2 Reasons Why Rejection Feels So Agonizing
Being rejected can hurt us more than physical pain. Here's why.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 23, 2024
A 2023 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined how two types of social rejection, "warmth rejection" and "competence rejection" influence an individual's behavior in different ways.
Research shows that we experience emotional pain as a response to facing criticism, betrayal, active disassociation with someone (such as going through a breakup) passive disassociation (such as feeling left out by friends) and being teased or underappreciated.
Researchers suggest that it is the implications of these rejection events, such as a sense of loss or feeling unworthy of appreciation, that cause hurt and influence our behavioral responses thereafter.
Here's how the two types of social rejection impact human behavior, according to the 2023 study.
1. Warmth Rejection
Warmth rejection refers to the experience of being excluded, dismissed or socially rejected based on qualities related to interpersonal warmth, kindness, friendliness or a perceived lack of empathy. A 2020 study found that an individual may be rejected if they are perceived as cold, unfriendly, unsympathetic or emotionally distant. Warmth rejection usually results in feelings of sadness.
Additionally, according to the "need-threat model," when our fundamental psychological needs—including the need for belongingness, self-esteem, control and a meaningful existence—are threatened or unfulfilled due to rejection or exclusion, individuals strive to restore or reinforce these needs, guided by their survival instinct to maintain social groups.
An individual's warmth is intrinsically linked to the welfare and interests of others. Diminished warmth, exemplified by coldness or unfriendliness, directly impacts others negatively and serves as a signal that an individual is not favored by others, which hampers the fulfillment of belongingness.
Researchers discovered that when individuals perceive that they have been rejected due to their levels of warmth, their need to socially belong is threatened. Consequently, individuals begin to focus less on themselves and more on connecting with others to restore their sense of belonging.
In the study, those who experienced warmth-rejection showed more interest in forming new friendships, perceived others as more sociable and exhibited more affiliative behaviors compared to those who felt rejected for other reasons.
2. Competence Rejection
Competence rejection refers to a form of social exclusion or rejection that occurs when an individual perceives or experiences being dismissed, excluded or devalued based on their perceived lack of skills, abilities, intelligence or effectiveness in handling certain tasks or situations. This type of rejection can lead to feelings of inadequacy, diminished self-esteem and often triggers anger.
Researchers found that similar to having one's belongingness needs threatened, perceiving competence rejection threatens one's need for self-efﬁcacy. This refers to a person's belief in their ability to successfully accomplish specific tasks, goals or handle challenges.
Unlike warmth rejection, threats to self-efficacy drive individuals to focus more on themselves than connecting with others. This heightened self-focus stems from the need to maintain a positive social image of one's abilities and tends to enhance self-awareness of perceived shortcomings, prompting individuals to allocate mental resources towards self-improvement.
The researchers explain, "Competent individuals are perceived as having a high social status, which positively predicts their sense of control over social resources and other people. As a result, incompetence means that the person is weaker or lower than others in the social rank, which may thwart their sense of control."
When one experiences competence rejection, it happens against their will and compromises their sense of control over their life experiences, which they then work towards taking back.
Individuals may perceive themselves as being rejected by others based on their perceived warmth and competence, even when the actual reasons remain unclear. Understanding how rejection is perceived can significantly enhance our comprehension of its effects.
Coping with rejection is challenging, yet reflecting on our reactions allows for a more objective evaluation of rejection events. Experiencing rejection doesn't necessarily reflect our worth or abilities. It is important to practice self-acceptance and learn from these experiences without internalizing them or diminishing our self-worth. This mindset shift paves the way for personal growth and improved emotional well-being.
Unsure where you fall on the spectrum of rejection sensitivity? This evidence-based personality assessment can help you gain clarity: Highly Sensitive Person Questionnaire
A similar version of this article can also be found on Forbes.com, here.