MRI studies have shown that our brain processes rejection along the very same neural pathways that process pain. Whether you have been turned down for a promotion, have lost out on a sale or are facing redundancy, neurologically speaking, it actually hurts.
It seems like rejection is a simple feeling that we can “choose” to move on from, but for any leader trying to guide their team through a traumatic period, or for individuals who still feel that sensation of drowning long after the event, the wounds can fester for a long time.
As with any ailment, it is important to identify and address the pain. The complexity of rejection is one of humanity’s great tests, so it can hardly be adequately covered in this blog, but we would like to highlight three aspects of rejection that might make you think differently about the phenomenon:
Rejection helps us to stay in our tribe and find our path.
In our prehistoric past, being ostracised from the group meant certain death. Evolutionary psychologists found that the brain developed an early warning system to guard against this. This may be one reason why rejection is neurologically processed as pain. If we cut ourselves too many times, we bleed to death. If we are rejected too many times by the tribe, a lonely demise is guaranteed.
However, herein lies the positive note. While the circumstances around rejection may vary, we should view it as a learning mechanic for keeping us on “our” profitable path. It certainly worked for our distant ancestors (or we wouldn’t be here).
The memory of rejection can be destructive or constructive.
We remember the last time that we were stung by a wasp, but it is rare that we can recreate the sensation of physical pain. Contrast that with thinking back on a previous rejection…. the memories come flooding back, somehow more intense as time goes on. Even though the event is now distant, we still feel that lonely disconnection and it prompts us to seek out a friend or loved one, reminding us again about the importance of our tribe.
However, if we wallow in the memories, it is all too easy to fall into a spiral of anger and low self-esteem. We amplify our inadequacies and allow our future to be dictated by our past failings. This is the point where a loved one might advise us to “find a positive” in another area of life to help us break free of the funk. Many of us will find that difficult.
Rejection hinders our ability to think clearly.
We have all felt that helplessness described above, but it is comforting to realise that scientists have also proven that thinking about rejection actually lowers our IQ temporarily. Tests on short-term memory and decision-making have shown that our ability to reason takes a huge hit when rejection is at the forefront of our thoughts. That may be why “finding a positive” is never an easy option, but when you consider the evolutionary angle, it remains the only option.
We all find our way back from a rejection sooner or later. We learn to soothe our pain, we find new ways of boosting our self-esteem and we are then able to think clearly again. Just as with physical pain, rejection too can be fleeting.
Memories might have an ability to pop up when we least expect them, but when we recognise them as something to keep us in our tribe and on our path, they won’t have a negative impact for long.
Rejection will always be part of our journey.