Dealing With Rejection

Everyone knows rejection hurts. Hell, sometimes living hurts.

Everyone is familiar with this.


marilyn monroe on rejection

Bir knew about pain. He wrote in the Twelve and Twelve that:

It became clear that if we ever were to feel emotionally secure among grown-up people, we would have to put our lives on a give-and-take basis; we would have to develop the sense of being in partnership or brotherhood with all those around us. We saw that we would need to give constantly of ourselves without demands for repayment. When we persistently did this we gradually found that people were attracted to us as never before. And even if they failed us, we could be understanding and not too seriously affected.

When we developed still more, we discovered the best possible source of emotional stability to be God Himself. We found that dependence upon His perfect justice, forgiveness, and love was healthy, and that it would work where nothing else would. If we really depended upon God, we couldn’t very well play God to our fellows nor would we feel the urge wholly to rely on human protection and care. These were the new attitudes that finally brought many of us an inner strength and peace that could not be deeply shaken by the shortcomings of others or by any calamity not of our own making.


“That’s great,” you may be thinking.  “But I just got fired. I’m sad about the boyfriend I lost who I wanted more than anything. I’m sitting around my backyard trying to keep myself occupied so I won’t obsess about the new position I’ve been working towards for the past six months, that I’m sure I won’t get, that I’m desperately hopeful I will. What does that recovery- emotional stability- mumbo jumbo have to do with my life?”

rejection quote

First, remember that rejection is difficult. Sobriety won’t make that bone-aching pain of rejection disappear like magic. We can’t pray it away. We can’t think ourselves into a better emotional state.

(For ten reasons WHY… just keep reading. I’ll get there in a minute.)

Second, let’s remember our recovery literature does NOT teach us to look at the world through a pollyanna, rose-colored pair of glasses. Quite the opposite. We DO talk about the pain experienced in life. Here’s my favorite example:

Our basic troubles are the same as everyone else’s, but when an honest effort is made “to practice these principles in all our affairs,” well-grounded A.A.’s seem to have the ability, by God’s grace, to take these troubles in stride and turn them into demonstrations of faith. We have seen A.A.’s suffer lingering and fatal illness with little complaint, and often in good cheer. We have sometimes seen families broken apart by misunderstanding, tensions, or actual infidelity, who are reunited by the A.A. way of life. Though the earning power of most A.A.’s is relatively high, we have some members who never seem to get on their feet moneywise, and still others who encounter heavy financial reverses. Ordinarily we see these situations met with fortitude and faith. Like most people, we have found that we can take our big lumps as they come. But also like others, we often discover a greater challenge in the lesser and more continuous problems of life.

(12 & 12; 115)

If you read our literature with care, you will notice that Bill talks about suffering in the context of every step… As the Buddha so famously said, suffering is an intrinsic part of life. We who are in recovery from substance abuse don’t pretend otherwise.

However, the suffering associated with rejection (which Bill sometimes identifies as being emotionally “unsober”)  is a slightly different issue. Much research has come to light in the past few years, information and understanding Bill Wilson didn’t have access to but which can provide those of us recovering  today with an explanation for WHY it hurts.

IMPORTANT NOTE: While the explanation may have changed, the solution to our problem remains the same:

  • inventory /
  • defect and prayer/
  • amends and restitution /
  • meditation, reaching out to our Higher Power /
  • helping others.

SIDE NOTE: I thought it slightly hilarious that after all their impressive research, the best trained mental health experts would have come up with something more “advanced” than the ancient methods of dealing with rejection the 12 Steps teach us. Oh well.

REMEMBER…We in recovery are “one-trick ponies” when it comes to dealing with life; Practice these principles in all our affairs!

Even so, the question remains: Am I suffering the pains of rejection because there is something wrong with me? Is there something wrong with my program? My spiritual life? My efforts to help other alcoholics and addicts?

Not necessarily.

