How Social Rejection Affects You
Do you worry about the social rejection of two strangers in a waiting room?
Your gut answer to that question might be “Yes,” “No,” “Just how cute are these strangers?”, or something in between. But in his book Emotional First Aid, Guy Winch explains that all of us care a little more than we’d guess, according to research.
Winch describes a psychological study (originally published by Dr. Kipling Williams and Dr. K.L. Sommer) that involves three people in a waiting room. Two are planted there as part of the experiment, but the third doesn’t know that they’re part of an experiment; the third person actually thinks that everyone is the waiting room is waiting to be called in for a different experiment altogether. There are balls on the table in the waiting room, and one of the planted people picks it up and starts tossing it to the second planted person, apparently just spontaneously. The second throws it to the third, the one who has no idea they’re part of the experiment. All three playfully toss it around for a few rounds, but then the two planted people deliberately start throwing just to each other, cutting out the third person.
You may think you’d be vaguely miffed, or shrug it off and pick up your phone to continue scrolling Twitter, and just move on with your day. But this experiment has been repeated dozens of times, and Winch says that each time it has “demonstrated that people consistently report feeling significant emotional pain as a result of being excluded from the ball-tossing game.”
Social rejection hurts.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s from a stranger, a hiring manager, or the partner you’ve been dating for three years and suddenly been dumped by. Anyone old enough to be fully conscious of social situations knows that. You might not know just how significant this sense of exclusion, ostracism, or not-good-enough-ness affects humans, though. Researchers studying social rejection have uncovered some truly startling facts about rejection:
- Winch cites a 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which reports that “rejection triggers the same brain pathways that are activated when we experience physical pain.” In fact, crazy as it might sound, participants in the ball-tossing study who were given a Tylenol before being put through the experiment reported less emotional pain than the participants who hadn’t! That’s how closely physical pain and the emotional pain of social rejection are linked in the brain.
- Speaking of pain, studies have also shown that the emotional pain of social rejection can be recalled in the future much more sharply and clearly than physical pain. If you think about this for yourself, you’ll find that it’s true. You may be able to remember that you were miserable one time that you had the flu or a broken arm, but it’s not like your arm feels a ghost of that cracking, fire-like pain when you think of it. When you recall a past rejection, though – maybe a time you asked for someone’s phone number and they declined, or a time you came across all of your friends out to eat without you – it’ll feel as if you’re right back in that moment again, like it was yesterday.
- Winch also mentions that people asked to describe the emotional pain of social rejection as “equal in severity to that associated with natural childbirth and cancer treatments!” And many respondents who said things like this were describing rejections they’d experienced one, five, even ten years ago.
- Finally, Winch explains that rejection actually temporarily lowers your IQ: “Being asked to recall a recent rejection experience and relive the experience was enough to cause people to score significantly lower on subsequent IQ tests, tests of short-term memory, and tests of decision making. Indeed, when we are reeling from a painful rejection, thinking clearly is just not that easy.”
So what can you do to guard against social rejection?
The answer might sound a little surprising and not quite related to rejection, at first glance: change your mindset from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Mindset expert Carol Dweck first coined these two terms. A fixed mindset involves believing that your attributes are static – you’re born with them, and you can’t adjust them. For instance, someone with a fixed mindset might say, “I’ve always been so bad at math.” But a growth mindset, on the other hand, involves believing that traits can change over time as a result of hard work and persistence. Someone with a growth mindset might say, “I used to be bad at math, but I spent two years studying really hard and putting a lot of time into learning more, and now I feel comfortable with most kinds of math.”
So how do these two mindsets relate to social rejection?
The answer can be found in a 2016 article in The Atlantic by Lauren Howe. Howe discusses the ways that people handle breakups differently, and about the stories people tell themselves about why their breakups happened. These stories fall into two categories – and you guessed what they are: fixed mindset-related stories and growth mindset-related stories.
Discussing these two kinds of mindset-related stories, Howe says, “In these types of stories, rejection uncovered a hidden flaw, one that led people to question or change their own views of themselves—and, often, they portrayed their personalities as toxic, with negative qualities likely to contaminate other relationships.”
But the people with growth mindsets told themselves stories about their breakups that sounded more like this:
“I learned that two people can both be quality individuals, but that doesn’t mean they belong together.”
“It’s nothing to do with yourself, it’s just that sometimes girls aren’t interested.”
People that told themselves the second type of story about their breakups didn’t tote around the same emotional pain that the fixed mindset people did. They weren’t tormented by the ghosts of their old relationships, and, most importantly, they didn’t come to believe that they were damaged, broken people fundamentally.
So, at the end of the day, Dweck’s research shows that having a growth mindset isn’t just ideal for helping you learn new skills or have the confidence to apply to a new job; it helps you deal with social rejection, too. You can use rejection to your advantage without suffering huge damage to your self-esteem. It’s possible to learn from other’s criticism instead of being crushed by it.
If you want to read more about social rejection and how to not suffer crushing blows to your self-esteem, check out Guy Winch’s book and Dweck’s book on mindset. With the right frame of mind, rejection doesn’t have to completely derail your life and your happiness.
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