Ask a ten-year-old what you should do if you catch a cold and the child would immediately recommend getting into bed and drinking chicken soup. Ask what you should do if you get a cut on your knee and the child would advocate cleaning it (or using antibacterial ointment) and bandaging it. Children also know that if you break a bone in your leg you need to get a cast on it so it mends correctly. If you then asked why these steps were necessary they would tell you that treating such injuries helps them heal and prevents them from getting worse, that colds can turn into pneumonia, that cuts can become infected, and that if broken bones heal incorrectly you’ll have trouble walking once the cast comes off. We teach our children how to take care of their bodies from a very young age and they usually learn such lessons well.

But ask an adult what you should do to ease the sharp pain of rejection, the devastating ache of loneliness, or the bitter disappointment of failure and the person would know little about how to treat these common psychological injuries. Ask what you should do to recover from low self-esteem or loss and trauma and adults would be equally challenged. Ask how you might deal with intrusive ruminations or nagging guilt and you are likely to be met with sheepish looks, feet shuffling, and a pointed effort to change the subject.

Some might confidently suggest the best remedy is to talk about our feelings with friends or family members, certain that no mental health professional in his or her right mind would object to talking about feelings. But while discussing our feelings might offer relief in some situations, it can actually be damaging in others. Pointing out these dangers usually causes another round of sheepish looks, feet shuffling, and a pointed effort to change the subject.

The reason we take little to no purposeful action to treat the psychological wounds we sustain in daily life is because we lack the tools with which to manage such experiences. True, we could seek the counsel of a mental health professional in such situations, but doing so is often impractical, as most of the psychological wounds we sustain in life are not serious enough to warrant professional intervention. Just as we wouldn’t pitch a tent outside our family doctor’s waiting room at the first sign of a cough or sniffle, we can’t run to a therapist every time we get rejected by a romantic prospect or whenever our boss yells at us.

But while every household has a medicine cabinet full of bandages, ointments, and pain relievers for treating basic physical maladies, we have no such medicine cabinet for the minor psychological injuries we sustain in daily life. And sustain them we do, just as frequently as we do physical ones. Each of the psychological wounds covered in this book is extremely common and each of them is emotionally painful and potentially psychologically damaging. Yet, until now, we’ve had no conventional means to ease the pains, soothe the aches, and relieve the distresses of these events despite the regularity with which they occur in our lives.

Applying emotional first aid to such injuries can prevent many of them from affecting our mental health and emotional well-being going forward. Indeed, many of the diagnosable psychological conditions for which we seek professional treatment could be prevented if we applied emotional first aid to our wounds when we first sustained them. For example, a ruminative tendency can quickly grow into anxiety and depression, and experiences of failure and rejection can easily lead to erosions in our self-esteem. Treating such injuries not only accelerates their healing but also helps prevent complications from developing and mitigates the severity of any that do arise.

Of course, when the psychological injury is serious, emotional first aid treatments should not replace seeing a mental health professional any more than having a well-stocked medicine cabinet abolishes the need for physicians and hospitals. But while we know our limitations when it comes to our physical health, the same is not true of our mental health. Most of us can recognize when a cut is deep enough to require stitches, we can usually tell the difference between a swollen bruise and a broken bone, and we tend to know when we’re dehydrated to the point of needing an infusion of plasma. But when it comes to our psychological wounds, we lack not only the wherewithal to do anything about them but also the ability to identify when they require professional intervention. As a result, we often neglect our psychological wounds until they become severe enough to impair our functioning. We would never leave a cut on our knee unattended until it compromised our ability to walk, but we leave psychological wounds unattended all the time, often until they literally prevent us from moving forward in life.

This discrepancy between our general competence in treating assaults to our physical health and our complete incompetence where our mental health is concerned is extremely unfortunate. If no such emotional first aid techniques existed, if it were impossible to treat these psychological wounds, this state of affairs might be tolerable. But such is not the case. Recent progress in numerous areas of psychological research has unveiled many treatment options for exactly the kinds of psychological injuries we sustain most often.

Each chapter in this book describes a common and everyday psychological injury and the various emotional first aid techniques we can apply to ease our emotional pain and prevent the problem from becoming worse. These science-based techniques can all be self-administered, much as we self-administer first aid for our physical ailments, and they can also be introduced to our children. The techniques in this book represent the future staples of our psychological medicine cabinets, the mental health medical kits we can carry with us as we go through life.

During my years studying clinical psychology in graduate school I was frequently criticized for giving my patients specific and concrete suggestions for how they might alleviate their emotional pains. “We’re here to do deep psychological work,” one supervisor used to admonish me, “not to dispense psychological aspirin—it doesn’t exist!”

But offering immediate relief and doing deep psychological work are not mutually exclusive. I believe everyone should have access to emotional first aid treatments, just as they should any other treatments for dressing emotional wounds. Over the years, I’ve made it a practice to distill innovative research findings into practical suggestions, treatments my patients can apply to the emotional hurts of daily living. I’ve done so for one main reason—they work. For some years now, my patients, friends, and family members have been urging me to collect these emotional first aid treatments into a book. I decided to do so because it’s time we took our mental health more seriously. It’s time we practiced mental health hygiene just as we do dental and physical hygiene. It’s time we all owned a psychological medicine cabinet with the emotional equivalents of bandages, antibacterial ointments, ice packs, and fever suppressants.

After all, once we know psychological aspirins do exist, we’d be foolish not to use them.



The Emotional Cuts and Scrapes of Daily Life

Of all the emotional wounds we suffer in life, rejection is perhaps the most common. By the time we reach middle school we’ve already been turned down for play dates, picked last for teams, not invited to birthday parties, dropped by old friends who joined new cliques, and teased or bullied by classmates. We finally get through the gauntlet of childhood rejections only to discover that an entirely new array of rejection experiences awaits us as adults. We get turned down by potential dates, refused by potential employers, and snubbed by potential friends. Our spouses rebuff our sexual advances, our neighbors give us the cold shoulder, and family members shut us out of their lives.

