This is Part Two in a series on Overcoming Rejection. Read Part One here: Overcoming Rejection: 5 Inspiring Lessons from Famous Women.
Tell me if any of this sounds familiar. You’re being criticized by friends, family, or coworkers. You try to defend yourself but you end up feeling embarrassed, angry, or some other negative emotion. Most importantly, this situation happened days ago and you’ve been reliving it in your mind ever since. If this describes you, then you have done post-event processing, which can be one of the most harmful reactions to rejection.
Am I Overthinking Rejection?
Post-event processing is fancy talk for dwelling and fixating on a negative social interaction long after it’s passed. It’s a form of rumination about our interactions with others. It could be replaying the sound of your father’s voice as he criticized your parenting or imaging the bored faces of your coworkers as you give a presentation.
Thinking about our past isn’t always bad. Sometimes thinking over our social interactions is a positive source of learning. How do you know if you’re ruminating about rejection or productively self-reflecting? Ruminators tend to focus on the negatives without really gaining any deep or actionable insights. They wonder why people don’t invite them to social gatherings but don’t make an action plan for making friends, or they think endlessly about an awkward conversation that happened last week, even when they have other important things to do.
Like rumination, productive self-reflection might bring up negative emotions but it yields benefits. Self-reflection might involve thinking about an embarrassing social situation but it can lead to recognizing your overly critical view of yourself, or it might lead to new insights that help you avoid this awkwardness in the future.
The Punishing Effects of Post-Event Processing
Post-event processing is bad for us for three main reasons:
- First, it amplifies rejection. A bad situation that lasts only two minutes, can be dwelled on for days, weeks, or months. It’s like an emotional nuclear explosion, taking a small amount of material and detonating it into a blast thousands of times greater than the original material.
- Second, it focuses on the negative. We fail to see our strengths and our successes. One study found that socially anxious people often reanalyze their performance in social situations and end up feeling more anxious and underestimating how well they did.
- Third, it makes us feel crummy. We feel depressed, dejected, humiliated, embarrassed, anxious, and helpless.
How Can I Stop Post-Event Processing?
It may seem hard to stop yourself from thinking about a bad social situation but there are ways to tame this beast. Don’t force yourself from thinking about something negative. A lot of research shows that trying to block out negative thoughts is a lot like trying not to think about ice cream after walking by a Cold Stone Creamery – it just makes you even more likely to indulge.
Here’s a better action plan:
- Become self-aware. Recognize when you are going over and over the same events. Being aware that you ruminate is a powerful first step, even if you can’t stop yourself.
- Be mindful. Mindfulness will teach you to sit with these negative thoughts without getting wrapped up in them. Here’s a fantastic post on ten simple mindfulness exercises.
- Distract yourself. Think about or do something to take your mind off rejection. Really, anything! Organizing papers on your desk at work, walking the dog, thinking about a beautiful vacation spot . . . Distraction doesn’t have to be something especially positive. A study by Professor Nancy Kocovski and colleagues found that doing a mental puzzle after a speech helped socially anxious people control the harmful effects of after-event processing. This post provides further information and instructions on how to effectively use distraction.
- Get Help. Research show that psychotherapy helps reduce post-event processing in the socially anxious. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been studied most often but other types of therapy are probably helpful as well. Besides therapy, just sharing your feelings and getting support may be another way to counteract the effects of overthinking.
In the end, the most devastating effects of rejection may not be the rejection itself but our thoughts about it afterwards. If you do ruminate about rejection, and many people do, you can do something about it. Even the simplest steps can take you closer to learning to let rejection go.
Abbott, M. J., & Rapee, R. M. (2004). Post-event rumination and negative self-appraisal in social phobia before and after treatment. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 113(1), 136.
Dannahy, L., & Stopa, L. (2007). Post-event processing in social anxiety. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45(6), 1207-1219.
Kocovski, N. L., MacKenzie, M. B., & Rector, N. A. (2011).: Effect on postevent processing in social anxiety. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 40(1), 45-56.
Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological review, 101(1), 34.