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Rejection, Why Does It Hurt So Much?

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 30th 2009

 Ever had the experience of asking someone out for a date and feeling depressed after you were rejected? Ever go to a party, talk to some people you never met before and experienced a lack of interest in you or about what you were saying? Did you feel depressed and anxious after this experience? Do you remember feeling utterly dejected during childhood if you were chosen last for a team because you were thought of as the worst athlete? Remember feeling rejected and hopeless when your boyfriend or girlfriend broke up with you? Most if not all of us have had these or other similar types of experiences from time to time during our lives. In fact, some of the readers may be going through something like this at the very present time. But, why do these experiences hurt so very much?

Rejection hurts badly because it awakens a primal need that we all have for social connectedness. Think about it. From the time we are born we rely on the love and nurturing provided by our mother and father to help us survive and thrive. Perhaps that is why the language carries so somatic types of terms to convey how rejection feels. For example, it is interesting to say that we feel "hurt" as a result of a rejecting experience. Lovers sometimes think about suicide after suffering a loss of their partner. In other words, we fear that we will not survive if we are abandoned. In other words, on a certain level that is not fully conscious, we need to feel that we belong, are included, are part of the group and partnership and if we are we can feel happy. I would go so far as to say that a certain percentage of people who are depressed either fear social isolation or are socially isolated. Among these are individuals with poor social skills and cannot seem to find acceptance from others, and people who are shy and socially avoidant. The point is that rejection awakens early fears of being left to the "wolves." In short, "it hurts to be left out." All of this is discussed in a wonderful paper written by Eisenberger and Lieberman, entitled "Why it hurts to be left out," Department of Psychology, University of California.

This paper discusses one of the factors that could drive certain types of addiction. They point out that heroin and opium addiction go to the same part of the brain that relieves the suffering assoicated with the pain of rejection. The addiction could be a means of reducing a pain experienced by some types of avoidant people. It was speculated, at a time when I worked with psychotic patients in a day hospital, that addictive behavior involves having to socially interact with both pushers and users that provides a type of social structure for some people.

The social pain of rejection is so powerful that it explains why some people would rather avoid social interaction than experience the threat of rejection or social failure. This is self defeating in that the individual does not make the social contacts they need to feel better. Very often, the prior experience of rejection causes people to avoid socializing in the future, avoiding it like the child whose hand has been burned by a hot stove and avoids kitchen all together.

A recent study shows that people, after being rejected, are better able to detect false or phoney smiles as compared to those who have not been rejected. Here, too, researchers speculate that the reason for this improved ability to translate smiles has to do with the same basic need we all have for belonging or being included. In fact, the authors of the article report about animal experiments that demonstrate how animals can tolerate electrical shocks if they have either another animal in the cage or their mother. Our prison system seems to understand the importance of social connectedness in getting incorrigable prisoners to behave by putting them is isolation for months at a time where they speak to and see no one. Some prisoners are driven crazy by this technique.

I get a lot of email from people who struggle with shyness, social avoidance and other types of anxiety disorders that prevent them from making friends and belonging to a social network. For any of you who experience this it is important to enter psychotherapy, especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and to join one of many self help groups available around the nation so that the process of overcoming blocks to socializing can begin. In addition, there are many self help books available that explain how to do useful exercises that are motivating and encouraging in getting people to experiment with socialization.

It is important for the family and friends of people who suffer after experiencing a social rejection that their pain is just as real as if they had fractured an arm or had a tooth pulled. The whole point of the paper that is discussed here is that soical and physical pain are activated in the same parts of the brain. Pain is real whether it is of rejection or of an ear ache.

Your comments and questions are always welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

 

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at dransphd@aol.com for details.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    Social isolation - Paul C - Jul 7th 2014

    Dr. Schwarts,

    i have gone through social reject to the point I can't function properly. It started in high school. I struggled to fit in with these guys and I realised that they weren't the best to try to fit in with. They constantly rejected me. There was on instance they snuck out another door of the high school just to avoid me. Actually there was rejection in elementary school. I was in a group of three. Our desks were bunche'd together and the other two guys voted me out of the group. I have been seeing this girl for the last six months and just recently i told her I like her and she told me she didn't like me that way, she just wanted to be friends. I am trying to keep myself up bit it is so hard. I spent some time with her yesterday and I can't believe that all we can be is friends. I think she is amazing. She is smart, great personality, and beautiful. We have these very intelligent conversations and I can't figure out why it can't be more than just friends. 