Rejections are the psychological cuts and scrapes that tear our emotional skin and penetrate our flesh. Some rejections are so severe they create deep psychological gashes that “bleed” profusely and require urgent attention. Others are like emotional paper cuts that sting quite a bit but bleed only a little. One might expect that, given the frequency with which we encounter rejection in one form or another, we’d have a clear understanding and appreciation of its impact on our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. But such is not the case. We drastically underestimate the pain rejections elicit and the psychological wounds they create.

The Psychological Wounds Rejection Inflicts

Rejections can cause four distinct psychological wounds, the severity of which depends on the situation and our emotional health at the time. Specifically, rejections elicit emotional pain so sharp it affects our thinking, floods us with anger, erodes our confidence and self-esteem, and destabilizes our fundamental feeling of belonging.

Many of the rejections we experience are comparatively mild and our injuries heal with time. But when left untreated, even the wounds created by mild rejections can become “infected” and cause psychological complications that seriously impact our mental well-being. When the rejections we experience are substantial, the urgency of treating our wounds with emotional first aid is far greater. This not only minimizes the risk of “infections” or complications but also accelerates our emotional healing process. In order to administer emotional first aid and successfully treat the four wounds rejection causes, we need a clear understanding of each of them and a full appreciation of how our emotions, thought processes, and behaviors are damaged when we experience rejections.

1. Emotional Pain: Why Even Stupid Rejections Smart a Lot

Imagine you’re sitting in a waiting room with two other strangers. One of them spots a ball on the table, picks it up, and tosses it to the other. That person then smiles, looks over, and tosses the ball to you. Let’s assume your tossing and catching abilities are up to the task. You toss the ball back to the first person, who quickly tosses it to the second. But then instead of tossing the ball to you, the second person tosses it back to the first person, cutting you out of the game. How would you feel in that situation? Would your feelings be hurt? Would it affect your mood? What about your self-esteem?

Most of us would scoff at the idea. Two strangers didn’t pass me a stupid ball in a waiting room, big deal! Who cares? But when psychologists investigated this very situation, they found something quite remarkable. We do care, far more than we realize. The ball-tossing scenario is a well-researched psychology experiment in which the two “strangers” are actually research confederates. The “subject” (who thinks they are all waiting to be called for an entirely different experiment) always gets excluded after the first or second round of ball tossing. Dozens of studies have demonstrated that people consistently report feeling significant emotional pain as a result of being excluded from the ball-tossing game.

What makes these findings remarkable is that compared to most of the rejections we experience in life, being excluded by two strangers tossing a ball is about as mild as rejection gets. If such a trivial experience can elicit sharp emotional pain (as well as drops in mood and even self-esteem) we can begin to appreciate how painful truly meaningful rejections often are. That is why getting dumped by someone we’re dating, getting fired from our job, or discovering that our friends have been meeting up without us can have such a huge impact on our emotional well-being.

Indeed, what separates rejection from almost every other negative emotion we encounter in life is the magnitude of the pain it elicits. We often describe the emotional pain we experience after a significant rejection as analogous to being punched in the stomach or stabbed in the chest. True, few of us have actually been stabbed in the chest, but when psychologists asked people to compare the pain of rejection to physical pains they had experienced, they rated their emotional pain as equal in severity to that associated with natural childbirth and cancer treatments! As a counterpoint, consider that other emotionally painful experiences, such as intense disappointment, frustration, or fear, while highly unpleasant, pale in comparison to rejection when it comes to the sheer visceral pain they cause.

But why do rejections hurt so much more than other emotional wounds?

The answer lies in our evolutionary past. Humans are social animals; being rejected from our tribe or social group in our precivilized past would have meant losing access to food, protection, and mating partners, making it extremely difficult to survive. Being ostracized would have been akin to receiving a death sentence. Because the consequences of ostracism were so extreme, our brains developed an early-warning system to alert us when we were at risk for being “voted off the island” by triggering sharp pain whenever we experienced even a hint of social rejection.

In fact, brain scans show that the very same brain regions get activated when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain. Remarkably, the two systems are so tightly linked that when scientists gave people acetaminophen (Tylenol) before putting them through the dastardly ball-tossing rejection experiment, they reported significantly less emotional pain than people who were not given a pain reliever. Sadly, other negative emotions like embarrassment do not share these characteristics, rendering Tylenol ineffective when we get the date wrong for our office Halloween party and show up to work dressed like Marge Simpson.

Rejection Rejects Reason

Martha and Angelo came to couples therapy to deal with frequent arguments about Angelo’s inability to seek new employment after he had been downsized by his company six months earlier. “I’d been with that shipping company twenty years,” Angelo explained. The hurt was still apparent on his face. “Those people were my friends! How could they do this to me?”

While Martha had been sympathetic initially, she was becoming increasingly frustrated about Angelo’s inability to recover from the emotional blow and start looking for a new job. It quickly became apparent that Angelo was as frustrated with himself as Martha was. He tried to motivate himself and talk himself into making efforts, but he simply felt too consumed by emotional pain. He tried reasoning with himself to let go of the hurt and “get over it,” but nothing worked.

Many of us find it difficult to talk ourselves out of the hurt we feel when we experience rejection. One of the reasons rejection is often so devastating is that our reason, logic, and common sense are usually ineffective when it comes to mitigating the pain we feel. For example, when scientists told participants who had been excluded in a computerized version of the ball-tossing experiment (called Cyberball) that their exclusion had been rigged, finding out the rejection wasn’t even “real” did little to ease the pain they felt. Scientists are a tenacious bunch, so they told a different set of participants that the people who’d excluded them were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Surely rejection would hurt less if we despised the people who rejected us. But nope, it still hurt just as much. They even tried replacing the cyber ballwith an animated cyber bomb that was programmed to explode at random, “killing” whoever had possession of it at the time. But subjects felt just as much rejection pain when they were not passed a cyberbomb as they were when they were not passed a cyberball.

