A Psychology Professor Explains The Best Way To Deal With Rejection

Psychologist Mark Leary deconstructs the pain we feel when we experience rejection and how to feel better about it.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 18, 2022

A new study published in Advances In Motivation Science examines the root causes behind the pain of rejection and our relentless pursuit to be accepted by other people.

I recently spoke to psychologist Mark Leary, a former faculty member at Duke University and co-author of the new research, to understand how our value fluctuates depending on our need to belong. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of acceptance and belonging and how did you study it?

My original interest in graduate school involved self-presentation — how people's behavior and emotions are affected by their concerns with others' impressions of them. After studying self-presentation for several years, it dawned on me that, although people manage their impressions for many practical reasons, such as to get a job or repair an embarrassing event, one primary reason that people are concerned with what others think of them is that they want to be accepted and belong to groups.

Making "bad" impressions on other people lowers the likelihood that we will be accepted, develop friendships and romantic relationships, be valued as a group member, and obtain other social rewards.

This realization led me to pivot toward studying how people seek social acceptance and belonging and the impact of acceptance and rejection on people's emotions, behaviors, and views of themselves. Over the past 30 years, we have conducted dozens of research studies that dealt in one way or another with acceptance and rejection, using several research methodologies.

For example, we have conducted controlled laboratory experiments in which we led participants to feel accepted or rejected and measured their responses. We also used questionnaires to ask people about their personal experiences with rejection, and we have studied personality variables that are related to differences in how people seek acceptance and react to rejection.

What sorts of things did you find in this research?

Let me mention just two things that consumed a good deal of our attention after we accidentally stumbled on them.

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."

After conducting several studies of hurt feelings, we concluded that, in fact, hurt feelings is the primary emotional response to rejection, the emotion that occurs most reliably when people feel rejected.

Our research showed that people's feelings are hurt by six primary kinds of events:

  • Criticism
  • Betrayal
  • Active disassociation (for example, a romantic breakup)
  • Passive disassociation (not being included)
  • Being unappreciated
  • Being teased

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

Of course, people who are rejected often have other emotions as well, such as sadness, anxiety, and anger.

Our research showed that these emotions are not reactions to rejection itself but rather to the nature or implications of the rejecting event. For example, rejections that produce a sense of loss cause sadness, rejections that include a threat to well-being or uncertainty about the future cause anxiety, and rejections that are viewed as unjustified cause anger. Only hurt feelings are caused by perceived rejection itself.

A second set of unexpected findings involved self-esteem. As we studied reactions to acceptance and rejection, we found that rejection consistently lowered people's state self-esteem — how they felt about themselves at the moment.

Changes in self-esteem were so strongly and consistently associated with rejection that we concluded that self-esteem is part of the psychological system that monitors and responses to social feedback.

We proposed a new theory, sociometer theory, that suggested that state self-esteem is a subjective gauge of interpersonal acceptance and rejection, an internal reflection of others' feelings about the person.

Not only does state self-esteem reflect people's perceptions of the degree to which they have relational value to others, but increases and decreases in state self-esteem may calibrate people's interpersonal aspirations.

Acceptance increases self-esteem, emboldening people to be more socially confident, whereas rejection lowers self-esteem, leading people to be more socially cautious.

Taking this idea one step further suggests that, contrary to the popular view, people do not need or seek self-esteem for its own sake. Rather, people are motivated to behave in ways that increase acceptance and avoid rejection, and those behaviors are precisely those that raise self-esteem.

So, self-esteem is a psychological meter or gauge. Just as people don't put gas in their cars to simply make their fuel gauge move away from empty and toward full, people don't do things simply to make their self-esteem go up.

Can you briefly describe what makes a person accepted?

People feel accepted when they perceive that they have "relational value" to another person or group of people.

Other people value their relationships with us to varying degrees. Some people value their relationship with us very much, invest a great deal in their connection to us, and would be very distressed if the relationship ended. Other people value their relationship with us only moderately; they may like interacting with us but would be only mildly bothered if they never saw us again. Other people don't value having a relationship with us at all.

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. Of course, we all know that some people naturally value us more than other people do, and not everyone values having a relationship with us. We feel rejected when we perceive that our relational value in a particular situation or to a particular person is not as high as we want it to be.

Importantly, people don't need to be actually rejected in order to have the subjective experience of rejection.

For example, people may feel rejected even when they know the other person accepts or even loves them if they believe that their relational value to the person is not as high as they wish at that moment. So our romantic partners can make us feel rejected and hurt our feelings in a particular situation even though we know that they accept and love us.

Your research talks about the far-reaching impact of acceptance and belonging motivation on human behavior. Can you expand a bit on the same? What behaviors did you analyze and what did you find?

In 1995, Roy Baumeister and I wrote an article in which we suggested that the desire for acceptance and belonging may be the most fundamental interpersonal motive — the motive that affects our social behavior more than any other motive. This doesn't mean that we are motivated to be accepted all of the time or by everybody we meet. But concerns with acceptance and belonging underlie a great deal of human behavior, motivating certain behaviors and constraining others.

After publication of this article, many researchers dove into how the motivation to be accepted and to belong affects people's behavior. This motive influences human behavior in many ways, but let mention just five important domains in which our behavior is affected by concerns with acceptance and belonging.

