SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 14, 2013

Please don't be my valentine

The power of rejection

Jonathan Gerber

---- — 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. 

A second, and perhaps more important need, is our need for control. We love to feel our lives are predictable. Rejection uniquely threatens this sense of control because it's unexpected and often comes from someone with whom we want a closer relationship. Yet we can't force someone to love us. So if someone is not appearing to match the relationship we want, as long as we perceive they don't want the relationship to our level, whether it's real or not, we'll feel rejected. We're not happy just to be "friends" when we want more. We're not happy with dating when we want to be married.

And this lack of control leads to what some call a paradox. At times, rejected people become anti-social and being anti-social is rarely a successful strategy for getting back into a group. Research notes that many school shooters have a history of peer rejection, which prompts a variety of deeper mental problems.

If we retreat, rejection can appear to make us feel numb. We'll shut down and stop caring about even the most banal thing we'd usually care about -- like who wins the Super Bowl. In reality, most people are actually quite alert to what they need, to belonging and control.

It's just that we sometimes get the order of the two needs a little confused. If we can't get the relationship we want, we'll try to get back control, and often prioritize feeling in control over a sense of belonging. I tested this hypothesis across 100 or so rejection studies and found it to be true. In studies where people were temporarily rejected and could only get control back by being anti-social, they chose to be anti-social. But if the experiment would allow for people to regain control by being good citizens, they might do so. We tend to prioritize control when we're feeling rejected.

But rejection teaches us something else: that the human spirit keeps going.

When we know how rejection works, we already have more control than we did before. We may not be able to control who satisfies our needs, but knowing we have a need is sometimes enough to control it. One way to do this involves devaluing what we expect from rejection. We can try to change our expectations of others, which can be painful in the short time but helpful later on.

If we're still finding it hard, we shouldn't be afraid to seek the help of a counselor or psychologist. These are some of the trickiest issues there are, touching the deepest parts of us, so we need to resist the urge to be aggressive, remembering instead that control can be a good thing. It may be a long game, it may not even work, but because we also want to belong, we need to be careful in the steps we take to regain control.

I may not know the hurt someone feels today but I do know that it's real. We all want to know we're loved, that we belong and have some control in our lives. See why Frank Sinatra was wrong? Each day is not Valentine's Day and thank goodness for that.

Jonathan Gerber is assistant professor of psychology at Gordon College. A native Australian, he and his family now live in Hamilton