Rejections impact our ability to use sound logic and think clearly in other ways as well. For example, merely being asked to recall episodes of acute rejection was sufficient for people to score substantially lower on subsequent IQ tests, tests of short-term memory, and measures of reasoning ability and decision making.

Romantic rejections are especially potent when it comes to scrambling our brains and tampering with our good judgment, even when they occur extremely early in a relationship or, indeed, before a “relationship” even exists (breakups after long or serious relationships are covered in chapter 3). One young man I worked with flew to Europe to “surprise” a woman he had met on a week-long summer vacation despite her clearly telling him she was not interested in pursuing a relationship. Still smarting from that rejection, the young man convinced himself that his impromptu “romantic gesture” would “melt her heart and change her mind for sure!” The woman was so startled when he showed up at her front door at an indecent hour of the morning the only thing she changed was the locks. The desperation we feel in the wake of certain rejections can drive many of us to confuse a romantic gesture with a creepy one.

2. Anger and Aggression: Why Doors Get Broken and Walls Get Punched

Rejections often trigger anger and aggressive impulses that cause us to feel a powerful urge to lash out, especially at those who rejected us, but in a pinch, innocent bystanders will do. One group of innocent bystanders that know this all too well are the countless doors and walls that have had fists punched through them by freshly rejected men, and at times women (although those made of brick and solid wood usually get the last laugh). Keeping such dangers in mind is equally important when we’re the ones doing the rejecting. Even if the person we plan to reject is a model of kindheartedness, our Hummel figurine collection might still be in grave danger.

Lest we judge the wall punchers and figurine breakers too harshly, we should consider that even the most inconsequential rejections stir up highly aggressive tendencies in the best of us. For example, after a game of Cyberball, people were given the option to blast an innocent participant with unpleasant white noise (someone they were explicitly told had not been part of the ball-tossing situation). Rejected subjects blasted innocent participants with much louder and much lengthier durations of noise than nonrejected subjects did. In different series of studies, rejected subjects forced innocent participants to eat four times as much hot sauce as nonrejected subjects did, to consume terrible-tasting beverages, and to listen to extremely aversive audiotapes. In case you’re wondering how often the scientists behind such experiments get recruited by reality TV executives to devise disgusting challenges for their game show contestants, your guess is as good as mine.

Unfortunately, our tendency to respond to rejection with anger has far darker and more serious manifestations as well. Severe and repeated experiences of rejection can elicit the kind of aggression that goes far beyond the realm of white noise or hot sauce. When psychological wounds of this nature are left untreated they quickly become “infected” and threaten serious damage to a person’s mental health. Stories of injurious and self-injurious aggressive behaviors following rejections are frequently in the news. Jilted lovers who seek revenge, fired postal workers who ... “go postal,” and the terrible epidemic of bullied children who take their own lives are just a few such examples of what happens when the psychological wounds caused by chronic and severe rejections remain untreated.

In 2001 the office of the surgeon general of the United States issued a report that found social rejection to be a greater risk factor for adolescent violence than gang membership, poverty, or drug use. Feelings of rejection also play a huge role in violence between romantic partners. Many incidents of violence are triggered by jealousy and suspicions of infidelity, which are tightly related to feelings of rejection. When scientists examined 551 cases in which men killed their wives, they found that almost half occurred in response to real or imminent separations. Indeed, men who murder their wives often later admit to being unable to deal with the rejection they felt.

Studies of school shootings, including the 1999 Columbine tragedy, found that thirteen of fifteen incidents involved perpetrators who had experienced significant interpersonal rejection and ostracism from schoolmates. In many cases, shooters specifically targeted students who had bullied, teased, or rejected them in the past, often seeking them out first.

We all experience rejection to some degree and thankfully only a tiny minority of us end up in the headlines as a result. However, the link between rejection and aggression is strong, and it is extremely important to recognize that the pain rejections cause can spur some of us to behave in ways we never would otherwise.

3. Damaged Self-Esteem: Kicking Ourselves When We’re Already Down

Experiencing profound or repeated rejection is extremely harmful to our self-esteem. In fact, the mere act of recalling a previous rejection is sufficient to cause a temporary drop in feelings of self-worth. Unfortunately, the pounding our self-esteem takes rarely stops there. We often compound our rejection experiences by becoming extremely self-critical—essentially kicking ourselves when we’re already down. Responding this way is common but it can easily cause the psychological cuts and scrapes of the original rejection to become “infected” and consequently to have a truly debilitating effect on our mental health.

Angelo lost his job at the shipping company because his entire department got eliminated in a cost-cutting measure, yet he perceived the rejection as highly personal (“Those people were my friends! How could they do this to me?”). Personalizing the rejection made Angelo feel as though he was unwanted by his friends and abandoned by his long-time colleagues. He avoided contact with anyone from his former company, as he was convinced that communicating with them would only expose him to the disapproval, disappointment, or disrespect they felt toward him, despite such fears being utterly unfounded. When friends and coworkers did reach out to him (which of course they did), he avoided responding to their e-mails and voice messages even when they contained leads for other jobs. After several months, his friends stopped reaching out entirely. In Angelo’s mind, their eventual silence only justified his fear that they’d never cared for him in the first place.

Angelo is not alone. We all have a tendency to take rejections too personally and to draw conclusions about our shortcomings when there is little evidence that such assumptions are warranted. Think back (even if way back) to when you were rejected by someone romantically. Did you find yourself listing everything that might be wrong with you? Did you fault yourself for not being attractive enough or sophisticated enough or smart enough or rich enough or young enough, or all of the above? Did you think, “This always happens to me!” or “No one will ever love me!” or “I’m never going to find someone!” Personal rejections are rarely as personal as we experience them to be, and even when they are, they rarely involve such a sweeping indictment of our flaws.

In addition to unnecessarily personalizing rejection, we also tend to overgeneralize it even when we have no grounds to do so (for example, by thinking, “This always happens to me” or “I’m never going to find someone”) or to engage in needless self-criticism by assuming we could have prevented the rejection had we done something differently. Self-criticism is especially problematic following romantic rejections, as many of us spend hours analyzing everything we said or did in a desperate search for our elusive “critical wrong move” (e.g., “Why did I wait so long before calling her?” “I should never have had that last drink!” or “Maybe it was too soon to show her my Elmer Fudd underwear collection”).

