The Psychology Of Reframing Rejection

The Psychology Of Reframing RejectionOriginally featured on by:
Jess Carter

Illustration by Maria Sagun

Rejection is something we all encounter at some point in our careers, but it can be a bitter pill to swallow. How can psychology help us reframe rejection into a more positive learning experience?


It’s safe to say that 2020 wasn’t exactly full of career highlights for many of us. Some of us lost our jobs or missed out on new roles, while others were dropped by clients, had job applications ignored or saw pitches turned down.

While rejections like these have always been a part of working life, they've soared during the pandemic – in fact, redundancies totalled a record 314,000 between July and September and competition for job vacancies increased by 64% year on year, according to research from LinkedIn.

Whether we experienced a stack of tiny rejections or had one or two more substantial knockbacks, the potential impact on our sense of worth and job satisfaction is likely to be significant. Here, AllBright speaks to clinical psychologist Dr Abigael San to find out how we can lessen the sting of rejection at work.


Why is rejection so painful?

Let’s not play it down: rejection hurts (studies have even found that receptors that usually deal with physical pain play a part in our response to rejection). And when that initial, wince-inducing pain subsides, its residue of shame and humiliation can linger.

But there is a purpose behind all of that discomfort. It’s thought that our brains are hardwired to avoid exclusion because, historically, we needed our tribe for survival – being abandoned by it would pretty much seal our doom. Even thousands of years later, our innate drive to make secure human connections and our sensitivity to all forms of rejection, including professional rebuffs, remains.

“Work-related rejections resonate with ideas about failure, not being good enough and disconnection,” says San. “It's an instinct that comes down to the same principles of social acceptance and connection.”

This explains why being dropped by a client or being made redundant can feel very much akin to getting dumped. With that in mind, it’s helpful to remember that the level of emotional pain that we feel in response to a rejection can be wholly disproportionate to the significance of the situation; we might only feel so wretched about it because of our survival instincts, not because it’s truly life-ruining stuff.

Still, our response to any kind of pain is usually to try and make it go away as quickly as possible, which is why we rarely take the most helpful route in dealing with it.

“Avoidance is a common reaction to rejection," acknowledges San. "We don’t want to be in touch with the feeling of having been rejected and we can’t reflect on it because it feels so uncomfortable. At work, that could perhaps see us pulling back on efforts, quietening down and just disengaging – because not putting ourself in that position means we can’t ‘fail’ again."

"As much as we want to walk away and try to forget about the situation, asking for the reasons behind rejection can really serve us."
Dr Abigael San, Clinical Psychologist

When rejected, it becomes easy to fall into unhelpful thinking habits, such as comparing ourselves to others, being overly self-critical or filtering out positive evidence about our abilities, and instead only focusing on the negative. None of which is exactly going to help us thrive in our careers.

Dissect your reaction

We feel rejection the most acutely just after it's happened, when our logical thinking can go AWOL. But we may still be able to nip those unhelpful, looping thought patterns in the bud.

"For that initial response, mindfulness exercises, like trying to focus on something outside of yourself – something sensory, say – are helpful and can calm you down, stopping the overthinking," advises San.

"By creating this kind of distance from your thoughts, the actual experience of the emotion becomes more accessible. This is when you can start to question things with logic."

And, once we have some space and time between us and that rebuke from our boss, dreaded call from HR or negative post-interview email, we can find the headspace to take a look at our responses and think about how we could start to tweak them.

This won't only help us to realign our narratives around the rejections we've faced at work, but will also mean that we're much better equipped to deal with similar hurdles in future, and can turn negative experiences into empowering ones that could actually benefit our careers.

Get some perspective

So what can we do to try and cultivate a healthier relationship with rejection? 

“Trying to broaden the lens and pick the rejection apart, looking at all of the different elements that contributed to it, can really help," says San. “We’ll start to see that it wasn't only about us, but that other things contributed to the situation as well.”

This is where feedback can come in useful. As much as we want to walk away and try to forget about the situation, asking for the reasons behind the decision can really serve us. Because not only will that inform our actions in the future – and therefore extract value from our disappointment – but it might reveal that the rejection was less about you, and more about them anyway. 

"Rejection, in 2020 more than ever, was a shared feeling, a communal experience. The more we talk about it the less of a taboo it becomes and the more we can learn to use it positively"
Dr Abigael San, Clinical Psychologist

"When looking for perspective it can also be really helpful to take yourself out of your own situation," says San. "Imagining yourself in a position where you’re helping someone else go through a similar experience can open your eyes to other aspects of it."

Verbal self-flagellation isn’t going to get us anywhere – we need to start talking to ourselves like a friend. And that includes asking tough questions. 

“Try asking yourself, ‘if I was looking back on this situation in five years’ time, how can I act now in a way that's going to make me feel proud?'” says San. “That's a really powerful question – it can affect the things that you do and the approach and attitude you take. It can allow you to finally start acting in ways that resonate with your values rather than your emotions."

Acknowledge the shared experience

While it's unlikely you’ll want to broadcast the details of a pitch that got turned down, or a promotion you missed out on, there is untold value in talking about the experience with people you trust, says San. 

"It’s important because when you get different perspectives from other people, you broaden your narrative on the situation. Also, they might then share their own experiences of rejection, helping you to recognise the reality of rejection and disappointment as a part of everyone’s life." 

Silver linings may have been hard to come by throughout the pandemic, but there's certainly someone who can understand first-hand what you've faced. Rejection, in 2020 more than ever, was a shared feeling, a communal experience. The more we talk about it, the less of a taboo it becomes and the more we can learn to use it positively. 

"All this can herald a desire to create new experiences and build yourself up – and that can feel really empowering," says San.

So, if you feel the last 12 months have knocked you back as opposed to built you up, think again. It could well be the time that you gained the experience that you needed to make 2021 your year.