5 Ways Our Unconscious Reacts to Rejection

However much we would like to avoid them, rejections are a regular part of life. We get ignored by neighbors, out posts don’t get ‘liked’ on Facebook, our sexual advances get rebuffed by our partners, our colleagues go to lunches without us, we get blindsided by divorce, fired unexpectedly from our jobs, and ostracized by our families or communities. Rejection come in all shapes and sizes but the one thing they all have in common is how much they hurt.

Why do rejections hurt so much? The answer is quite surprising.

When scientists did fMRI studies (functional brain scans) they discovered that the same areas of the brain become activated when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain. This is also why almost every culture around the world uses the term hurt feelings to characterize how we react to rejection—our feelings literally hurt.

There is good reason for rejection to mimic physical pain in our brain, or at least, there was good reason. Back in our hunter gatherer days, being ostracized from our tribe was akin to a death sentence, as we were unlikely to survive alone. We therefore developed an early warning system to let us know when we were at risk for getting ousted. People who experienced rejection as more painful were more likely to correct their behavior, stay in their tribe, and live to pass along their genes.

Now that we know what happens in our brains when we get rejected, let’s look at what happens in our minds.

1. Rejection causes surges of anger and aggression that we take out on those around us.

Getting dumped by someone we’re dating would make anyone angry. But the anger rejection causes is not just a momentary reaction. Numerous studies have demonstrated that even mild rejections make people subsequently redirect their anger and aggression toward ‘innocent’ bystanders such as our friends and family members. Because this can occur hours later, we might not be aware that having our poetry submission turned down that morning contributed to our barking at our partner when we got home that night.

The more significant the rejection, the more anger and aggression it is likely to generate. Indeed, 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. Rejection is also the trigger for many incidents of violence against women. Of course, most people are not violent. But being irritable, having an edge to our tone, and losing our cool when we should not are all examples of ways in which we might be reacting to small rejections we’ve suffered in the recent past.

Seeking emotional support from someone who cares about us and hearing a kind word can help soothe our anger, especially if we do so immediately following the rejection.

2. Rejection damages our ‘need to belong’.

Another legacy of our tribal days is that we have a basic need to feel as though we have a place within our group—that we belong to a tribe. This need becomes destabilized when we get rejected, which adds to our discomfort and emotional pain.

One way to address this often unconscious need is to reconnect with our core group. Making plans to visit with or talk with a family member or someone from our ‘inner circle’ can help alleviate this internal tension and help us feel more connected and less alone in the immediate aftermath of a hurtful rejection.

3. Rejections make us join ‘fight club’ and beat ourselves up.

One of the most common yet unfortunate things we do after a rejection, especially a romantic one, is to list all our faults and inadequacies and kick our self-esteem when it’s already down. The reality is that most romantic rejections are a reflection of insufficient fit or match. The incompatibility might be in lifestyle, goals, interests, or appearance—one person prefers blonds and we’re a brunette, or another likes guys with scruff and we tend to be clean shaven—but that’s all it is, an insufficient fit.

Seeking fault in ourselves only deepens the emotional pain we feel and makes it harder for us to recover. Therefore, to avoid harming your already battered self-esteem, go with the interpretation that is most likely and least damaging—that you weren’t the right match for the person. If they give you the ‘It’s not you, it’s me” speech—believe them!

4. Rejection temporarily damages our ability to think clearly.

Just as it’s difficult to focus and concentrate when we have a terrible tooth ache, the emotional pain we feel after a rejection makes it difficult for us to think clearly. Studies found that merely thinking about being rejected or being alone was enough for people to score substantially lower on IQ tests, tests of decision making and tests of short term memory.

Therefore, when we’re in the immediate aftermath of a rejection, we should take time to address our emotional pain before we jump back into work or studying—when it’s possible to do so. One way to ease emotional pain is to reaffirm our self-worth by reminding ourselves of what we have to offer in the relevant sphere—as romantic partners, employees, or friends.

For example, if we were rejected by a dating partner, we should make a list of the valuable and meaningful qualities we believe we possess such as, loyalty, caring, supportiveness, emotional availability, having good listening skills, and others. We should then write a couple of paragraphs about why the quality is important in relationships and how we would manifest it in future situations.

Using such self-affirmation exercises has been shown to reduce emotional pain, boost self-esteem, and restore cognitive functioning after a rejection. Make sure to write things out, as writing helps us ‘absorb’ the message far more effectively than just thinking it through.

5. Rejection causes us to over generalize.

When we get rejected we tend to focus so much attention on our immediate hurt and what led to it that we are likely to lose perspective and overgeneralize the incident. Instead of lamenting a specific breakup we tell ourselves, I’ll always be alone!” Instead of feeling bad about getting rejected by a potential employer we say things like, “I’ll never find another job!”

We all tend to overgeneralize when we get rejected and we typically convince ourselves that our exaggerated fears and despair are warranted. However the truth is one breakup has nothing to do with another. The fact that you didn’t click with one person does not mean you won’t click with the next one, as everyone is different. The same goes for employers, friends, and any other rejection scenario.

In order to avoid deepening your emotional pain and damaging to your self-esteem even further, watch your language. Make sure to state things accurately and to not overgeneralize. Describe specific incidents and avoid phrasing things as themes and patterns. For example, don’t call your friends and say, “I got dumped again. Why do these things keep happening to me?” Instead, say, “He/she broke it off.” Or “It didn’t work out.”

Recognizing the five unconscious ways we react to rejection and taking steps to address them will minimize the emotional pain and anger you feel, help your self-esteem recover, and restore your clarity of thinking. Remember that psychological injuries are similar to physical ones—we can and should take steps to treat them. Doing so will make them heal faster and prevent them from becoming ‘infected’ and causing further damage down the road.

Guy Winch Ph.D. is a psychologist, speaker, and author. Check out his new book Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013) or learn more at