In reality, critical wrong moves are exceedingly rare (although, granted, there’s probably never aright time to show a woman one’s Elmer Fudd underwear collection). The most frequent reasons we get turned down as romantic prospects (or as job applicants) are because of a lack of general chemistry, because we don’t match the person’s or company’s specific needs at that time, or because we don’t fit the narrow definition of who they’re looking for—not because of any critical missteps we might have made nor because we have any fatal character flaws.

These errors in thinking serve little useful purpose and they only deepen the pain we already feel by adding unnecessary and highly inaccurate self-recriminations that further damage our already battered self-esteem. Rejections hurt enough—we certainly don’t need to add salt to our own wounds or kick ourselves once we’re already down.

4. Threatening Our Need to Belong: People Who Need People Are Not the Luckiest People

One of the reasons our self-esteem is so vulnerable to rejection is that we are wired with a fundamental need to feel accepted by others. When our need to belong remains unsatisfied for extended periods of time, either because of the rejections we’ve experienced or because we lack opportunities to create supportive relationships, it can have a powerful and detrimental effect on our physical and psychological health.

Some of us have such challenging life circumstances that satisfying our need to belong can present a real challenge. David, a young man I worked with some years ago, faced far greater hurdles than most in this regard. His story taught me that once we’ve suffered profound and repeated rejection over our lifetimes, finding our place in the world and feeling as though we belong can be the hardest struggle of all.

David was born with a rare genetic illness that typically affects multiple bodily systems and causes a significantly shortened life span (at the time, most children born with the illness died before reaching the age of twenty). Although David had a relatively mild form of the disorder, he still required numerous surgeries and hospitalizations throughout his childhood. David’s illness affected not just his health but his appearance as well. Musculoskeletal problems made his gait unsteady and he had noticeable irregular facial characteristics, such as a flattened upper lip, a prominent lower jaw, and significant dental trauma. Further, problems regulating saliva meant he was prone to drooling.

Children born with more severe forms of David’s illness often have significant physical disabilities and life-threatening medical problems that prevent them from attending regular schools. David’s milder condition (and the fact that intelligence is not affected) meant he was one of the few children with the disorder who was able to attend a local elementary and high school. But for David, this “blessing” came at a terrible price. His appearance, his lack of coordination, and his tendency to drool when he concentrated led him to experience cruel and daily rejections from his peers throughout his school years.

David was never invited to parties, he had virtually no friends, and he spent every lunch hour and recess sitting alone. His lack of coordination and muscle weakness prevented him from participating in after-school or extracurricular sport activities with the other neighborhood boys. His few attempts to explore after-school activities for children with disabilities ended poorly because his comparative “health” made him stand out (at times, literally) and rendered him a poor fit for such programs as well. As a result, David’s basic need to belong remained entirely unmet throughout his childhood and teen years and the regular (and often harsh) rejections he suffered caused him tremendous emotional pain.

I met David soon after he graduated from high school and a few months before he was to start classes at a local community college. Although David was excited to attend college he was terrified at the prospect of facing a novel round of painful rejections from a new cadre of peers. His well-meaning parents assured David that college students were more “mature” and more accepting than high school kids were and that he would have a far easier time “fitting in” than he did in high school. But a lifetime of rejection had devastated David’s self-esteem and he feared otherwise. “They’re going to take one look at me and turn away,” he said in our first session. “And those will be the nice ones. The mean ones will turn away and laugh behind my back.”

I agreed with David that first impressions might be problematic for him (I saw no point in denying what a lifetime of experience had already demonstrated), so I asked him whether he had a plan to correct those first impressions when opportunities arose to do so. We started discussing how he might handle potential social interactions and it quickly became clear that David’s social skills were severely underdeveloped. Years of alienation and a dearth of social experiences meant David often struggled to come up with the right thing to say or do in common situations, something he readily acknowledged.

We decided to spend the summer working on his social skills. We identified potential social situations and role-played how he might handle them. David was also willing to accept that any initial harsh or rejecting reactions he received from college classmates would likely not be strictly personal, but rather a result of their unfamiliarity with his medical problems and their own feelings of discomfort around people with disabilities. Consequently, we decided to brainstorm possible ways for him to relieve any awkwardness or tension his unsteady gait and his drooling might evoke in his classmates (for example, by joking about them when it was appropriate to do so). By the time September rolled around, David felt ready to begin his college career. He was still apprehensive about the prospect of being rejected, but he also felt as though he had much better tools with which he could approach social situations. We scheduled his next session for after his first week of classes.

The anguish on David’s face was evident from the second he walked into my office. He dropped onto the couch and sighed deeply. “I arrived early for my first class and sat in the front row,” he said. “No one else sat there. So when I arrived early for my second class I sat in a middle row. The row in front of me filled up, as did the row behind me, but no one sat in my row. I arrived early to my third class as well but this time I waited until class was about to begin and went and sat between two people. I said hello. They nodded. One of them moved two seats away from me a few minutes into the class. The other never glanced at me again and bolted as soon as the class was over. As for everyone else, it was the same story. People stared if they thought I couldn’t see them or they looked away. No one talked to me. No one made eye contact, not even the professors.”

I was extremely disappointed to hear David’s news. After dealing with so much physical and emotional hardship and after suffering such extreme social rejection, I truly wanted for him to have a positive experience. My hopes had not been unreasonably high, as I believed that even a small taste of social acceptance would have done so much for his self-esteem and his quality of life. We had spent months working on how David might correct any negative first impressions he evoked, but if his classmates continued to avoid him, if no one would sit next to him or meet his eye, if no one was willing to talk with him, it would be extremely difficult for him to do so.

