Additional Information for Chapter 4, page 47

Rejection is painful. The long-term consequences are even worse than the initial sensation. The pain and shock that strikes such a horrifying blow can reverberate for weeks, months, and even years into the future. It has the power to emotionally cripple people for the remainder of their lives.

Yes it is beyond awful. But there will come a time when we will decide whether or not we choose to continue in a state of devastation or begin to take steps to deal with it.

Which steps you take will depend on how severe the rejection is. Even minor rejections are painful. When I read student comments about my teaching I typically get many positive comments, but the one negative comment is the one I remember and fret about (for a few seconds anyway). For minor rejections, I don’t have much comment. In time you get over them and go on your way rejoicing.

What we speak of here is rejection within the context of a romantic or committed relationship. This is not at all trivial and requires some attention.

Two-Step Reaction to Rejection

In times of rejection there are typically two phases:

  1. The initial sting and shock in which our emotions are left in chaos, and
  2. The attributional phase, that is, asking ourselves why it happened.

During the first phase, there’s not much that can be done. You might cry a lot or you might pour out your woes to a friend. There are no neat little formulas to structure how to overcome the initial dreadfulness. In time it will fade and you will move into a more reasoned second stage.

The urge to ask the “why” question is hard wired into our systems. Whenever something painful, unexpected or unusual happens, we wonder why it happened. Almost any sports article considers why their team won or lost. This is an automatic phase and can be useful, but there is potential for major abuse.

When you ask why, how do you know that you have the resources to come up with the right answers? When someone experiences a divorce, the answers to the why question typically results in a long list of the other person’s faults. Some of these may be accurate; others may be a perceptual bias. What it ignores is “how did I contribute to the failed relationship?” One of the reasons that 2nd and 3rd marriages fare no better than first marriages is that the couples have no clue how to live successfully in a relationship, no idea what they contributed to the previous broken relationship, and so they marry the same mistakes in a different package.

The Wisdom of the Square Root Symbol

In the success literature (Zig Ziglar, Anthony Robbins, Earl Nightingale and others) failure, whether in the achievement or relational domain, is viewed as an opportunity for growth. The symbol on the front of the Crisis Intervention text I use features the square root symbol:

There are four lines in this symbol:

  1. The short horizontal line
  2. The downward stroke
  3. The upward stroke
  4. The longer horizontal line

Each represents a different segment associated with response to crisis:

  1. The short horizontal line represents the initial level of functioning
  2. The downward stroke represents the chaos of crisis (rejection in this case)
  3. The upward stroke represents the recovery phase from crisis
  4. The longer horizontal line represents a higher level of functioning

The critical phase is the third stroke. The first and second will happen. The altitude of the final line depends on the effectiveness of stroke 3.

For those who come up with the wrong reasons and do not pursue a measured response of learning from the rejection they experienced, a mutated version of the square root symbol emerges.

Each crisis leaves them at a lower level of functioning, and crisis after crisis they continue to spiral downward.

The enormously successful people of our world typically experience many failures and challenges. But when they learn from each failure, whether in the achievement or relational domain, the eventual result is the enormous success they so well deserve. The model looks like this:

Thoughtful Response to Rejection

The reality is that we will experience rejection many times in our lives. Some rejections will be trivial and have little impact, but others will shake us to our foundation. The most important response to rejection is the determination that you will learn from the experience and emerge better than before. This choice needs to take place NOT when you are experiencing the rejection but some time when you feel strong. When smaller rejections happen (e.g., someone chooses to not join you for lunch) begin the process. Consider what in us (or them) caused the rejection?

We look at this simple rejection as an example of how to deal with rejections small or large:

If our answer to “what caused the rejection” is incorrect we may end up no better than before or even slip backwards. For instance say the real reason for the lunch-invitation rejection was that the person had a pressing deadline and needed to work. Let’s consider further that the rejected person, after careful thought, determines that the reason for the rejection was “I’m not attractive enough,” or “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m not smart enough,” or “I don’t possess adequate social skills.”

Throughout my teaching career I have had students complain “you don’t have to learn the subject, you just have to figure out the professor.” My stock response is: “and, do you think that is a useful skill?” In many instances, to learn how to understand someone else is much more important than the course content.

Back to our lunch-rejection example: A socially skilled person would generally be able to identify the cause of rejection. But if you don’t know, it is useful to understand why. How can one get accurate information about the rejections that occur?

Three classes of rejection

We first look at three classes of rejections.

  1. Some rejections are trivial and not worth the effort. If we try to analyze everything we tie ourselves in knots. For instance a rebuff by a stranger is usually not worth even thinking about.
  2. Some rejections may not be very consequential but, if we want to grow and we have the time, uncovering the real reason provides excellent practice for other situations. The lunch-invitation rejection probably falls into this category. If we anticipate an ongoing relationship with this person then it may be useful to understand their response because it will influence future interactions.
  3. Some rejections have severe relational or professional implications. In these circumstances it is urgent that we come up with the correct reasons. A divorce provides an excellent example. If we divorce but do not understand the real reasons, we have no better than a random chance that the next relationship will turn out any better. If we understand qualities that we possess that contributed to the divorce and have a reasonably objective awareness of the destructive qualities of our former partner; then the foundation for doing better next time is in place.

Obtaining accurate information about the cause of rejection

So, if we don’t know the real reason, how can we find out? Some or all of the following ideas may prove useful:

  • Ask the person in such a way that you are likely to get a straight answer. This first line of information-gathering may work sometimes and not at all at others. For instance, you ask someone out for a date and they turn you down. The real reason is that they think you are unattractive, unintelligent, and socially unskilled. If you ask them why, it is unlikely that you will ever get, “because I think you are an ugly, stupid klutz.” People generally don’t want to hurt other people and will come with any excuse rather than the truth. However if you pose the questions within the context of a real desire to learn you may get useful information.
  • Ask someone who knows you both well and likes you both and has a reputation for objectivity and wisdom. You can explain to your friend that your reason for asking is to increase your ability to understand others and to grow personally. If all criteria are fulfilled then you are likely to get useful information that is beneficial. If any of the criteria are missing there is room for distortion. For example:
    àIf they don’t know you or the other person well, their answers are likely to be trivial or erroneous.
    àIf they don’t like you or the other person, then their answer is likely to be biased to favor the person they like better.
    àIf the person lacks objectivity or wisdom, the response will be as random and useless as some comment out of a pop-psych book; “Don’t worry, be happy!”.
    àIf you don’t explain why you are asking them, they have no context from which to respond. For instance, if you don’t provide a context, they may pass of your request with a thoughtless, “Don’t worry about it, he’s a jerk.”
  • Purchase a book on emotional intelligence, read it and apply the principles. One of the best on the market is Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence. You can access this book by clicking on the live link
  • Counseling. If you are particularly poor at social relationships the guidance of a trained therapist may help.


In summary there are two stages to growing through rejection:

  1. Pre-determine that when rejection occurs, after you have recovered from the initial sting, that you will learn why, take appropriate action, and grow because of it
  2. Determine ways of acquiring valid information and applying it.
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