Not all old-timers in recovery are aware that rejection – be it from romantic partner, workplace supervisor, friend or family member – inflicts damage to our psychological, emotional, and spiritual well-being that goes beyond mere bruised feelings, beyond just not getting my own way, beyond hurt. Don’t believe me? Here are 10 lesser known facts that describe the various effects rejection has on our emotions, thinking, and behavior as reported by Psychology Today:

rejection attention affection perfection

Ten Facts About Rejection and How It Effects Us

  1. Rejection piggybacks on physical pain pathways in the brain. fMRI studies show that the same areas of the brain become activated when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain. This is why rejection hurts so much (neurologically speaking). In fact our brains respond so similarly to rejection and physical pain that…
  2. Tylenol reduces the emotional pain rejection elicits. In a study testing the hypothesis that rejection mimics physical pain, researchers gave some participants acetaminophen (Tylenol) before asking them to recall a painful rejection experience. The people who received Tylenol reported significantly less emotional pain than subjects who took a sugar pill. Psychologists assume that the reason for the strong link between rejection and physical pain is that…
  3. Rejection served a vital function in our evolutionary past. In our hunter/gatherer past, being ostracized from our tribes was akin to a death sentence, as we were unlikely to survive for long alone. Evolutionary psychologists assume the brain developed an early warning system to alert us when we were at risk for ostracism. Because it was so important to get our attention, those who experienced rejection as more painful (i.e., because rejection mimicked physical pain in their brain) gained an evolutionary advantage—they were more likely to correct their behavior and consequently, more likely to remain in the tribe. Which probably also explains why…
  4. We can relive and re-experience social pain more vividly than we can physical pain. Try recalling an experience in which you felt significant physical pain and your brain pathways will respond, “Meh.” In other words, that memory alone won’t elicit physical pain. But try reliving a painful rejection (actually, don’t—just take my word for it), and you will be flooded with many of the same feelings you had at the time (and your brain will respond much as it did at the time, too). Our brain prioritizes rejection experiences because we are social animals who live in “tribes.” This leads to an aspect about rejection we often overlook…
  5. Rejection destabilizes our “Need to Belong.” We all have a fundamental need to belong to a group. When we get rejected, this need becomes destabilized and the disconnection we feel adds to our emotional pain. Reconnecting with those who love us, or reaching out to members of groups to which we feel strong affinity and who value and accept us, has been found to soothe emotional pain after a rejection. Feeling alone and disconnected after a rejection, however, has an often overlooked impact on our behavior…
  6. Rejection creates surges of anger and aggression. In 2001, the Surgeon General of the U.S. issued a report stating that rejection was a greater risk for adolescent violence than drugs, poverty, or gang membership. Countless studies have demonstrated that even mild rejections lead people to take out their aggression on innocent bystanders. School shootings, violence against women, and fired workers going “postal” are other examples of the strong link between rejection and aggression. However, much of that aggression elicited by rejection is also turned inward…
  7. Rejections send us on a mission to seek and destroy our self-esteem. We often respond to romantic rejections by finding fault in ourselves, bemoaning all our inadequacies, kicking ourselves when we’re already down, and smacking our self-esteem into a pulp. Most romantic rejections are a matter of poor fit and a lack of chemistry, incompatible lifestyles, wanting different things at different times, or other such issues of mutual dynamics. Blaming ourselves and attacking our self-worth only deepens the emotional pain we feel and makes it harder for us to recover emotionally. But before you rush to blame yourself for…blaming yourself, keep in mind the fact that…
  8. Rejection temporarily lowers our 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. This explains why…
  9. Rejection does not respond to reason. Participants were put through an experiment in which they were rejected by strangers. The experiment was rigged—the “strangers” were confederates of the researchers. Surprisingly, though, even being told that the “strangers” who had “rejected” them did not actually reject them did little to ease the emotional pain participants felt. Even being told that the strangers belonged to a group they despised such as the KKK did little to soothe people’s hurt feelings. Still, the news is not all bad, because…
  10. There are ways to treat the psychological wounds rejection inflicts. It is possible to treat the emotional pain rejection elicits and to prevent the psychological, emotional, cognitive, and relationship fallouts that occur in its aftermath. To do so effectively we must address each of our psychological wounds (i.e., soothe our emotional pain, reduce our anger and aggression, protect our self-esteem, and stabilize our need to belong).

via 10 Surprising Facts About Rejection | Psychology Today.

So, here’s my advice:

Reach out to your network. Let them love you when you feel unlovely. And remember this one thing, this one vital truth that Eleanor Roosevelt knew and lived by: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

rejection eleanor roosevelt

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