David’s morale was at a low point and I was afraid he might slip into despair. The psychological wounds inflicted by lifelong rejection ran deep and David had already been exposed to more emotional pain than most people experience in their lifetime. I was determined to help David turn things around. Disappointing as his first week had been, I believed it was too soon for him to lose hope. But if he was to have any chance of succeeding, he would first need to treat the fresh wounds inflicted by the rejections he had just suffered.

How to Treat the Psychological Wounds Rejection Inflicts

Many of the rejections we face are significant (like Angelo’s), reoccurring (like school or workplace bullying), or both (like David’s repeated rejections by his peers and classmates). In such situations, the risk of leaving our emotional wounds unattended can be profound. But not all rejections require emotional first aid. For example, the “survivors” of the ball-tossing experiments would probably have recovered fully from their experiences even if they hadn’t been thoroughly debriefed about the real purpose of the studies (which they all were). Let’s open our psychological medicine cabinet and review our treatment options.

General Treatment Guidelines

Rejections can inflict four distinct emotional wounds, each of which might require some form of emotional first aid: lingering visceral pain, anger and aggressive urges, harm to our self-esteem, and damage to our feeling that we belong. As with any kind of wound, it is best to treat the emotional wounds of rejection as soon as possible to avoid the risk of “infection” and psychological complications. Remember, these are first aid treatments only and might be inappropriate or insufficient for more profound rejection experiences or ones that have a substantial impact on our mental health. At the end of the chapter I present guidelines for when one should consult a mental health professional.

Some of the treatments that follow are effective for soothing more than one type of wound while others are more specialized. The treatments are listed in the order in which they should be administered. Treatments A (managing self-criticism) and B (reviving self-worth) primarily target emotional pain and damaged self-esteem, while Treatment C (replenishing social connections) targets threatened feelings of belonging. Each of these three treatments is also beneficial for reducing anger and aggressive impulses. Treatment D (lowering sensitivity) is optional as it can have uncomfortable emotional side effects.

Treatment A: Argue with Self-Criticism

Although it is important to question our part in a rejection so we might rectify any obvious mistakes we made and avoid such experiences in the future, doing so requires a delicate touch. Too often our quest to understand “what went wrong” leads to overpersonalizing or overgeneralizing the rejection or becoming too self-critical in its wake. Needlessly finding all kinds of faults in our character, our physical appearance, or our behavior will only deepen the pain we feel in the moment, provoke further emotional bleeding, and significantly delay our healing. Therefore, it is far more useful to err on the side of self-kindness when evaluating our role in a rejection experience than it is to criticize ourselves for any mistakes or shortcomings.

Nonetheless, the urge to be self-critical in such situations can be extremely powerful. In order to avoid kicking ourselves when we’re down, we have to be able to “argue” with our self-critical voice and adopt a kinder perspective. To win this internal debate we need talking points, arguments we can use to formulate a more balanced understanding of why the rejection occurred.

  1. List (in writing) any negative or self-critical thoughts you have about the rejection.
  2. Use the following self-criticism “counterarguments” from a variety of rejection scenarios to formulate personalized rebuttals to each of the self-criticisms you listed. Feel free to list more than one counterargument per self-critical thought when it is relevant to do so.
  3. Whenever you have a self-critical thought, make sure to immediately articulate the relevant counterargument(s) fully and clearly in your mind.
Counterarguments for Romantic Rejections

After twenty years as a psychologist in private practice, I’ve heard countless tales of romantic rejection both from those doing the rejecting and those getting the heave-ho. People reject romantic partners and prospects for many different reasons, most of which have nothing to do with anyone’s shortcomings. Most often it is a simple matter of chemistry—either there is a spark or there isn’t. Rather than reaching unnecessary and inaccurate conclusions about your faults, consider these alternative explanations: Perhaps the person prefers a specific type that you do not fit (e.g., she’s into blonds and you have brown hair or she has a thing for guys with shaved heads and you have an unruly mop). It’s also possible the person’s ex reentered the picture, or she might be going through a crisis at home or in her personal life. Or you might simply be a poor lifestyle match (e.g., she’s a creature-comfort homebody and you love camping and urinating in the woods).

It’s also possible you’re “too good” for the person in some way. You take a hard line on vices and unbeknownst to you he parties so hard he has regular blackouts, or your professional success might shine a spotlight on his floundering career, or you’re a police officer and his best friend is the neighborhood pot dealer, or you’re a talented pastry chef and he’s struggling with weight loss and a weakness for Bavarian strudel. The person might have commitment issues and tend to run the moment he feels another person getting too close, he might have self-esteem issues and worry that if you’re that interested in him there must be something wrong with you, or he might not be an especially nice, kind, or sensitive person to begin with.

Timing can be a crucial issue as well. You might be looking to settle down and the other person is not, or vice versa, one of you likes to proceed slowly and the other prefers intense courtships and more “instant” relationships, or you’re just out of a long-term partnership and the person you’re interested in had a bad experience with being someone’s rebound romance.

In each of the above situations the person getting rejected did nothing wrong and the rejection had nothing to do with any inadequacies on his or her part. The bottom line is, if people give you the “It’s not you, it’s me” speech—believe them! And when they don’t, assume it’s them anyway. The rejection will still hurt, but much less so than if you insist on spreading the salt of self-blame on an already painful wound.

Counterarguments for Workplace Rejections

Similarly to dating, getting rejected by prospective employers has usually much less to do with any mistakes or inadequacies you displayed and more to do with your fit with the company or the job description. Some jobs listings are required to be publicized but were always meant to be filled internally, other times employers are looking for a specific skill set or background, and yet others might be required to come up with several candidates even though they already know who they plan to hire. I’ve heard some employers confess to rejecting candidates solely because they’ve had bad experiences with other graduates of their academic institutions, their former companies, or their home states.

One aspect receiving increased attention from scientists is the impact of being rejected in the workplace by members of our workgroup, our superiors, or both (e.g., you’re never informed of group lunches or after-work get-togethers, you don’t get e-mails about certain meetings, or you repeatedly get criticized and singled out by your colleagues and/or your boss). In most situations, the rejection or exclusion is motivated by dynamics related to the organization and its culture, not to your character or job performance. For example, whistle-blowers are frequently given the silent treatment and shunned by their fellow employees (shunning is an extremely painful form of social rejection) even when the whistle-blower’s actions were beneficial to them.

