How To Handle Social Rejection

An obstacle that prevents many people from improving their social skills and going after the life they want is that they're afraid of rejection. They fear being humiliated as they're turned down. They fear getting the message that they're not good enough. They fear having to feel worse about themselves.

It's something that everyone struggles with. If you remain overly fearful of rejection your life will stagnate. Too many of the things you need to do to improve your social life have an element of risk to them. Starting conversations, expressing your opinions, and inviting someone to hang out are just a few.

This won't be some unrealistic article that will try to tell you that rejection is no big deal and that you can learn to completely get over being bothered by it. Of course it hurts to be rejected. We all get nervous when we have to put ourselves out there. No one is totally able not to care. However, some people are better at handling rejection than others. They can bounce back from it quicker, are able to frame it more constructively, and don't let it affect their self-worth as much.

This article will cover three sub-topics:

I'll talk about dealing with specific instances where you put yourself on the line and ask something of someone and they turn you down. This other article is about coping with a more general negative opinion of you that you know is out there:

How To Deal With Negative Judgments About Your Social Issues

Traits of people who aren't great at dealing with rejection

People who have a hard time with social rejection tend to have many of the following apply to them:

As you have more social success and gain experience with rejection, your attitude to it will tend to change

People who have an easier time with rejection fit the description below. Their resistance to rejection comes from them actually having had some real world success:

Constructive attitudes toward rejection

People who handle rejection better also develop more healthy attitudes toward it. These also tend to come about as a side effect of their positive experiences. The typical productive attitudes are:

Getting past the Catch-22

I totally realize the Catch-22 inherent in what I've described above - To get to a point where a fear of rejection doesn't hinder your having social success... you have to already have had some social success. Yeah, really actionable advice there. Here are my thoughts on how you can bridge the gap:

Get that first little taste of success and let things snowball from there

The good thing about having the mentality where you're good at facing rejection is that once it takes hold it tends to build on itself. It subjectively feels better to think that way, and it propels you toward even more progress, which reinforces your new attitude further. Don't base your self-esteem on whether you can become the most popular, charismatic person in the world overnight. If you can meet a small, achievable social goal, that will build your confidence and give you the momentum to make bigger gains. This is a gradual process. It's not like you'll get one friend and suddenly become fearless. But like I said, once the ball starts rolling it tends to keep going.

Getting that first bit of success and handling that first batch of rejections is the hardest

Like with working on other social issues, the trickiest part is often right at the beginning when you're trying to get those initial positive results. The first few times you purposely stick your neck out and get rejected are the toughest. Those first few friends may be the hardest ones to make. After you're over the hump the rest of the way can be a lot smoother.

Try to adopt the healthy attitudes toward rejection

A minute ago I listed many of the more productive, healthy views toward rejection. For the most part you'll start to develop them as you become more successful. However, sometimes just reading about an alternative attitude can help instill it in you. If that happens for you, great. However, don't try to force yourself to have a different mentality too much. Like I said, the majority of your attitude change will come as you have new experiences.

Facing your fear of rejection

Like with other types of fears, a reliable way to get past a fear of rejection is to face it and learn firsthand that you can handle it. This article and this article go into more detail. Put yourself in situations where there's a risk of rejection, starting with ones that feel easier and more manageable, and work your way up. No one ever fully kills off their discomfort with getting rejected, but they can get much better at facing it.

When you confront your fear of rejection, by definition that means you're going to be getting rejected more. Farther down I talk about some approaches to feeling better after that happens. You'll need to use those strategies. You've got to get yourself used to being in situations where you risk rejection, but you've also got to be able to have a healthy, ultimately beneficial response to it when it happens. If you don't, and you still take a negative message from being turned down, all the additional rejections can just make you feel worse about yourself.

Your attitude toward being rejected can change once you purposely start working on it

Some people might have read the point above and thought, "I've already been rejected a ton of times. I haven't gotten used to it. If anything, I hate it more than ever." What I've found is that there can be a big difference between when you have knowledge about how to handle an obstacle, and you're deliberately and systematically working on it, compared to before when you had no clue and were bumbling along as best you could.