  • First, everything people do to enhance their physical attractiveness is aimed toward increasing acceptance, whether that's daily grooming, getting a haircut, trying to lose weight, or cosmetic surgery.
  • Likewise, almost everything people do to be liked is motivated by a desire for relational value and acceptance. Most conformity to group norms and social pressure is also motivated by a desire to belong. In order to be viewed as an acceptable, valuable group member, people must conform to basic group norms.
  • Although many researchers have viewed achievement motivation as quite distinct from the motive to be accepted, in fact, a great deal of achievement-related behaviors are motivated by a desire to increase one's relational value and be accepted. Think of what would happen if achievement was met with criticism, devaluation, and rejection instead of praise and acceptance.
  • Perhaps the most ongoing and pervasive effect of approval and belonging motivation is on all of the things we do to be viewed as a good friend, partner, employee, group member, or member of society. Interpersonal interactions and relationships are guided by social exchange rules regarding how the individuals are expected to treat one another. A number of such rules have been identified including reciprocity, honesty, fairness, dependability, cooperation, and some minimal level of concern for other people's needs.
  • People obviously prefer to have connections with those who abide by social exchange rules because people who violate these rules are viewed as poor social exchange partners who might disadvantage other people. So, concerns with acceptance and belonging underlie a great deal of polite, civil, ethical, and prosocial behavior.

Note that I'm not saying that a desire for acceptance is the only reason people behave in ways that enhance their appearance, help them be liked, conform to group pressure, lead them to achieve, or follow social exchange rules. (Sometimes they do these things to manipulate or take advantage of other people, for example.) But a concern with acceptance and belonging appears to be the primary driver of these behaviors.

In this world of judgments, how do you advise people to start feeling more accepted in their own skin?

Although being accepted is exceptionally important for people's well-being, simply feeling accepted can create its own problems unless people's feelings of acceptance and rejection are accurately calibrated to their actual relational value to other people.

Like all monitoring systems, the psychological systems that monitor and respond to social cues work best when they provide reasonably accurate information about what other people think of us.

So, simply trying to feel more accepted in one's skin isn't necessarily helpful.

The problem, of course, is that it's very difficult to determine how valued and accepted you actually are. Other people usually don't provide explicit social feedback, and the social cues we use to infer what other people are thinking about us are often quite ambiguous. This leaves a great deal of room for people to either overestimate or underestimate their relational value in other people's eyes, both of which can create behavioral miscalculations and emotional problems.

To make matters worse, our research shows that people tend to underestimate their relational value, interpreting relatively neutral social feedback as if it is rejecting.

For example, we tend to have negative, rather than neutral, reactions to learning that someone feels neutral about us. What this means is that most people probably go through life feeling more rejected than they actually are.

And, a history of actual rejection — by neglectful parents or rejecting peers, for example — seems to increase people's tendency to underestimate their relational value.

Viewed in this way, the first step in addressing one's concerns with acceptance and rejection is to examine the evidence as objectively as possible, trying not to either sugar-coat others' reactions or read too much negativity into them.

With that information in hand, we can bolster our feelings of acceptance in three ways:

  • By learning to dismiss the negative reactions of people whose opinions of us really don't matter,
  • Seeking connections with people to whom we would have higher relational value,
  • Or, if needed, making changes in ourselves that might increase the degree to which other people value having connections with us.

How does this fear of judgments impact the psychological health of a person?

Excessive concerns about negative evaluations and possible rejection obviously undermine psychological well-being.

People who have a high fear of negative evaluation tend to score higher in social anxiety because social anxiety arises from the belief that one will not be perceived in ways that promote acceptance.

Fear of negative evaluation also makes people particularly vigilant to cues that might reflect rejection and to a tendency to give a worst-case reading to cues and feedback that might convey low relational value.

These concerns also lead to reticence and inhibition, to shyness, in an effort not to say or do things that might lower one's relational value further.

Can this have physical impacts as well?

Anything that increases anxiety and stress can certainly have undesired physical effects, so people who are excessively concerned with rejection have some sorts of problems as people with other ongoing sources of anxiety and stress, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal problems.

How can medical professionals like therapists and psychologists help in such cases?

When helping people deal with rejections, mental health professionals, as well as friends, parents, and others, can help the person work through a couple of issues.

First, is the person's perception of the situation accurate? Is his or her relational value as low as he or she thinks it is? If the answer is "no" — that is, the person is perceiving rejection where none exists — then steps can be taken to try to correct the misperception.

However, if the answer is "yes," the best response depends on the nature of the situation, the cause of the rejection, and whether the rejection was a one-time thing (a romantic breakup, for example) or an ongoing pattern of being excluded, ignored, or bullied by others.

We can help the person troubled by rejection understand the nature of the rejection and his or her role in it, then formulate a plan both to deal emotionally with the rejection and, if needed, to take practical steps to reduce the likelihood of similar events in the future.

Did something unexpected emerge from your research? Something beyond the hypothesis?

We certainly knew from the beginning that people are universally concerned with being accepted and react strongly when they experience rejection. What surprised me is how little it takes to make people feel relationally devalued and rejected.

In our experimental studies in which we led research participants to feel rejected, we obviously had to use very weak methods to induce rejection for ethical reasons. In almost all of these studies, the participants did not know one another and had no reason to think they would ever meet again.

In fact, in some studies, participants never saw one another or learned each others' identities, and they interacted over an intercom or by exchanging written answers on sheets of people. And the nature of the rejections was quite minor.

For example, participants were told that another participant preferred to work with another person rather than them on a laboratory task or received feedback that another participant had rated them as average rather than positively. Importantly, none of these minor "rejections" had any consequences on the participants' lives.

But even though these were seemingly meaningless rejections with no consequences whatsoever by people the participants didn't know and would never see again, we consistently got strong effects.

Participants who were rejected in our studies consistently experienced more negative emotions (hurt feelings, sadness, anxiety, and sometimes anger), showed a loss of state self-esteem and had very negative views of those who had rejected them.

Given that such trivial rejection experiences had such powerful effects, it's not surprising that concerns with rejection permeate our lives.