One young man I worked with was extremely outspoken about how poor the work conditions and compensation were in his company (which they were) and he quickly became the target of mistreatment by his supervisor as a result. Even though his colleagues cheered his efforts at first, the culture of bullying in the company soon led them to treat him just as poorly in hopes that doing so would curry favor with their supervisor. Fortunately he was able to recognize that the rejections he suffered at work were not a reflection on his performance (he was an outstanding employee) or his character. Indeed, his initiative and courage were admirable.

When we encounter rejection in the workplace we should consider the extent to which it is motivated by conforming to a negative or bullying corporate culture, acting out of ambition and rivalry, or making efforts to appeal to higher-ups and superiors. Doing so will help us avoid unfounded assumptions about our abilities or character and prevent us from making the experience even more painful and damaging than it already is.

Counterarguments for Social Rejections

Our friendships and social circles usually nourish our belonging needs but they can also be the source of extremely painful rejections. One of the situations I hear about most is when individuals discover their friends have been meeting up without them. Although it might seem impossible not to take such exclusions personally, these things often happen for entirely other reasons. For example, an established group of friends might have an unspoken requirement of exclusivity of the kind you are not willing to give. Sure, you hang out with them but you also want to be able to hang out with other groups and they do not (a trend that is extremely common in middle school and high school but also occurs among adults).

The same situation might be true of individual friends. Someone might be looking for a best friend scenario that requires the kind of time and emotional commitment you are unable or unwilling to give (because of family, work, or other constraints or because it would take away from other friendships you value). This friend then intensifies his relationship with a different friend who is willing to give him the time and attention you were not, and your friendship with each of them gets marginalized as a result. Hurtful as it is to discover two of your friends are now spending more time with one another than they are with you, it is usually not your fault, nor in essence is it theirs. Certainly it says nothing about your desirability as a friend.

In other instances, you might find yourself being excluded from a group that shares a passion you feel less fanatical about than they do. Some social groups love to get together and discuss the same issues over and over again, whether sports, politics, parenting, or celebrities. In one case, a mother of a toddler was “dropped” by her “mommy group” because she had made repeated efforts to expand the topics of conversation beyond diaper changing, breastfeeding, and developmental milestones. Doing so threatened the integrity of the group and so she was slowly marginalized. Once she understood why this occurred she was actually relieved. She told me, “If I had to listen to one more story about cleaning vomit out of car seats I would have screamed.”

Sometimes our social groups recognize we’ve outgrown them even before we do.

Dosage: Administer whenever you experience a rejection and repeat as necessary whenever you have self-critical thoughts related to the rejection experience.

Effective for: Soothing hurt feelings and emotional pain and minimizing damage to self-esteem.

Secondary benefits: Reduces anger and aggressive impulses.

Treatment B: Revive Your Self-Worth

One of the best ways to mitigate the hurt rejection causes and replenish our confidence and self-worth is to remind ourselves of important aspects of our character that others find valuable and desirable (even if those who rejected us did not). As an example, one attractive young woman I worked with dealt with any rejections from men by examining herself in a full-length mirror and saying aloud to her reflection, “Nope, it’s not you. You look great!”

A similar albeit more complex process of self-validation played a critical role for David, the young man with a rare genetic illness, when it came to his recovery from the rejections he experienced during his first week in college. David’s classmates seemed to reject him outright, much as his high school peers had, and David’s self-esteem suffered accordingly. I knew that unless David’s sense of self-worth recovered, even a little, he would lack the strength to make any efforts to connect with his classmates and correct their first impressions of him. Fortunately, there was one area in which David excelled and although it had nothing to do with academia, I was certain it could bridge the gulf that separated him from his fellow students.

David had the habit of arriving early both to his appointments with me and to his classes. Armed with several local newspapers, he would then proceed to scour each of their sports sections, reading every word and examining every statistic. He also spent hours listening to sports radio. As a result, David was extremely knowledgeable about sports, none more so than baseball. David was a huge Yankees fan and discussing them always caused a huge shift in his demeanor. He would sit up straighter, state his opinions fluidly and with confidence, and come across as enthusiastic, smart, and insightful about his team, the league, and the sport at large.

After his second week of college, David observed that he was not the only person who tended to arrive early to class. Several male classmates also came early and they too read the sports sections while waiting for class to begin. Given their attire and paraphernalia, David concluded that most of them were Yankees fans as well. I suggested that David choose one of them and start a conversation about the Yankees. David’s first reaction was to refuse. He was convinced any such move on his part would be rebuffed or ignored. But a few days later the Yankees secured their place in the playoffs and David discussed the team’s prospects in our session. His analysis was impressive.

“I feel like taking notes,” I joked, “so I could pass off some of your opinions as my own.”

“Feel free,” he said. “Trust me! That’s exactly what’s going to happen in the playoffs.”

“You’re that certain?”

“No one knows the Yankees like me!” he said proudly.

“Not even those other guys who come to class early?” I challenged him.

“No way!” David insisted.

“That would make for an interesting discussion then,” I pointed out. David didn’t answer. His fear of rejection was still too strong to allow him to commit to a course of action. But after the Yankees won their first playoff game, his excitement got the better of him and he found himself throwing out a comment to a classmate about the team’s prospects of winning the World Series. Much to his surprise, the young man responded by agreeing heartily and raising his hand for a high-five. David was stunned. He offered another comment and was soon shocked to find himself in the midst of a three-way discussion with two of his classmates.

This one preclass interaction had a huge impact on David’s feelings of self-worth and he agreed to instigate further discussions about the Yankees. He was thrilled to discover that his classmates were just as eager to discuss their team’s success as David was. The more David spoke up, the more interest his classmates took in his opinions. Their preclass discussions soon became a ritual. David and several other classmates gathered before each class to dissect the Yankees’ latest game and discuss the team’s prospects for winning the World Series.