In the past someone may have just tried to make friends, with no real plan, and when they got rejected they were completely thrown for a loop. After reading more about social skills and how to face their fear of rejection, they can come in with a totally different approach. They'll know, "Okay, here's what I need to try to do. It's possible I may be rejected. That's okay. If it happens I'll do x,y,z. If not I'll do q,r,s..." The whole exercise feels more like a detached project, and the outcome doesn't feel as much like a reflection of their worthiness as a person.

Expect rejection and prepare for it ahead of time

Some people find they have less fear of rejection if they acknowledge it's a possibility going into a situation, and they have a plan in place to deal with it. It's easier to ask someone if they want to hang out if you've already partially made peace with the fact that they may say no. Some readers may be thinking, "No, expecting rejection ahead of time is my whole problem. And anticipating it makes me feel worse, not more in control." This suggestion may not apply to everyone. Again, going back to the previous point, once some people start actively addressing their fear, and not living in a reactive, moment-to-moment way, their response to it may change.

Rejection often isn't as bad as you imagine it will be

Don't get me wrong, I totally realize some rejections are hard to take, and right below this point I give several suggestions for dealing with them. Sometimes though we'll dread a possible rejection ahead of time, but in the moment when it actually happens, it doesn't hit us as hard as we thought it would. Our response is more, "Oh... okay then. I guess they don't want to be friends", rather than, "Agh, this is horrible! I can't stand it!" You may also find your attitude toward the rejector quickly morphs to an annoyed or indifferent one, instead of you feeling dejected - "Well, if they don't want to hang out with me, then I don't want to hang out with them."

Again, some readers may reply, "No, rejection is as bad as I imagine it is. And I've had it happen to me so many times that it's even worse now." This is another point that may not be the perfect fit for everyone. And again, the idea that your mentality may change if you start proactively tackling your rejection issues may apply here too.

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Ways to feel better following a tough rejection

In the long run rejection will start to affect you less. Plus, at any stage in the process there are going to be plenty of rejections that you get over very easily. Like if you ask a bunch of co-workers if they want to meet up for drinks in the evening, and most accept, but three of them say they can't make it, you may not give it a second thought. Or you may not care if you unsuccessfully try to chat to two people at a party before you end up hitting it off with a third. However, if you're used to it or not, there are still times where a particular setback may hit you hard and you need to try to make yourself feel better. Here are some suggestions:

First, don't make any big decisions about your social life while the rejection is fresh

Right after being rejected your emotions can be intense, and you may in a very pessimistic, hopeless headspace. In the moment you may want to make a sudden change, like abruptly cutting off an entire group, quitting a class or club, or totally giving up on trying to meet new people. Give yourself time to recover from the immediate gut punch before you decide what to do. Find an excuse to give yourself some space from everyone if you need it. Depending on the circumstances it may still be the right call to, say, stop talking to the person who rejected you, but try to make that choice with a clearer mind.

Give yourself time to feel down about it

Some rejections won't affect you much, but if one does hit you harder, that's okay. It's totally normal to sometimes be down about this kind of thing. It doesn't help to try to force yourself to feel fine, or believe you shouldn't care as much as you do, or berate yourself for being "weak". If it bothers you, it bothers you. One day down the road you likely won't let it get to you as much, but for now it does. It goes without saying though that you don't want to dwell on the rejection for too long or let it totally paralyze you. Depending on how much the rejection stings, give yourself anywhere from a day to a couple of weeks to feel bummed out, then take more active steps to put it behind you.

If the rejection was fairly run of the mill then you may just need a day or two to get it out of your system. With the exception of extreme traumas, our minds are good at getting things back to business as usual and not letting us feel the same emotion for too long. What you'll probably also find is that the more experience you have with rejection, the quicker you'll naturally recover from it. At first getting turned down may knock you out for a solid few days. With time you'll still feel it, but the worst of the emotions may pass in a day and a half instead. You may even start to get over minor, routine rejections in minutes.

Be careful not to take your feelings out on others

Rejection mainly makes people feel sad, discouraged, and ashamed, and want to hole up to recover. It can also make you angry and frustrated. If that's the case, it's okay that you feel that way, but watch how you express it. Just because you're upset, it doesn't give you a pass to be rude and snippy or lash out at someone. Do what you can to handle your anger constructively.

