The best way to handle rejection might surprise you

Take a Tylenol[1]

You read that right. Pain killers help rejection. But if you want something a little stronger for the pain of rejection, 

Think about a time when you felt rejected. What did you experience? There’s a good chance the words you reached for describe pain. Few other words define the feeling of rejection.

A lack of words isn’t the reason we can only describe rejection as pain. This is because rejection is pain. Not metaphorical pain, but literal break your leg, cut your arm, stub your toe pain.


What the scientists found

A group of scientists stumbled upon this conclusion after looking at brain scans. One of the researchers was looking at different brain images, not realising that a few of them were under very different circumstances.

They all look the same, he thought to himself.

They weren’t. You see, some images were of people in physical pain; in others, there was no physical pain. There was something else, though. There was rejection. Your brain uses the same neural pathways as physical pain to process rejection.

A broken leg or a tragic end to a long-term relationship; these experiences look alike inside your brain.


Why does physical pain look and feel the same as rejection?

More importantly, how can you use this information to better handle life’s unavoidable rejections?

Evolution is the best place to start when unravelling why your body or brain behaves the way it does. If we experience rejection as real physical pain, what might be the reason for this?

Researchers asked that same question, and anthropology – the study of human behaviour – led them to their hypothesis.

There is a lot of misunderstanding surrounding the term survival of the fittest. We usually think it means survival of the fittest individual, which is wrong. What it actually means is survival of the fittest group. Individuals don’t survive thousands of years – species do. And the most important behaviour to ensure the survival of a species is teamwork.

Anything that keeps a species alive and thriving will be selected. But before selection can happen, there must be some adaption to select for in the first place. An adaption like, I don’t know, experiencing pain when rejected from the group.


Why does rejection hurt?

After stepping back and looking at rejection through the eyes of evolution, we can understand why it hurts. The pain of rejection makes it more likely for species to do what is best for the group instead of themselves. At first, this seems counterintuitive, but for an individual to survive, the group must survive. This is why what’s good for the individual is usually good for the group. It’s not individuals that survive, but groups.

What is good for the hive is good for the bee.

Marcus Aurelius

Here is where everything comes together.

  • You know that your brain experiences rejection as physical pain.
  • You know that individual species don’t survive, but instead groups.
  • You know that evolution uses the pain of rejection to encourage group cooperation, the same cooperation that increases survival.

The pain you feel from rejection is a warning. When you break your leg, the physical pain reminds you not to keep walking because if you do, you will only cause more damage. When a group rejects you, the physical pain you feel prevents the same damage – the damage that comes from being alone.

You might have noticed that circumstances have changed, and we are no longer fighting for our lives as we were in the past. It doesn’t matter. You and I are still running the same programming that was vital for our survival in the past. The same programming that understood rejection from the group meant death.


The best way to handle rejection

Find another group. It’s not the characteristics of a group that matter, but only the group. Your brain only sees membership to a group; it doesn’t care how exclusive that group might be. All that matters is you aren’t alone. 

When your partner dumps you, look for another. If your colleagues shun you, find others. If your friends reject you, grow new friendships.

The best way to get over rejection is to find and join another group. To withdraw is the equivalent of walking around on your broken leg. But when you put your leg in a cast, you soon forget it’s broken. When you find a new group, you forget the old one – and the pain of rejection with it.

Published in Self Improvement, Psychology, Science
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