The impact these unofficial gatherings had on David’s demeanor and mood was profound. For the first time in his life, he felt respected by his peers. The more the Yankees succeeded, the more eager David was to get to class and discuss the games with his classmates. And the more he exhibited his knowledge and insights, the more acceptance and validation he received from them.

A key moment occurred when during one of their discussions, David was so focused on what he was saying he forgot to swallow and drool dripped down his chin. Despite a moment of panic, David was able to keep his composure well enough to use one of the lines we had come up with to address exactly such a situation. He wiped his chin and said, “You’re not a real Yankees fan unless their success makes you drool.” His classmates laughed and continued their discussion as though nothing had happened. David’s ability to avert a potentially awkward moment served to fuel his confidence even further.

Fortunately, the Yankees had a great postseason that year and they provided ample opportunity for David and his classmates to get to know each other. His proudest moment came when he arrived later than usual and just in time to hear one student ask another, “Where’s David, the Yankees guy?” He walked in a second later and was received with warm hellos.

“I’ve overheard people talking about me all my life,” David confessed in our next session. “I was always the weirdo, the retard, the spaz.” He paused, a big smile breaking onto his face. “Now I’m David, the Yankees guy!” David beamed with pride. “It feels like I finally found a way in, like I’m one of them. They look at me and see me as a real person. I can’t tell you how good that feels!”

Connecting to a sense of self-worth played a vital role in David’s recovery from the wounds inflicted by the rejections he suffered. Although he still had a long path of emotional healing ahead of him, David’s first semester at college allowed him to experience social acceptance, and for the first time in his life, he felt like he belonged.


The following exercise will help you get in touch with meaningful aspects of your character and revitalize feelings of self-worth.

  1. Make a written list of five characteristics, attributes, or traits you value highly that you possess within yourself. Try to keep your list relevant to the domain in which the rejection occurred. It is important to take the time to think about qualities that really matter to you (for example, if you’ve been rejected by a romantic partner and you know the following qualities to be true you might list items such as caring, loyal, good listener, considerate, and emotionally available).
  2. Rank your list of characteristics according to their order of importance to you.
  3. Choose two of the top three attributes you listed and write a short essay (one or two paragraphs) about each one, covering the following points:
• Why the specific quality is important to you
• How this attribute influences your life
• Why this attribute is an important part of your self-image
Dosage: Administer whenever you experience a rejection and repeat as necessary.

Effective for: Soothing hurt feelings and emotional pain and rebuilding damaged self-esteem.

Treatment C: Replenish Feelings of Social Connection

Although the sting of rejection can make us hesitant to engage others, we should make efforts to overcome these fears and turn to our social networks for support or find other ways to refuel our feelings of social connection. Social support mitigates stress of all kinds but it is especially valuable in the wake of rejection. It creates an immediate reminder of our significant relationships, which in turn can help restore depleted feelings of belonging. In one study, even a brief exchange with a friendly experimenter was sufficient to reduce subjects’ aggression following a social rejection. In another, instant messaging online with an unfamiliar peer after a rejection restored adolescents’ and young adults’ self-esteem.

Getting social support from our close friends and confidants following a rejection can sometimes be challenging because they are likely to underestimate the pain the rejection in question caused us. Estimating visceral and physical pain, whether our own or that of others, is something we’re all bad at (unless we happen to be experiencing the same kind of pain in the moment). For example, the majority of women who plan to forgo pain medication during childbirth reverse their decision once they go into labor.

Family members, friends, and teachers of bullied students who’ve resorted to desperate measures (such as suicide) are often stunned because they had not appreciated the magnitude of the distress the person was feeling. A recent and compelling study found that teachers who were first put through the ball-tossing exclusion experiment had a far greater appreciation for the emotional pain a bullied student felt than teachers who were not made to feel rejected. They also recommended the bully get a more severe punishment as a result.

Social support can be even more crucial when the rejection we experience involves discrimination. Much as we would like to believe we are an enlightened society, our track record when it comes to accepting those who are different from ourselves argues otherwise. Race, nationality, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, disability, gender, and age are all factors that cause millions of people to face extremely painful rejections by their friends, family, employers, neighbors, and strangers. Seeking support from members of our group after being the target of discrimination has been shown to reduce feelings of anger and depression, strengthen our group identity, and counterbalance the harmful effects of being devalued by a dominant culture.

Find New Affiliations with a Better Fit

Our need to belong has some substitutability,meaning that new relationships and memberships can psychologically replace those that have ended, especially if they provide a better fit for our personality and interests. Painful as rejections are, we can always view them as opportunities to evaluate whether the romantic partner, social circle, friend, or employer in question was a good fit for our personalities, interests, lifestyles, or careers.

Our choice of social group is often motivated by circumstance. We get close to randomly assigned college roommates, colleagues we meet at work, or the parents of our children’s playmates. While many such friendships succeed, others dissolve when we or they outgrow them. This is especially common when the circumstances that brought us together change: when we graduate from college, move to new jobs, or our children stop playing with theirs. Despite the initial sting of rejection we feel, we might later realize we’re far less upset about losing the relationship or friendship than we initially thought.

Sometimes merely spending time with a group with whom we feel a strong connection can help replenish feelings of social connectedness even if few words are spoken (such as shooting hoops with our buddies or seeing a show or a movie with friends). When seeking one-on-one social support we should be thoughtful about our choices, especially if we’re still hurting from the wounds of a fresh rejection. Dear friends might care for us deeply, but if they are limited in their capacity to express empathy and support they might not be our best choice.

Anyone who has suffered a serious illness or physical injury or struggled with a disability (like David) has probably experienced people feeling uncomfortable and looking away, avoiding contact, “forgetting” to call or visit, and even losing touch entirely. Cancer patients and those with other illnesses often join support groups to help manage the stress of the illness and their treatments while gaining support from others who’ve faced similar struggles and rejections.

