Rejection can feel like that worst feeling in the world, no matter how old you are or how you may feel like you have it “all together.” Humans are a hardwired to desire to belong. Looking at our evolutionary history, it is programmed in us to seek out connection for survival. Thousands of years ago, we would not be able to survive alone without the support of a group of people. Now we may not need the connection for survival in the sense of staying alive, but our brains are still programmed for seeking it out.
Besides all of the thoughts and feelings that try to justify what happened or question ourselves as an individual, what exactly happens to us when we are rejected? Well, we experience physical pain. Rejection is painful and our brains process it as such; It is the same pain we experience when we are physically injured. A study that looked at various individuals who were rejected from playing a game with two other people noticed that the dorsal anterior cingulate and anterior insult had increased activity. These two regions of the brain are the areas that process physical pain. So, being rejected by friends or having your heart broken is processed similarly to breaking a bone.
What can you take away from this? First, your feelings are justified and valid because your feelings are real to you, however, your hurt feelings now you have some science to back you up because your brain is processing this rejection like physical pain. Secondly, this pain and experience can motivate some of us to seek out better connections, better ourselves by self-reflecting on one’s contribution to social situations, paying more attention to social cues, and evaluating interactions more carefully because there is still hope for real connection. For those without hope, they may react with anger and hostility because they do not see a reason to try and improve their situation, which will further isolate them, but there is still longing for connection. However, there is still hope!
Joining a therapeutic group is one option that can be very helpful for individuals with or without hope for connection after being rejected. These spaces are created to feel safe and foster healthy relationships and conversations with the assistance of a therapist. It is a microcosm of the “real world,” so group members can practice expressing feelings and act out in vivo situations with other group members and take what they have learned and apply it in their personal lives.
Yes, rejection is awful. Yes, it is so painful (science has your back). And, yes, there is hope for finding connection again.