I was in love for the first time, and the world was perfect.
We would spend hours together, just the two of us. I’d watch him talk and tell jokes and sing, my eyes on him barely blinking. He seemed perfect with his dark roguish hair, a smirk that conveyed intelligence, and an adorable pet monkey.
Okay, I admit it. My first crush was Aladdin from the Disney animated movie, what of it? He swooped in and stole my tiny little heart like he was stealing bread. Swoon.
I wasn’t so lucky with my first flesh and blood crush, however.
My story of first love with a real live human being is one of unrequited love and rejection. Like most people, I grew past it but at that moment, it hurt like dropping your ice cream, only over and over again for days.
In a lot of ways, 11-year-old me wasn’t so different than my four-year-old self. My crush was one of the smartest kids in my class, and despite his auburn hair and freckles, he reminded me a lot of my first crush with his knowing smirk.
This boy wasn’t just smart either! He somehow walked that impossibly cool line between “geeky” and “popular”. Sigh!
It was a kind of spring awakening. Those days of “ew love!” were over, and the time for playing spin the bottle had just begun. My friends were starting to admit their crushes to other classmates, and I was beginning to feel a little left out.
At my computer one evening after school, I got a notification on MSN Messenger.
It was my crush, and he said that he had a very important question to ask me. My heart fluttered, and my stomach whirled like a cotton candy machine filled with cocaine.
“Ya,” I typed back, “Wazzup? 🙂 “
He was typing, then would stop. Then started. Then stopped. I was at the edge of my seat in anticipation, expecting to read a Jane Austen worthy declaration of love.
“So,” he said in burgundy comic sans, “Can u ask your friend if she likes me? Does she want to be my gf?”
My heart exploded into rubble. It felt like the first time I found out that Santa Claus wasn’t real. It felt like failing a math test that you were absolutely sure you’d ace. It felt like being picked last for soccer-baseball.
At that moment, the world became darker and more uncertain, as did my place in it. I wasn’t just being rejected without having to say a word, I was having confirmation of my worst fears: that I was rejectable and would never relate to my peers. I was, in other words, a freak.
I logged off MSN, walked back to my bedroom in tears, and sobbed hard enough to shake my bunk bed. I promised to never love again, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.
This is Your Brain on Rejection
Thinking back to the kid I was, I have a lot of compassion for that moment in my life, and for that little kid who felt their heart break for the very first time.
To some extent, most of us will experience that kind of rejection in some way or another. It’s the kind of rejection that sticks to your bones in the way gummy bears stick to your teeth: in the moment, you’re just struggling and stuck, not aware of how much damage it’s actually caused (until your dentist hands you a bill for four cavities, ech!).
It feels like we’ve been physically wounded, and scientific studies in the last decade have validated that experience. Whether you’re being rejected by a crush at age 11, or by your wife in your mid-50s, your brain interprets social rejection similarly to how our minds experience physical pain.
A study at the University of Michigan tested how the mind processes physical pain versus emotional pain in the form of a recent romantic rejection and found that the experience of social loss was closer in experience to physical pain.
Paging Dr. Love!
Whether your booty call plans with your FWB fell flat, or your wife seems uninterested in your intimate gestures, or your partner just broke up with you; rejection, especially in love and sex, hurts.
So what now? Are we doomed to keep bashing into the wall of rejection over and over again? Or do we resign ourselves to a fate of bottomless Ben and Jerry’s ice cream pints, with Adele playing in the background?
No, and instead, let’s take a note from science and treat these rejection wounds like a real physical wound. What would you do for yourself right now if you had twisted your ankle, or nicked yourself in the kitchen? You’d stop the bleeding, protect it, and be gentle with yourself in the future, right?
In fact, there’s already a form of therapy that utilizes these very skills called dialectical behavior therapy!
Developed by psychologist Marsha M. Linehan for use in the treatment of borderline personality disorder (BPD), it’s a powerful protocol to help those affected by the disorder manage their overwhelming emotional states. Anyone can benefit from learning some DBT skills, however, and many therapists are teaching their patients how to utilize them in their everyday lives, regardless of whether or not they have BPD.