Have a “Social Snack”

Although it is best to connect with those who can provide social support and feelings of connection it might not always be possible for us to do so. In the film Cast Away, Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is stranded alone on an island for four years, during which he copes with social starvation by looking at a photograph of his girlfriend, Kelly, and by talking aloud to a volleyball he names “Wilson” and who becomes his much-beloved companion. Much like having a snack eases our hunger when we don’t have the opportunity to eat a full meal, “snacking” on reminders of our significant emotional connections eases our “social hunger” when we feel rejected, excluded, or alone.

Social snacking can take many forms, but scientists have found that photographs of loved ones are one of the most emotionally nutritious snacks we can consume after being rejected. In one study, subjects placed photographs on their desks of either loved ones or celebrities and were asked to vividly relive a significant rejection experience from their own past. Subjects with pictures of celebrities on their desks suffered a large drop in mood as a result of recalling the rejection while those with pictures of loved ones registered almost no change in mood at all. Such findings imply that teens and tweens entering the gauntlet of middle school might be well advised to replace posters of musicians and actors with glossy eight-by-tens of Grandpa Dwight and beloved Aunt Flossie.

Photographs are not the only social snacks with nutritional value. Other experiments found that merely recalling positive relationships or warm interactions we’ve had with our nearest and dearest was sufficient to reduce the amount of aggression people felt after being rejected. Reading meaningful e-mails or letters, watching videos of loved ones, or using valued mementos of those to whom we feel most connected also have nutritional value as social snacks. Mementos and inanimate objects can also have significant “caloric value,” especially when a rejection is compounded by general loneliness, as was the case for Chuck Noland with “Wilson.” The next time we ask someone on a date or apply for a new job we might want to have pictures of our friends and loved ones available in our pocket just in case, or, if we must, a volleyball.

Dosage: Make sure to administer whenever you experience a rejection. Since there are numerous ways in which you might be able to replenish feelings of social connection, you may wish to apply several forms of this treatment as necessary (e.g., spending an afternoon with family members who appreciate and love you and social snacking on pictures of them later on).

Effective for: Replenishing your need to belong and reducing anger and aggressive urges.

Secondary benefits: Soothing hurt feelings and emotional pain and rebuilding damaged self-esteem.

Treatment D: Desensitize Yourself

Anyone who has ever made cold calls (for example, to prospective employers or to ask people to donate to a charity) knows how difficult it is to make the first few calls. It’s extremely unpleasant to hear “No, thanks” and have the phone slammed in your ear. But something interesting happens around the fifth or sixth call—we begin to take “no” much less personally. We shrug it off, strike a line through the entry, and move on to the next person on our list. Actors, musicians, and performers have the same experience. If an actor rarely auditions, getting rejected is likely to feel painful, but those who audition several times a week find it much easier to let such rejections go.

The reason this happens is because of a psychological process called desensitization. The more we’re exposed to situations we find uncomfortable or unpleasant, the more used to them we become and the less they disturb us. Of course, this isn’t true for all situations and it certainly isn’t true for some of the more significant or profound rejections we might encounter. Some life experiences are acutely painful and emotionally damaging no matter how repetitive they become. But when it comes to situations such as asking people out on dates, calling prospective employers for jobs, applying to internships or other educational programs, or initiating new friendships, trying to desensitize ourselves can be beneficial.

I once had a male patient in his twenties whose fear of rejection made him hesitant to approach women, and I gave him the task of asking out nine women in one weekend. He had plans to attend three different social events, and I promised him that if he approached three women per event, by the time he got to the third (a birthday party for a work colleague) he would feel very differently about the prospect of getting turned down. Interestingly, merely agreeing to the challenge had an immediate impact on him. “The thought of approaching so many women made me feel kind of confident before I even began. Once I accepted that I’d be getting rejected a lot, it made the idea of any one woman rejecting me seem more manageable for some strange reason.”

As we now know, that “strange reason” is actually desensitization. My patient never made it to the third social event. He struck out three times at the first event of the weekend, but was shocked when two women gave him their number at the second, “and one of them wasn’t even fake!” he reported happily. The young man ended up skipping the third event in order to go on a date with the woman who had given him her nonfake number.

Desensitization can be an effective technique for reducing the emotional impact of rejections but it should be used both sparingly and wisely. It is one of those treatments that should come with clear warning signs on the label. Readers should be advised to treat themselves with desensitization only if they feel their self-esteem is up for the challenge and only after giving careful thought to how they could implement the treatment in ways they would find beneficial. The most important aspect is to concentrate our efforts into a limited time frame, as spreading out the task over time dilutes it and renders it ineffective. For example, if my patient hadn’t had several social events planned, it would have been harder for him to find the right circumstances in which to ask out nine women within three days.

Dosage: Administer for specific tasks only: when seeking to initiate dates or friendships, when applying to jobs, internships, or other programs, or when making cold calls.

Caution: Use sparingly and wisely, as this treatment involves significant discomfort. Use only if you feel your self-esteem can tolerate being exposed to numerous “minor” rejections.

Effective for: Creating a layer of resilience to future rejections so as to reduce the hurt feelings and emotional pain they evoke and the damage to self-esteem they cause.

When to Consult a Mental Health Professional

Applying emotional first aid following rejections should soothe each of the four wounds we typically suffer as a result of such experiences and reduce our risk of long-term psychological complications. Treating older rejections might also be beneficial as it can help nudge us toward a path of healing and recovery. However, some rejections are so painful and the wounds they create are so deep, emotional first aid alone is not sufficient to correct the psychological damage they cause.

If the rejection you’ve experienced is profound (e.g., you’ve been rejected by your entire family or community because of your sexual orientation or religious beliefs) or if you’ve experienced chronic rejection over a period of time, you might benefit from seeking the advice of a mental health professional. If you’ve applied the treatments in this chapter and your emotional pain did not subside, your self-esteem remains too damaged, and engaging with people feels too risky, you should consult a mental health professional. If your anger and aggressive impulses have become too powerful for you to control, or if you have any thoughts of harming yourself or others, seek the immediate help of a mental health professional or go to your nearest emergency room.





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