, Salem, MA


February 14, 2013

Please don't be my valentine

The power of rejection

It's hard to imagine a worse fate than what Frank Sinatra once sang: Each day is Valentine's Day. Because, honestly, for many people Valentine's Day is just a collection of times they were, or still are, rejected. Who in their right mind would want that every day?

I don't know anyone who has not felt the sting of rejection in some form or another. Whether unrequited love, being fired from a job or losing a competition, all of us at some time experience it. And it's not fun. It's no surprise, then, that social psychologists who have studied it for almost 20 years now have found rejection's impact to be both profound and powerful. In fact, in labs and in real life, remembering rejection is usually more distressing than remembering a time we broke a limb.

All cultures, social classes, and age groups even have their own ways of rejecting. Some cultures exile, others look straight through people they don't wish to speak to. Religions have means for excommunicating "sinners" and children leave others out during playtime. Rejection, it seems, is as human as say, aggression, or copying facial expressions, or religious violence, all of which have been linked to forms of exclusion and rejection. Lance Armstrong noted that the rejection he suffered after having cancer motivated his cycling comeback, potentially even motivating his cheating. Susan Smith drowned her two children in a lake in 1994 for fear that a man she loved would break off their affair.

So why does rejection pose such a threat?

One reason is that rejection threatens what appear to be quite fundamental needs. The first is our need to belong. Humans tend to enjoy having a small group of close others to share their life with; we gravitate toward those who will accept us. 

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