There are four main components to DBT: mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness. We’ll be touching on these four main components, and kind of mix and match them to help support ourselves during a rejection attack.
- Mindfulness refers to staying physically and emotionally present in overwhelming emotional experiences through a series of techniques (like meditation) and easing into the present moment.
- Distress tolerance is a way of increasing your capacity to handle these intense emotions and practicing self-care to cope if they’re unpleasant.
- Emotion regulation is a big one, but at a glance, it’s the ability to name your emotions and learn to change your reaction to them in order to change the outcome of that emotional state.
- Interpersonal effectiveness is the practice of maintaining healthy boundaries with other people and being able to express your needs in a way that is neither confrontational nor demeaning to you.
Rejection First Aid
Step 1: Stop the bleeding (Mindfulness)
This is where you need to be kind and comfort yourself right now. You’ve just been hit in the face with a huge rejection, and it’s okay to feel the stress of that moment! If you were taking care of your friend, and they just had this experience, what would you do for them at that moment?
Utilize mindfulness and breathe. Where do you feel pain or discomfort in your body right now, and what do you need to do? It’s okay to cry, be angry, or feel shame. Do what you need to do in order for this experience to be supportable (within reason). Do you need to write out your feelings? Connect with a friend over the phone? Do you need to eat some comfort food while distracting yourself with re-runs of Bob’s Burgers?
There’s no shame in this self-care game!
Step 2: Bandage that wound up (Distress tolerance)
So you’ve stopped the immediate mind-bending pain, and you’re ready to go back out on your next day, right?
If you just broke your leg, would you expect yourself to be able to run on it the very next day? No! You’d probably be soft and gentle with that leg, resigning yourself to being more cautious. It’s natural, we generally shield an injury away from further pain or manipulation. For the short term, you should try to keep your rejection wound safe away from situations that could make you feel worse or hurt you further while you’re healing.
Put a bandaid over that sucker, and make sure you don’t aggravate that further. Is the siren song of sexting your ex too powerful? Give yourself five more minutes, and put away your phone for just five minutes and focus on something else for that time. If you still want to message them after, write down your message first and give yourself five more minutes.
Congrats, this is a form of distress tolerance! You’re building that muscle up to Arnold proportions.
Step 3: Regain some strength (Emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness)
You’ve given yourself some time to relax after the immediate rejection bomb went on in your life, and kept it away from further damage. What next? Live as an ascetic in the woods, talking only to woodland creatures and the odd lost hiker? Yes! Wait, er… no! You have a responsibility to yourself to slowly reintegrate that part of yourself back into the regular flow of your life.
Did you enjoy dating, but after getting rejected by that one hot DJ, you find yourself sick at the idea of plunging back into the dating world? That’s okay! You will have a little bit of sensitivity in that area for a while, but that might be a good chance for you to recalibrate. By this point, you likely have some insights on what you feared your rejection revealed to the world about yourself, and what you needed to have someone confirm in you.
Maybe the idea of jumping back into the scary world of dating is a bit much, but could you reinstall Tinder again? Could you promise to scroll and send one person a message? Or if that’s too big, could you try to send a “like” to three people before treating yourself to another episode of Bob’s Burgers?
Don’t forget to integrate the distress tolerance skills you practiced in step two! Breatheeee.
“What’s worth doing even if I fail?”
– Brené Brown on the Big Magic podcast
Being rejected on MSN Messenger didn’t destroy me. I did spend a month subtly posting my feelings in the form of edgy song lyrics about heartbreak, but I grew.
At that moment, it didn’t feel worthwhile. What was the point of like liking someone if you could be rejected so hard, and so embarrassingly? It gave me empathy, for others and myself. I learned that angsty poetry and cookie dough ice cream could be considered medicine for a broken heart.
There’s no escaping it: rejection is an integral part of being a social creature. We can try to run from it, but we’ll find ourselves isolated not only from others but from our inner truths. Through rejection, we learn to accept who we are in this moment and accept that others won’t always be meeting us where we are.
We didn’t fail some kind of government-mandated test, and we won’t be exiled for being a “freak”, no matter what your worries might be telling you. If we need to, we can pull back for a bit to recover and then be ready and wiser for the next big crush.