When you’re already struggling with depression — a difficult illness that batters your self-esteem — you might take rejection hard. Really hard. Whether you were turned down for a job, excluded from an event or had a disagreement with a friend, the rejection may confirm all the negative things you believe you embody. All the negative things your depression has convinced you that you are.
(Of course, your depression is lying. It creates all sorts of cognitive distortions. But you might not realize it.)
Instead of “Oh, well, I’ll just try again,” rejection feels like “See, I knew this would happen! Why did I even try?” said Josephine K. Wiseheart, MS, a psychotherapist at Oliver-Pyatt Centers, and in private practice in Miami, Fla. “It validates the negative loop [people with depression] have playing on repeat in their brains.”
Similarly, because of depression’s negative lens, you might see rejection in situations where there isn’t any. People with depression “are hyperaware of that glance to the side, that rushed look, or that frown from another person,” said Amanda Strunin, Ph.D, a psychologist specializing in the assessment and treatment of mood disorders.
“[They] may not remain in the situation long enough to find out that the other person likes them, but has a meeting and wants to catch up later. They are often thinking, ‘How can I escape this discomfort?’ instead of sitting through it.”
According to psychologist Julie de Azevedo Hanks, Ph.D, LCSW, people with depression also might interpret a critique of their idea or product as a rejection of themselves versus what it really is: feedback. It’s also common for people with depression to catastrophize or ruminate about a situation well after it’s occurred, she said.
For instance, Hanks worked with a man who had a history of severe depression. When one of his friends didn’t return his call, he interpreted it as a painful rejection. He kept focusing on what he did to offend his friend. He also started worrying that his friend would reject him for good. However, it turns out that his friend was overwhelmed with studying for an important professional exam. He wasn’t returning anyone’s calls for several days.
If you’re having a hard time with rejection, here are six tips for coping healthfully. (Of course, getting your depression treated is first and foremost.)
1. Examine the rejection.
“Just because you feel rejected doesn’t mean you have been rejected,” said Hanks, director of Wasatch Family Therapy and author of The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women. Again, depression colors your perspective, making life feel more painful, she said. She suggested asking yourself: “Is this person or group rejecting me as a human being or my idea, my employment, my expression?”
She also suggested considering the below questions from The Work of Byron Katie. According to Hanks, “Katie teaches that believing our thoughts creates pain and has developed these questions to question the truthfulness of your thinking.”
- Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
Hanks shared this example of a woman who discovered her boyfriend cheated on her and is thinking “No one will ever really love me.”
- Is it true? I don’t know.
- Can I absolutely know it’s true? No.
- How do I react, what happens, when I believe that thought? Suspicious, depressed, withdrawn, not wanting to meet new people, closed heart.
- Who would I be without that thought? Without the thought “No on will ever really love me,” I would be more hopeful, my heart would be open to new relationships, and I would feel deserving of love.
Then you can flip the thought and go through the questions, again, “until you’ve nonjudgmentally explored every variation,” Hanks said. For instance, “No one will ever really love me” can be turned to “Someone will really love me” or “I will never really love someone.”
“The point isn’t to change the thought but to gain awareness that you’re believing something is true even when it may not be true and has results that you don’t want. It gives the opportunity to believe a thought that brings you your desired feeling and outcome.”
What if the rejection is personal? Then “it’s an opportunity to self-reflect on the value of the relationship and on your own characteristics or behavior,” Hanks said. You might ask yourself: Is there something I can learn? Is this a blindspot I have?
3. Avoid isolating.
When you have depression, the temptation to isolate yourself is significant. Being rejected solidifies the desire to withdraw. “As strong as the urge is, we need to act opposite. Isolating will only perpetuate the feelings rejection activates,” Wiseheart said.
Instead, she suggested reaching out and sharing your feelings with someone you trust or your therapist. Honor the feelings you’re experiencing, but try not to dwell or wallow in self-loathing.
What can help is to set a time limit, such as 20 minutes, to vent, Wiseheart said. Her favorite strategy is a “Whine and Cheese Party” with friends. This entails “dump[ing] all your feelings, with the intention to turn it around afterward. The point is to balance validating how you feel while challenging that these feelings and this one experience do not wholly define you.”
4. Challenge the beliefs that rejection sparks.
Wiseheart suggested finding evidence that challenges the belief that you’re unlovable, unworthy or not enough. She encourages her clients to write about positive times or exchanges they’ve had — as many as they can remember. This can go as far back as middle school when you first heard you were a great friend, Wiseheart said. “The point is to collect as much ‘evidence’ as possible to poke holes in [your] self-bashing theory of self.”
5. Reframe the rejection.
“While, our go-to feeling is that we are inadequate or we are at fault, try to reframe this,” Wiseheart said. Rejection is simply a request being denied, she said. “Remind yourself that some people or situations just do not work out.” (Here’s more on rethinking rejection.)
6. Accept that rejection is universal.
“Rejection is a part of life,” Wiseheart said. Everyone gets rejected from time to time. “If we all experience it, then we cannot be the biggest, worthless failure that has ever existed.” Trying to avoid rejection at all costs only leads to avoiding life or getting overwhelmed when rejection happens, she said. Instead, the key is to accept that rejection occurs and that it’s OK to be rejected.
“We need to have compassion for our experience and try to find a way to try again. Rejection is something that we experience; it does not define us.”
Stay tuned for Part 2 for more suggestions on coping effectively with rejection and relating to others.
Rejection photo available from Shutterstock