     

    expectations? - - Aug 22nd 2011

    I stumbled upon your site about rejection and why it hurts as my curiosity was peaked by a recent rejection. It happened on an internet dating site and I really wasn't hurt that badly as we've never met and there are plenty of other women interested in me on the site. My question to you about rejection is how does one's expectations play are part in it? Speaking as a guy looking for a significant woman in my life I see some correlation to the hurt felt from a rejection to the level of interest I have in the person I'm being rejected by. It seems the more beautiful the woman or how well we "click" increases the sting of the rejection. I'm sure social status is a factor. The woman I mentioned above was, in my view, average looking at best and she seemed in her writing and profile to be rather boring and not possessing much of a sense of humor. So the loss was no big deal. It seems that so much of rejection felt as hurt is really due, as an adult, to be about perception and belief. The perception of rejection seems at least to me to be connected to placing a greater degree of importance on the rejector and reducing my sense of value as a result. Also, if I hold the belief that there are plenty of women other than the one that just rejected me are interested in me and are a better match then the feeling of hurt is greatly reduced. If I continue to hold the rejector to a higher standard than myself I may create a false belief that she is a concrete indicator of how all other women are going to react to my interest.

    Re: Social Rejection - Bill - Oct 15th 2010

    Regarding my comments about social rejection, I am not a total social phobic. I am married, and I had some previous relationships with females, but not a whole lot, prior to my marriage.  I was introduced to my wife by a mutual friend. Previous to our introduction, I had admired her from a distance, but was never able to approach her. My high school girlfriend lived across the street. Another girlfriend I met at work. I think you see the pattern here. Cannot approach, but if there is an intoduction or some kind of mutual proximity, I can take it from there---- if the other person will give a chance to overcome my initial awarkwardness.  As for well  meaning people who say "the worst thing that than can say is "no", I know that for them "no" is only a temporary setback. I'll just ask someone else, and the sun will come up tomorrow.   But, for me, "no" has always felt like "get lost"  you're not worthy.    It feels like a punch in the gut. And, I am glad to see that recent science has confirmed these feeling of physical stress to be valid.  

    Social Rejection - Bill - Oct 13th 2010

    The late Lewis Grizzard, a Southern humorist and author, made the comment that the longest walk in the world in not the walk across the room to ask a woman to dance. Rather, the longest walk is when they say no, and you have to walk back across the room. I'm sure a lot of shy men, like me, can very strongly relate to that.  I've had people say to me, "the worst thing that they can say is no", and my reply is, you're absolutely right. The worst thing they can say is no,  Also, consider this quote. "Rejection is the natural consequence of the unnatural act of asking"      

    Self-Preservation - Allan N. Schwartz, PhD - Aug 26th 2010

    Hi Jean,

    I am taken aback by the fact that people reject you because you have chosen to be a stay at home mom.

    First, let me say that I applaud you for your decision and not because I believe there is one right decision for everyone but because you chose to follow your heart and chose to do what YOU believe it right.

    Perhaps those who reject you actually envy your choice and wish they could do the same. Of course, I do not know but it is a thought.

    Keep the courage of your convictions and never be discouraged by the opinions of others. Besides, I am certain that there are plenty of other moms who do the same as you. You just need to find them. They are there.

    Dr. Schwartz

    self-preservation - jean - Aug 26th 2010

    i am a stay at home mom and have faced rejection from many different arenas since having made that choice. even from those whom i expected would be supportive of that choice. as hurt as i feel by the rejection, i also must admit it has taught me a new perspective about why people isolate themselve...it is for self-preservation. my children bring me great joy and i feel i am right where i should be right now in this season of life but i do feel i have had to make my own "island" to do so, to protect my own heart, mind and soul...and yes, tears are a gift as well as happiness. i realize life won't always be so isolated and that eventually i will be among the same ones whom have rejected me once again...but it sure has given me great perspective on where i will spend my valuable time, my precious time when i am back among the wolves so to speak...and trust me, that time will be spent with my children...whom have been my source of strength.

    Anxiety - Alanna - May 10th 2010

    Hi,

    I grew up isolated in a tropical farm and love it, i moved for school and had a normal upbrining. Lived in a different place for 7yrs and am well educated and not afraid of new situations. I've always been shy and introverted but had friends and have had no problem in relationships with men. But it seems the bond i make takes a long time to make it, the people that truely know me are my exes and I dont open up easily to people. I am not uncomfotable in social situations but don;t have many real friends. I like being alone but def need social interactions but just don't know how to do it. sometimes i feel people are a little put off by me or intimidated...and don't realize that im just shy.

