Rejection. Who likes it? As far as I know, the desire to avoid the pain of being rejected is a universal one… starting way back with Kayin, who felt hurt and angry when his offering to Hashem was turned away. In Kayin’s case, his negative feelings found their climax in humankind’s first murder.
Most of us, thank goodness, find other, less lethal ways to react to the sting of rejection. But no one is really exempt from that pain.
Everyone who’s ever had a younger sibling has experienced the horrifying moment when they realize that they’ve been “replaced.” As their parents and family rejoice over the sweet newborn’s arrival, the displaced youngest child feels a pang of something far less euphoric. However much their parents love him, and however much they show that love, it’s inevitable that some sense of rejection creeps into the child’s heart. How could it not?
Of course, most of us soon bury that unexamined pain and learn to live contentedly enough with the new reality. All through the ensuing years of our lives, howe
ver, we instinctively react to the pain of rejection whenever we perceive it—or think we do—in others. And the drive to avoid that pain can be an unconscious motive in so many of our interactions.
The tentative knock on a new neighbor’s door, our apprehension when applying for a job or nervousness when speaking in public: all stem from an innate and instinctive fear that our overture, our application, our oratory will be rejected… Along with everything that such a rejection would seem to imply about our own lovability, our value in society, and our self-worth.
Fear of failure, I think, is the identical twin of fear of rejection.
Not surprisingly, the urge to avoid possible rejection is so widespread as to almost be part of our DNA. I know someone who always makes sure to be the first one to hang up the phone when speaking to a friend, because she doesn’t want to suffer the tiny rejection of being hung up on. We’ve all known others, including ourselves, who’ve been the target of far realer rejections, as in: “The boy said no.” Anyone who’s ever had a first date with someone they liked has experienced the awful turmoil, the mingled hope and fear, that animates them until they receive the shadchan’s feedback.
If the feedback is negative, and if it happens too often, reactions can run the gamut from anger, to sadness, to depression and hopelessness. For the more secure, the response to being turned down can be no more dramatic than a shrug of the shoulders and a muttered, “His loss.”
Either way, I think it’s true that many of our relationships, both casual and more serious, have the potential to falter on the rock of rejection.
Making it Personal
Our inner radar is so sensitive to rejection that we tend to see it everywhere, even when it was not meant that way at all.
For instance, suppose your sisters-in-law have started planning a family event but have not yet put you in the loop. Those first calls and chats are informal enough, and preliminary enough, to keep them from making it official. For you, however, being left out of the early conversations may feel like rejection. Based on your personality, your family history, and the nature of your relationship with your sisters-in-law, something done unconsciously and with no ill will in the world can be taken in quite the opposite way. And all too often is.
When someone cuts you off on the highway, you don’t take it as a personal insult. You know that he was acting out of pure self-interest, with no thought of you at all. There is no value judgement in his action. It is purely objective, and therefore free of the pain that a personal slight can bring.
Let someone make an innocuous remark in our hearing, however, or inadvertently leave us out when we’d like to be in, and it’s so easy to jump to the conclusion that we’ve been rejected. In fact, a great deal of sibling rivalry arises from the sense that their parents favor one child over another. The fact that this may be completely untrue has little bearing on the way the child feels.
Mommy praised my sister’s picture more than mine? I feel rejected. Abba bought my brother a more expensive suit than he bought me? Ditto. Our parents’ genuine considerations can get lost in the wash of emotion that the perceived inequity brings with it. An emotion that feels very much like rejection.
We have a treacherous tendency to take things personally. To find a pointed barb in a casual comment, or read repudiation in an averted face. An omitted greeting can feel like a deliberate cold shoulder. Forgetting that people are mostly preoccupied with their own concerns and probably didn’t even see us, we assume the worst: they didn’t say hello to us because they don’t like us. Our reaction to the perceived rejection can be so quick, and so unconscious, that it colors our response without our even knowing why we’re reacting so negatively.
Conversely, we may choose not to respond at all. We let the pain of those imagined rejections pile up inside, to poison our happiness and sour our self-esteem.
In contrast to the inadvertent “rejection,” there are some that are quite intentional.
When a parent, distributing treats, decides to leave one child out as a punishment for bad behavior, that parent is acting from a conscious and thought-out desire to teach the child right from wrong. To the child, however, it may feel like rejection. That’s why it’s so important to explain things very carefully, in the hope that the child’s immature mind can grasp enough of what you’re saying to mitigate the pain in his even more immature heart.
Adults sometimes have good reasons for rejecting one another, too. There may be any number of truly objective causes for turning someone down. In shidduchim, careful deliberation may lead you to the conclusion that the person you’ve been dating is not a good fit for you, or that the relationship has no future. Though the rejection may hurt, is not offered as such. It is a simple question of bowing to reality.
Anyone in a position of leadership may need to disappoint a staff member if circumstances warrant it. Bosses turn people down for promotion and raises all the time. Ideas offered in great excitement may be set aside. Partnerships dissolve. Rejection, alas, is part of the ongoing dance of society. There’s no way around it.
If you respect the person doing the rejecting, and you’re fairly certain that they harbor you no ill will, it makes sense to reach out and try to discover the reason why. You may be surprised.
You may find that you can actually understand their point of view.
You may even grow from the experience!