Why Rejection Hurts

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Rejection happens to nearly everyone. It occurs whenever someone refuses to be our friend, or whenever we don’t get picked into groups.

This inner voice tells us we are unworthy of being accepted by others, even ourselves. It tells us we don’t have a right to even take up space in the world. — Robert Cornell, LMFT

Most poignantly, rejection happens inevitably in the process of finding romantic relationships. Whenever someone rejects you, there are undeniable feelings of inadequacy and soul-crushing sadness. Ever wondered why people feel that way in the face of rejection? 

Evolution gave lifeforms unique skills to thrive in this world, and humans are no exception. Rejection is just one of those tools that helped us survive in the past. Knowing what purpose rejection serves can help us cope better with it and possibly even use it to our advantage.

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Life In Prehistoric Tribes

During prehistoric times, people had to work hard to survive. They needed a stable food and water supply, as well as protection from the elements. Since humans have no natural weapons such as claws or fangs, we instead developed intelligence to allow us to outsmart our opponents. Our minds allowed us to use a strategy that helped us become the dominant species on the planet: teamwork.

Early people lived in small groups as they went around looking for food. By working together, humans were better able to take down large prey and to defend themselves from powerful predators. When someone contracted an illness, other members of the group assisted the patient until they got well again. People can take care of children, leaving the parents free to find food. Cooperation in prehistoric tribes markedly increased the survival rates of early humans.

We often feel compelled to keep telling ourselves, our friends, or even a therapist, the same story over and over again. In reality, these stories can have a lot more to do with our own psychology than they do with the actual circumstances of the breakup. — Lisa Firestone, Ph.D.

The Cost Of Isolation

The system of cooperation practices by early humans also meant that isolation is a severe punishment. When people act contrary to the interests of the group, other members might forcibly evict them. Deprived of protection and support, isolated humans typically didn’t last long in the harsh wilderness.

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As evolution proceeded, people started to crave social support, protecting it at all costs. They also gained the ability to sense whether they were in danger of being kicked out of the tribe. These sensations are now what we associate with the feelings of rejection.

People felt pain whenever they did something that might displease other people in the tribe. The discomfort warned them that they faced certain death if they continued with their current actions. Hence, many of them stopped and tried to make amends, allowing their continued membership into the community. There were more likely to survive and have offspring, so the number of people who could sense rejection grew until everyone had this ability.

Nowadays, our survival doesn’t depend on the whims of a single group. Behaviors that encourage individuality and even deviance flourish in the modern world. However, humanity is still a social species. Everyone always needs to form relationships with one another and to support each other.

Keep in mind that emotional pain and anger at rejection are totally normal reactions to abnormal situations. No one likes being passed over, but it’s going to happen more times in life than we like to imagine. — Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.

As long as we seek out relationships with other people, we will continue to experience rejection. By understanding that rejection is essentially a self-protective measure, we realize that it’s not so bad as it seems. Once you recognize that rejection happens to everyone and is a normal part of human history, you can break away from it and move on with life.

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