    Any help?

     

    Rejection in elderhood - - Mar 15th 2010

    I was shy in early childhood school situations, later mixed well and was o.k. with myself.  Now as a senior citizen, rejection is due to age.  It is a strange feeling.  Better to move to an Asian country where age is a positive thing?

    great article - anonymous cowherd - Mar 3rd 2010

    this article actually made me feel better after completely blowing a job interview.

    :) - - Feb 8th 2010

    it bruises the ego. thats all. 

    Loveless - Ashley - Feb 2nd 2010

    Hello there! i hope you will read my comment and reply because I don't know what to do! Anyway I'm very social girl and I have friends Im actually very open person! I'm like a kid Im always excited about new things! And I ask lots of questions about life! The point is Im a european foreigner, English is my second laguage, and I live in English-speaking country for 3 years now. The Problem : I'm 21 years old and I havent had a real boyfriend! I'm considered as cute Im not too tall or not too short.. Anyway but when it comes to relationships I cant seem make it work. Because what usually happens is if I like somebody they reject me, or if someone i dont like likes me I reject him and it goes On and On and On.... I dont know whats my problem?! At first he was flirting with me and stuff but then suddenly just said: Im busy. And now constantly escaping me.. Its sad really.. Im so sick of being heart broken!!!

    scared to be alone - Pam - Jan 31st 2010

    I hate feelings of lonlieness, and I don't even know why I feel lonely.  I have a wonderful husband, four beutiful children who I know very well love me.  But, when I am with a group of supposed friends I feel very inadequate and always doubt weather they even want me around.  I am ultra sensitive and feel rejection very strongly.  I have problems with depression and just plain sadness.  My parents are both deceased and I wonder if this is part of my problem.  I feel like noone ever understands me and that i can't just brush things off.  I have really tried but it just makes me feel like I am bottling things up and that an actual cry is more helpful in releiving the stress I feel.

    social phobia - Reaching Out - Jan 29th 2010

    I understand what you have  been through.  I also will avoid social situations.  I just don't know how to continue a conversation. I fear that I am not as smart or as clever or as attractive. I don't feel as if I am able to contribute anything worthy or interesting.  I guess I fear people judging me----but I come to the conclusion that they will judge you even if you keep silent and look weird.  So why not just do it----make conversation with someone that looks receptive. It may not come out smoothly but the good target friend will probably be receptive and help you to transition to better sociability.  Don't target a  popular person---they have enough friends.  Pick someone in the middle---not needy but just okay with where they are at. They will be happy to have a new friend and are more likely to help you.  They in fact may have had similar problems. Learn from them. How do they behave to get by? How do they make small talk?  Do they genuinely enjoy relaxing and joking around?  It serves a purpose, you know?  It opens up doors for more serious matters.  If you don't joke or get in their zone, they won't be receptive to whatever good ideas you have.  Find more activities/interests for yourself so that you will have more subjects to talk about and hopefully connect with more people. The more you know the better it is for conversation.  I've learnt now even the most popular and most beautiful people have these issues.  One popular acquaintance admitted to panic attacks----but what she does is that she pushes through them to the other side and  it gets better and better.  Pretty soon you will have lots of subjects to talk about and you will feel relaxed and comfortable with anyone.  It takes time and is entirely possible.  I started reaching out and doing this and it has helped me feel much more connected to people. I still have the phobia but I force myself to go to social situations.  I put on my glad rags and face. Keep it in perspective.  It will take time.  You need to go out of your comfort zone. Find ways to remain calm and focus diligently on the conversation. Don't think ahead for the right answer.  There is no right answer or comment.  Just say something in general to support the other person.  Learn to do the natural fake laugh--this shows that you like your group that you are with.  Even if you don't think it is funny---just laugh, practice it.  Laughter opens up hearts, doors, and will show you are normal.  It is laughter that brings people together.  And everyone finds humor in different things so just laugh at anything so that everyone is covered.  It will make you feel better too.  Practice the fake smile---okay, the natural fake smile.  Smile at anything---it works wonders.  Everyone one wants to be accepted and thought highly of.  Laughter and smiles shows that you like them and they will then in turn  do the same for you. If you grew up in a family that socialised a lot then it will be something you learned, but if your family was shy then it comes back again to haunt you.  You were not exposed to these skills.  They can be learnt---by doing and observing and being confident enough to accept rejection. Yes, you will definitely be rejected.  Everyone is--even the most popular.  So what?  Go on to the next person until you find your own group of friends. Be the best you can be. Do all the things you want to do, it will make you a happier person and much more friendly.  It takes time and is a life long activity.  It's what every well adjusted person does to live happily in this world.

