How to Heal from Rejection (Without Getting Down on Yourself)
“This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.” ~Kristen Neff
The handsome man I was dating sat on the easy chair to tell a difficult story. We were in my loft, and he was avoiding eye contact. I studied the symmetry of his jaw as he spoke.
“I did something stupid,” he said.
I thought he was confiding in me. Maybe this intimacy would bring us closer. Maybe his eye had wandered but he was choosing me. I leaned in.
There was someone else, but not in a way I ever would have guessed. The ugliness of his admission was at odds with my glowing perception of him.
Adding to my cognitive dissonance, at the end of his tale I was stunned to hear the words, “and that’s why I can’t see you anymore.”
My hands shook. I set my wine glass down on the coffee table. We’re all flooded with stress hormones during separations because we’re social creatures. My body felt like it was drowning. I had daydreamed this man would be a buoy to reach for and hold me in safety during life’s challenges. Instead, he put on his coat.
“I’m sorry,” he said, with genuine sentiment. Then he left, slipping away into the night, leaving me alone on my sofa in the riptide of emotion.
I was at once disappointed, disheartened, sad, betrayed, and scared to be alone. Yet in light of his revelation, I was also relieved.
I’d been broken up with before, but this time there was no punishing blame put upon me, and the shame was all his. For the first time I could see rejection as impersonal. It had nothing to do with my worth, value, or actions. It was about where he was at in his life, the recognition that I wasn’t in that same place, and the fact he didn’t want to take me.
Nor did I want to go there. His story was that he lost his cool while DJing a wedding on the weekend. A woman kept pestering him to play a song he’d already played. When she became irate and shouty he spit on her.
Her friends called the police, who charged him with assault. Spitting on someone is a criminal offense. It’s also disgusting and degrading. Now he was dealing with the legal consequences, something he was taking responsibility for on his own.
My brain said, “This breakup is for the best,” while my body processed the rejection as a bereavement. Our fun concert dates, record shopping field trips, and song sharing were over. He was gone, and so was the hopeful promise of our budding relationship. The indulgent illusion and fantasy of early-stage dating evaporated in an instant.
Alone on my sofa I wrapped myself in a fuzzy blanket, sipped wine, and watched a movie. I don’t remember which one. I was numb. But after that my rejection coping veered off the usual script.
The Old Post-Rejection Story
There’s a standard RomCom break-up montage—you know the one. The star of the story gets dumped then self-destructive. She gets drunk, sends the messy message she shouldn’t, wallows in her pajamas with unkempt hair, and eats pizza and ice cream until a bestie intervenes. Then she hits the gym, regains confidence, gets a new look, and is all set for a surprising meet cute with someone else.
But what if after a rejection you could skip the self-sabotage?
To sail through rejection, you’d have to see it as not personal, as I did with my crush. You’d also need to know it’s not perfect by perceiving people and situations as flawed, the way things really are. And you’d need to accept that nothing’s permanent and not be attached to outcomes. You would go in and out of relationships like a graceful butterfly, with no ego, expectations, fantasy, or old baggage.
In other words, you’d be a learned Buddhist, or Eckhart Tolle. I don’t know about you, but I’m nowhere near there yet in my conscious evolution.
But there’s another way to process rejection as an adult that also sidesteps the hapless drunken humiliation and numb hiding. It’s so simple we don’t do it, or if we do, we don’t apply it enough. We have to love ourselves.
Why Loving Ourselves Heals
It’s taken me a long time to learn that self-love is not just cheesy sentiment. It’s more than a positive mental attitude or a meme from RuPaul’s Drag Race. Active self-love is self-soothing, and for those of us who’ve ever felt inadequately comforted, seen, heard, or understood (i.e., virtually everyone), this concept can be hard to grasp.
I didn’t fully appreciate self-soothing until a few years after that breakup with the handsome spitter, when I moved to a new city by myself. In the lead up to the move I was so busy planning and packing I didn’t fully feel my myriad feelings. It wasn’t until I arrived and unpacked that I grieved the loss of my friendships and familiar comforts I’d grown used to. It was like I’d broken up with a whole city.
Then, facing the pandemic on my own, without my full support network, I took a deep dive into neuroscience, reading everything I could about resilience, anxiety, and burnout. In the process I discovered Kristen Neff’s groundbreaking research on fierce self-compassion.
I learned the reason rejections and losses are so painful is that the separation triggers all the times we’ve felt bereft before. We feel this in our bodies, which sound alarms. We typically react with fight, flight, freeze, or fawn reactions, and our minds spiral. We might blame or shame ourselves, twisting “this isn’t working,” “things change” or other impersonal reasons into harsh feelings of “I’m bad,” “I’m unworthy,” or “I’m not enough.”
If we act with self-love and compassion instead, we acknowledge the pain and sadness we’re feeling. We comfort ourselves like we would a sobbing small child—with soothing actions that calm down our activated nervous systems.
What We Get Wrong About Self-Love
In adulthood our attempts at self-soothing too often numb the pain instead of healing it. We blanket ourselves in escapist binge watching or video games. We reach for another glass of wine or something stronger. Or we overwork to exhaustion. Sitting with difficult emotions we’d rather avoid is too uncomfortable and scary.
But the worst thing we can do is to take our raw, unprocessed emotions and lash out at someone else. That’s when feelings turn into reactivity and abusive behavior, like spitting on someone or harassing them with tirades of vitriol. That’s when hurt people lose it and hurt others.
That means the corollary is also true: the best thing we can do for ourselves, families, friends, partners, communities, and the world is to feel our feelings fully and ride them, surf-like, to shore. To do that we need to be present and aware and know how to take care of our emotions through self-soothing. That’s healing.
Self-Love Practices That Really Work
Self-soothing is about being in your body, not checking out or judging yourself harshly. I’m still a novice at self-soothing, but so far, the methods that work for me are:
-Wrapping myself in a self-hug, or rubbing my upper arms
-Breathing in quickly and then releasing a long, sigh-like exhale at least three times
-Standing up and shaking out my hands, shoulders, arms, and legs, or dancing it out
-Taking a moment to notice as many details as I can about where I am (colors, sounds, smells)
-Breathing in steam from a hot cup of tea or a warm bath
-Listening to calming music
-Lighting a candle to watch it sparkle
-Going for a walk
-Doing gentle yin yoga
When I try to think my way through rejection I either spiral into rumination or shut down. Telling someone what happened can help make sense of it and provide validation. But the only words that truly salve the sting are loving reassurances we tell ourselves, like: “You’re okay. I’ve got you. You’re safe.” In this way, repeating positive affirmations can help too.
Remember It’s a Process!
One important thing to know about self-soothing is that it takes time! In our rushed, busy-is-better culture we don’t gift ourselves with time-outs enough. That’s why we’re so often on the edge and reactive. But self-soothing in the moment we feel the first sting of rejection completes the stress cycle faster. It takes less time to heal by self-soothing than we’d normally spend ruminating, numbing, or fuming.
And when you soothe yourself, you might see new ways to connect with others. I didn’t date the handsome spitter again, but by not taking our breakup personally I didn’t build up a wall of shame or blame against him either. We became friends and continued seeing concerts together until I moved to my new city.
Everything changes. Along with the best, the worst things are always going to happen. Loved ones leave or die. Opportunities are fleeting. Material possessions break or fade. There’s grief in losing the familiarity of a home you once lived in, even when it’s time to move on. Remember you’ve still got yourself to live with.
Loving yourself is a reason to keep going, find joy wherever you can, and attract more love. Loving yourself is the rescue buoy that’s always there. It’s the soft soothing comfort and calm power you’ve always longed for.