evidence.

Learning from Pain

With exile bringing death, behavior that warranted exile and ostracism over time became as dangerous to your physical well-being as an animal’s jaws enclosing over your throat.

And therein lies the connection – evolutionary psychologists believe that, because certain behavior can lead to exile, rejection is a defense mechanism to keep you from doing things that could get you kicked out of the tribe, allowing you to adapt socially.

While we can’t say for sure whether that’s the reason rejection is linked to the brain that way, fMRI scans and the study on Tylenol confirm that being rejected is physically painful – so much so that reliving a rejection creates a more vivid reimagining of that specific dreadful emotion than trying to relive a physical wound.

That’s because being rejected ultimately means being forcibly disconnected from a certain social link.

This can actively eat away at our need to be part of a group, and that is why rejection statistically can lead towards alcohol abuse, violent behavior, and anger issues – it’s why we usually blame ourselves for being rejected, turning a bad situation (acute emotional pain) into a worse situation (destroyed self-esteem and self-worth).

Furthermore, rejection and heartbreak don’t just destroy your sense of self – they can threaten to reduce your IQ because focusing on the pain like a sort of trauma means you can’t really think straight.

It doesn’t have to be that way. While there’s no denying the power of rejection, and the way it can demoralize us and keep us from taking social risks that could be hugely beneficial – like shooting for a new job, pursuing a hobby more seriously, or making new friends – we have to actively seek these opportunities and take them whenever we can, instead of shying away from them.

That’s because ironically, while rejection can destroy your self-esteem, pursuing things that carry a risk of rejection and being successful in the process can bring a massive boost in mood and confidence.

Getting there requires a change in mindset. It’s hard to look upon a potential rejection and be positive about your chances.

It’s even harder when the odds aren’t in your favor.

But I still think that if you really want something, you’re going to have to accept the risk of failing and getting rejected, no matter how much it’ll hurt.

Don’t Desensitize

Rejection exists for a reason, and that reason is to discourage us from attempting something out of fear of exile. But it’s the very pain that rejection causes that ultimately makes it a powerful tool for growth.

You see, you don’t just grow stronger and more confident as a person by nailing that new job or getting a date – the fact that you chose to embrace the possibility of rejection plays into how you feel. Persistence is the key to happiness in this case.

In that vein, let me explain what I mean by “don’t desensitize”.

I don’t want you to numb yourself to the pain of rejection – I want you to cope with it, overcome it, and even learn to use it as fuel to keep on trying if you can.

Hoping for rejection to hurt less over time is too passive of a solution – by being proactive and persistent, you can leave rejection in the dust in the pursuit for greater, happier things.

While there are obvious limits to that – you shouldn’t keep trying to ask someone out when they flat out refuse several times, that’s where persistence becomes creepy – the adage of “try, try and try again” when it comes to finding success and seeking strength in life really applies here.

It’s not as ironic as you’d think. Sure, rejection is meant to keep us from taking risks – but ultimately, there’s another hardwired drive in the human soul that keeps us from letting rejection take us down.

The determination to see something through by focusing on the next attempt rather than the pain of failure is how we’ve come so far as a species – many have found success comes from taking risks and actively biting the dust, again and again, and again.

There’s little nobility in getting things right the first time around – it’s in continuously trying that we grow stronger.

So yes, rejection is painful because it’s meant to be avoided.

But because of its pain, it also provides the greatest potential for growing your confidence, because you spite it – you fight against it, and you find victory in your persistence and perseverance. In other words – it’s time to see rejection in a more positive light.

Linking Mental Health with Love

To play a little into the theme of romance, there’s something undoubtedly romantic about embracing the risks and dangers of rejection in life.

Love and rejection are much intertwined and represent the epitome of emotional “high risk, high reward” for most.

We’re not talking about dating here – we’re talking about taking that step from where a flirtation becomes an intimate emotional relationship with another human being.

It’s the point where you give up your walls and let them in, promise someone complete honesty and consider that, by giving them access to your heart, they have the opportunity and ability to crush it in an instant.

The fear of rejection isn’t just something that keeps people from asking others out.