    Social Anxiety telephone support groups (free and nonprofit) - John - Jan 15th 2010

    Really excellent article about social anxiety! I want to share another (completely free and nonprofit) resource for social anxiety--

    Telephone conference call support groups provided by social anxiety anonymous they are often loaded with lots of great tips, and very gentle encouragement and support.

    I have personally gone to these wonderful groups for years http://www.healsocialanxiety.com

    Very Best, John


    Social Anxiety - Allan N. Schwartz, PhD - Nov 27th 2009

    Hi Paul,

    While you are waiting, you can be reading and using some excellent books and manuals on CBT. One of them is by David Burns and is called, "The Feeling Good Handbook." It is a manual and contains full explanations of the process of CBT and exercises you can begin now.

    Bipolar Disorder or not, there are people who are shy and there are people who are socially avoidant. This happens regardless of diagnosis. So, CBT will help you with both.

    Get the manual and start reading and working a little at a time.

    It can help to allow yourself to enter social situation, make eye contact and say a few friendly words. Socializing is a skill and, while it comes easily to some, others of us need to learn it. Small talk is very helpful. Say hi to people and talk about the weather.

    Try not to despair. You will improve.

    Dr. Schwartz

    Need help - Paul - Nov 27th 2009

    Hi Dr Schwartz. Thank you for your article it touched on exactly what has been preventing me from feeling happy for many years. I have become so afraid of rejection that I have driven myself into social isolation. I am so afraid of being rejected I would rather be alone than be rejected again. I am also being treated for bipolar II. Do you think my social anxiety is related in anyway to my condition or is it something separate? I am still on the waiting list for CBT but it will take a while before I start therapy. Meanwhile, I need to find a way to survive at university because I try hard to be with other people but I can never really bond with any of them. I often find myself desparately looking for company but when I find some I find it impossible to pursue conversation with them. Social isolation depresses me. It gets worse when I see a girl who rejected me because then I lose interest in anything and I cannot talk or try to make friends with anyone and people around me think I'm weird because I don't talk. I wish I could be happy like everyone else. She is always so happy. I can't enjoy a single day. I am on some very strong medication which helps but it doesn't make me happy. What is the point of living a life if you can never be happy?

    Perceptions - JASON MUNRO - Jun 21st 2009

    Hi thanks for your comment. I can relate to what you say in the sense that I too have an excellent antennae for detecting selfishness and other narcissistic traits in others. The problem is , as I've come to realise,is that this an inescapable human qualities. If you think about it, all people are capable of such behaviours-what should you do then? I think the best way is to accept some things( within reason) -overlook them if you like and try and see the positive-higher order human triats. People wil let you down-you will let them down-its inevitable.You have to develop a stronger inner sense of self and then, paradoxically, you will not feel, as much, the burning intensity of hurt from another. In my experience I have learned, through much psychic pain I might add, to make progress in dealing with exactly what you are relating here. Developing an inner resilience to these things and being able to say "oh well" when it happens is the only way,in my opinion, to deal with these issues. As long as human nature exists, in its present form, rejection is a distinct and very likely possibility.

    Fear of rejection hits home - Mary Jane - May 2nd 2009

    This article definitely reflects upon my childhood experiences.  I have always been an anti-social person because of past rejection.   Its sad because being shy only makes your chances of being rejected in the future a definite possibility.   It is also very rare that I ever open up to anyone, not even my closest friends even really know me.  They never have a clue of what to get me even for my birthday.  And I was get them something they love.   Well, they are not exactly the most perfect friends either.    My fear of rejection also contributes to my state of depression.   I have noticed if I start to feel rejection or think I feel it, I instantly move away from the situation.   This has resulted in the reason why have very few friends, and also contributes to why my friendships don’t seem to last very long.  I do admit though that I am also able to identify fake smiles and realize quickly if a person is acting selfish.    For instance, I realize way before my friends do if someone is acting selfish or is just using someone for their own benefit.   This may not be good though because I feel that I cannot trust anyone any more.  I feel like all people are selfish.   I feel very disconnected with others.    This could be because I have been rejected and felt neglect from others so much.  I try to tell myself that it’s all in my head, but feel that it is actually true because I am the last one of everyone’s minds.  

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