Use general approaches to making yourself feel better

This is standard advice. Allow yourself to feel bad for a bit right after the rejection, but after that start doing things that will help pick up your mood and remind you that you've got a lot of other good things going on in your life. Go do something really fun, exercise, talk to someone about how you feel and get it off your chest, and so on.

Watch how you think about and explain the rejection

When you get rejected you don't want to create a takeaway message that reinforce feelings of helplessness and low self-esteem. Catching and challenging your self-critical, unrealistic thoughts can help prevent that. This isn't to contradict the earlier point. If you feel bad, that's okay, and this isn't about trying to force your thinking to be "perfect" so you won't feel a natural response. It's more about being on guard for thoughts that may make things even worse. This article gives an overview of disputing counterproductive thoughts.

One thing you want to look for in particular is the explanation you give yourself for why the rejection happened. You may tend to blame it all on your supposed personal flaws and generalize one setback to mean no one could ever like you and your social problems will never get better. You might also unquestionably assume people have a negative opinion of you.

Take the time to consider more innocuous explanations. First, question whether you even experienced a true rejection, or something that just felt like one. Maybe someone didn't answer a question of yours and you assumed it was because they were offended and hated you, when they just couldn't think of an answer, or their mind momentarily went elsewhere. Some other examples:

Put the rejection in perspective

Sometimes it can also help to take a step back and think about how important the rejection really was in the grand scheme of things. Right in the aftermath of being rejected your thoughts may be a bit overblown and you'll think things like, "That was my only chance to make friends. Now that they've turned me down I'll be alone for years" or, "They seemed like they'd be the perfect friend for me. My social life will never be the same without them." If you can think more realistically and put things in perspective you may realize the classmate who didn't want to be friends with you was just one prospect of dozens, or that you actually didn't have that much in common with the co-worker who turned down your invitation. The rejections were hardly make or break. Don't go too far and totally trash the people who rejected you. Just try to think about the impact of their rejection in more balanced terms.

Keep pursuing other prospects

Rejection is a lot harder to take if you thought you blew the one good chance you had going at the moment. Ideally at the time you got rejected you were also pursuing other social opportunities. Just knowing that can take a lot of the rejection's impact away. If not, then take steps to cultivate some new prospects. Send your mind the message that the recent rejection was just a hiccup, and that you've got a lot of things coming down the pipeline that may turn out better.

Reframe the rejection and see what value you can get from it

This isn't to say that if you look for a silver lining in a rejection that it will instantly cut off any unpleasant emotions you're experiencing, but it can provide some relief. Think about what learning opportunities and lessons the rejection provided. Maybe the pain you're going through now will give you information that will help you avoid mistakes down the road. If you can figure out a gaffe you made, it can also take some of the sting away because you can tell yourself it was a correctable error that caused the rejection, not your core personality.

For example, someone at a party got the cold shoulder from a group they tried to chat with. In hindsight they realized the group was giving clear signs that they were having a private, personal conversation, and that they barged in and tried to argue with everyone about politics. Another example: A guy unsuccessfully tried to make friends with two colleagues. After thinking about it more, he decided that he didn't really have anything in common with them, and just automatically felt he should try to be buddies because they seemed popular with everyone else in the office.

Give yourself credit for trying, and having the guts to take a risk

You're actively working on your issues. You're making progress. You were able to take a chance. Not everyone is able to do that. Maybe that sounds a bit schmaltzy and "rah rah rah!", but I think trying is important and not an accomplishment you should just brush off.

Try to get outside feedback if you keep getting rejected and don't know why

Some people feel like they're constantly being rejected, even when they try to correct their mistakes, and can't put a finger on why. I think if something like this has been happening to you it's best to seek some outside advice. You may have some blind spots that you need someone else to point out. It's best to ask someone who can observe you in person, rather than putting an "I don't know what I'm doing wrong" post up on a forum, where the other members won't have much more information to go on than you do. If you have a friend or family member you feel you can ask, you can go to them. Not everyone is comfortable giving people potentially hurtful feedback though. It could also be useful to hear the thoughts of a professional counselor. More thoughts here:

How To Get Feedback On Your Social Skills And How You Come Across