Whether it’s being dumped by your boyfriend or girlfriend or getting passed over for a job, everyone knows what it feels like to be rejected by someone or something. It’s a basic fact of life we experience in our careers, our relationships, and our social circles.
Humans evolved to experience rejection in our hunter-gatherer days, when being cast out from your social group could be fatal, scientists say.
But why does rejection hurt so much?
It comes down to the way our brains are wired, writes psychologist Guy Winch.
Rejection activates the same parts of the brain as physical pain, research suggests.
In one recent study, researchers recruited 40 people who had recently gone through an unwanted breakup and put them in an MRI brain scanner. When they showed people photos of their exes and told them to think about being rejected, the participants’ brains lit up in the secondary somatosensory cortex and dorsal posterior insula – the same regions that are activated by sensory pain.
“These results give new meaning to the idea that rejection ‘hurts,'” the researchers wrote in the study, which was published in 2011 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
One explanation for the findings is that the rejection of a lost love was a more intense type of rejection than has been measured in other studies. According to the researchers, the intensity of rejection might have caused it to spill over from emotional pain to physical pain.
Some research suggests that rejection can be treated the same way as physical pain. One 2010 study found that the painkiller Tylenol (acetaminophen) reduced painful feelings.
Study participants took either Tylenol or a placebo every day for three weeks. When the researchers scanned their brains, they found that the people who took the painkiller showed decreased brain activity in areas linked to both social and physical pain.
But self-medicating probably isn’t the best way to go.
Dealing with rejection
First of all, know your chances of being successful. If you apply to a very competitive job and don’t get it, you shouldn’t be discouraged.
Secondly, pursue several opportunities at once to decrease your chances of rejection. In the job example, apply to many jobs at once, or ask out many dates, and odds are, one of them will pan out.
Finally, don’t take it personally – rejection is not always a reflection of you, but of the circumstances and many other factors.
But rejection isn’t always a bad thing. A study by a business professor at Johns Hopkins University found that social rejection can inspire creative thinking, by making us feel we stand out from others.
That probably doesn’t make it any easier, though!