It can be a fear of commitment, as well – because you’re scared that you’re going to commit to a vision of your future that reality will just flat out reject, and with shattered expectations and a shattered heart, you’ll be left to pick up the pieces of your own psyche yet again.

There’s a specific, a very specific threshold that people cross where a breakup officially becomes gut-wrenching.

And many people avoid that threshold, especially when faced constantly with deeper emotional issues, or a mental disorder like depression, anxiety, or traumatic stress. We’re adaptive beings, so we know what our limits are and how well we cope in certain situations – avoiding commitment and love can be a natural protective instinct.

Which is why embracing it instead – and taking in stride the fact that a relationship may, or even will break your heart – can lead to strength.

And more importantly, it can lead to a love that can last the rest of your life. It’s simple: if you never let love bloom to begin with out of fear that it’ll wither, you’ll never find out quite what could have been.

Of course, there’s more to love than chance and magic – it’s hard work, and takes empathy, selflessness and a lot of patience and understanding. But these are things that come to be more significant with time – in the beginning, just allowing yourself to dream of the future and say yes to the pain (and the joy!) is a big step.

Rejection is Still “Bad”

Its function as an obstacle on the road to happiness is something we as individuals need to embrace – but not seek out.

There’s a fine line between accepting the meaning and power behind struggle and pain, and masochistically looking for a “high” caused by emotional and physical turmoil.

Take, for example, any athlete or fitness fanatic.

While some people may indeed enjoy seeking out extreme sports and certain workout methods as a way of satisfying their need for an adrenaline rush or a bit of satisfying pain, most people aren’t wired that way. When you get into the groove of exercising, you continue to train and seek ways to improve physically despite the pain, not because of it.

Rejection is much the same way.

By embracing risky situations, you embolden yourself mentally and socially – and in failure, you can grow.

Take risks that offer high rewards.

Send in that manuscript you’ve been hiding since college. Turn your secret hobby into something more. Don’t be shy or afraid of your talents, and don’t just push away the idea of getting a new job just because you’re afraid you won’t cut it in the interview.

Listen – I’m not saying you’re going to win the hearts and minds of everyone or automatically excel at every task you set out to try. You may fail miserably, in fact.

But therein lies the actual lesson – by failing, getting up, and telling yourself to try again, you’ve successfully strengthened your mental health beyond what most people could muster up. You’ve shown courage and bravery. Courage, psychologically, is facing difficulty, pain, and danger despite fear and anxiety. No one’s just born brave, though, contrary to what you might believe.

Being brave is a choice.

It’s always a choice. It’s always a choice easily made, for many – “no” being the common answer. No to that risk, because it might hurt.

That’s true – but it could also be the best thing to ever happen to you.

Knowing all this is easy – applying it is hard.

But everyone must start somewhere – and if you just give yourself the chance to be brave and accept rejection, rather than shy away from it, you’ll find the strength within yourself to overcome any mental and emotional challenge, and even fight against major emotional disadvantages like anxiety and depression.

Calling them “disadvantages” might seem a little mild, but it’s an apt and simple definition in this case.

Mental illnesses sap your ability to cope with events and experiences – especially mass amounts of negativity and pain like rejection – and in turn, your mind shuts down and reacts in unconventional ways when confronted with this kind of stuff.

Everyone hates being rejected. But the punch packs an extra wallop when you’re suffering from depression, trauma, or a mood disorder of some kind.

Despite that – despite the emotional bruising you’re going to get sooner or later – working to achieve something despite the risk of rejection instead of flat-out avoiding it is a big step towards getting better, regardless of what mental illness you’re facing.

It’s simple, really – but most of the hardest things are simple on paper. Committing to a “better you” by taking rejection into account, and accepting how painful that transformation can be is tough, just as tough as it is to stay disciplined and see your way through an exercise regimen for more than just a few weeks.

There’s really no other advice anyone can give you but this: do it.

Just do it.

Don’t think too hard about it – overthinking can kill any plan, and absolutely obliterate motivation.

Set a date, set a timer, set a reminder on a day not too far into the future, and convince yourself that you absolutely have to do that one thing you’re scared of doing, whether it’s asking someone out or shooting for a promotion you secretly know you deserve.