How To Overcome The Uncomfortable Feeling Of Rejection

A new study explores our 'rejection emotion' and how we can beat it.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 29, 2022

A new article published in Advances In Motivation Science attempts to put our never-ending pursuit to be accepted by other people into proper scientific context.

"Over the past 30 years, we have conducted dozens of research studies that dealt with acceptance and rejection," says psychologist Mark Leary, a retired faculty member at Duke University. "Being rejected obviously evokes strong negative emotions. However, as we studied emotional reactions to rejection, we realized that researchers had more-or-less overlooked a very important response to rejection — the emotion that we commonly call 'hurt feelings.'"

Through their research, Leary and his colleagues found people's feelings tend to be hurt by six kinds of events:

  1. Criticism
  2. Betrayal
  3. Active disassociation (for example, a romantic breakup)
  4. Passive disassociation (not being included)
  5. Being unappreciated
  6. Being teased

"All of these are events that make people feel rejected," says Leary. "Put simply, hurt feelings are the 'rejection emotion.'"

Leary explains that people who are rejected often experience other emotions which are not reactions to the rejection itself but reactions to the nature or implications of the rejecting event. These include:

  1. Sadness (when rejections produce a sense of loss)
  2. Anxiety (when rejections include a threat to well-being or uncertainty about the future)
  3. Anger (when rejections feel unjustified)

Importantly, Leary adds that people don't need to be actually rejected to have the subjective experience of rejection. For instance, even though we know that our romantic partners accept and love us, they can (unintentionally) make us feel rejected and hurt our feelings in certain situations.

To fully understand the pain of rejection, Leary suggests that we first need to understand why acceptance feels good. According to him, people feel accepted when they think that they have high 'relational value,' or worth, to another person or group of people. A great deal of our behavior, thought, and emotion, according to Leary, is driven by our need to belong to groups.

"We experience acceptance when we think our relational value to other people is sufficiently high, but feel "rejected" when our relational value is not as high as we wish," says Leary.

For anyone feeling rejected or struggling to feel accepted, Leary offers the following advice. First and foremost, he suggests the person needs to make sure they are not underestimating their relational value because of ambiguous social cues, or misinterpreting neutral feedback from others as negative feedback. This is necessary because most people go through life feeling more rejected than they actually are.

"Viewed in this way, the first step to address one's concerns with rejection is to examine the evidence as objectively as possible, trying not to read too much negativity into them," warns Leary.

With that information in hand, he suggests one can boost their feelings of acceptance in three ways:

  1. By learning to ignore the negative reactions of people whose opinions of us are unimportant
  2. By seeking connections with people with whom we would have a higher relational value
  3. Or, if necessary, by making changes in ourselves that would increase the degree to which other people value having connections with us

A full interview with Mark Leary discussing this research can be found here: A psychology professor explains the best way to deal with rejection