My one and only New Year’s resolution this year was to be less hard on myself. For the most part, I have done okay. In what would have been in the past a potentially intense or anxiety riddled situation, I have either been able to consider it from a different angle and maintain a level of distance that at times has surprised me. I have definitely had lapses, where I have given myself a telling off for ruminating about something inconsequential, but overall I haven’t allowed the hostility to reach a crescendo against myself.
But I have noticed a pattern (which perhaps has become apparent since taking my vow of being less hard on myself) that many of the incidents that cause me the most anxiety are related to experiencing rejection in some way or another. The pattern usually goes something like this; I experience some form of rejection (a friend fails to respond to an email/text, a colleague fails to acknowledge me, a disapproving look from a stranger… the list goes on), my anxiety builds (heart rate increases, stomach sinks, I am unable to focus on anything, that sort of thing), I ruminate (this has no pattern or structure, in reality, it could be for a matter of hours, an entire weekend or even years!) until the next event occurs. Rejection, ruminate, repeat.
I guess my position of being able to look at what could be one of my main reasons for such wild and vivid reactions to experiencing rejection comes back to when I was growing up (such a cliche, I know). I recall times when my parents rejected me in ways that still give me chills, like the time when I was still at school and I was being bullied by some classmates and when I asked for my mum’s advice (her help!) and she replied, “You’ll get over it.” Or when friendships have turned sour. I still dwell on a sleepover at a so-called friend’s house along with so-called friends who largely ignored me for the entire evening that left me crying into my pillow wishing I was at home.
I thought that I was ‘doing better’ but I find that this realisation has, rather than helped me, it has broken me and I am now reliving my chequered history of rejection. How can I move on?
Rejection, Ruminate, Repeat
Dear Rejection, Ruminate, Repeat,
It is said that experiencing rejection is akin to physical pain. We all know the horrendous pain felt when we stub our toe but we may not be able to recall a specific incident in our past when we actually did this. However, we can very quickly flick through the ‘SIGNIFICANT MOMENTS IN OUR PAST’ file in our minds and find examples of when we have been rejected (the ‘Childhood’ years probably contains the most examples): your mum rejecting your plea for help or when those so-called friends ignored you for example. But what rejection boils down to is when you feel sidelined, you and your feelings are being ignored or marginalised, and for many (myself included) it causes panic. We wonder where we have gone wrong; what did I say? Did I cause offence? Did I not laugh/show concern at the appropriate places? Was it my hair?
Evolutionary science provides an insight into how rejection has been adaptive for humans, in that it helped people to survive. Living in tribes when we were hunter-gathers, to experience rejection was much like providing you with a warning signal to get your ass back into the tribe’s fold. If you were living on the edge away from the tribe’s protection you were likely to die, so it was imperative to be part of the group. Of course in modern society, we may not have to be in the ‘cool group’ to survive, but the basic premise is the same – we experience rejection as it provides a warning signal of some sort. The social and cultural norms are a fuckton more complex now and so this warning signal system and crucially our response to it can become maladaptive.
Another important human trait to consider here is that generally, humans look for patterns in behaviour. Often running behind the scenes in our minds, by analysing situations for repeated behaviour of some sort or a pattern it helps make our life chug along that little bit easier. Except when it doesn’t. And this is where the maladaptive response to rejection and this pattern seeking can get twisted. We can begin to seek rejection out. This can take the form of examining cues from our surroundings, particularly with those we are interacting with. And after some time of doing this, rejection becomes kinda comfortable. We know it for what it is and how it makes us feel inside, even if that is sick to the stomach.
The re-living of those memories could in some way be your mind purging some of the feelings associated with the events, through a personal and private exorcism. Alternatively, your mind could still be dealing with the emotions attached, neither are necessarily bad. Your early experiences of being rejected may in some way have contributed to your sense of self, cliche or not, but now things are different. The fact that you have been able since taking your vow of being less hard on yourself to take some steps back highlights two things; a keen self-awareness that many people would truly envy and that you are far stronger than you recognise. You are seeing the world and yourself through different lenses than before and this is perhaps the scariest thing right now, so your mind is going into over-drive to try and compensate. You have formed patterns that have felt comfortable and weirdly safe. You are evolving (growing just sounds too much self-help like) and it consciously started with making that New Year’s resolution. So please try and stick with it. That’s not to say that you won’t slip up again, but you are seeing changes and they are positive I can assure you.
Rejecting all rejection from your life is an impossible ask, as you may never ‘be over’ some of the pain you associate with people and past events. But if you are able, and it appears that you have already started down this road, to take steps in rejecting something far more significant – feeling bad about yourself.
You are not broken RRR, you are anything and everything but. You are remarkable, wondrous and totally awesome.