– VERSUS –
Understanding the fundamental difference between emotions of social rejection and the emotions associated with loneliness is vital in understanding the experiences of individuals. First lets start with a definition of loneliness, it is important from the outset to understand there are two different types of loneliness: social loneliness which is the perceived lack of social connection; and emotional loneliness which is the perceived lack of emotionally and cognitively close relationships. In later posts, we will delve into these further, for the moment lets look at how we define social rejection which is the negative state due to the withdraw of another individual (or group of individuals) in our life. Emotionally the feelings we have when we experience loneliness and social rejection can be very similar, however, they differ on their motivational purpose.
Loneliness while it may be seen as purely an negative affective state, is better characterized as a motivational state. When one is experiencing loneliness the negative emotional state motivates the individual to seek out missing social connections. This state is more associated with the motivational areas of the brain rather than the emotional pain states of the brain. Rejection however, is directly associated with the pain centers of the brain. That is to say social rejection is more analogous to a physical injury, like a cut or broken leg, versus the negative motivational states of loneliness. So the question becomes, what should we do when we experience rejection? (further blogs will focus on loneliness)
Letting go of bad information
If you have ever been told “get over it, and move on” you will understand the title of this section very well. The problem with rejection is we have been “treating” it wrong all our lives, by treating it as an emotion rather than what it is – physical pain. Like physical pain, rejection needs to be cared for in an appropriate way (1) emergency care, (2) continued maintenance of the wound, and (3) time to heal. In the following sections we will look at all three of these in detail.
Think back to the last time you hurt yourself physically – what did you do? – how did you respond? – what was your first action? If like me, it probably included, verbal cries of pain, coddling of the injured area, and search for an immediate pain reducing activity or agent. I think in many ways this maybe the basic responses of most individuals. First we need appreciate this process, because what are we doing when we are engaging in these behaviors, (1) we are verbal to alert others of our injury and draw attention to the possible hazard, (2) we try to reduce the immediate severe wound by assessing the wound and apply some method to reduce the pain that the injury is causing, and (3) we start the process of long-term healing by stopping any bleeding, splinting the broken bone, and stabilize the body to prevent any further damage.
How can this same process be applied to the pain of social rejection? First we need to recognize that social rejection is an internal injury that is caused immediate external environment – the rejector. Therefore diagnosis of this pain can be similar to being poisoned by a potent chemical. The first thing we do when we are poisoned (hopefully) is identify the poison, seek help, and attempt to purge the poison out of the body. The poison in this case is usually the rejector, however, sometimes it can also include what the rejector represents and not just who the person is. This can help us determine the severity of the poison, that is the more the person represents (intimate partner versus a stranger) will determine the potency of the poison, and the amount of injury care the person will need to engage in. Purging can occur in many forms include emotional, physical, and cognitive purging. But the immediate response should start with making sure the poison can no longer be ingested, this can take form of changing ones situation and removing traces of the rejector.
Purging can especially difficult because sometimes the poison was something we were attached to. for example looking at the intimacy literature, the beginning phases of an intimate relationship is very similar to addiction with the same brain regions in full operation during both processes. Therefore, being rejected by an intimate partner can be like being addicted to a drug, but that drug has become toxic for us, and despite our desire to continue using it, it has rejected us. Therefore, going with the analogy of a drug overdoes or the beginning phases of addiction recovery the first purging process is to go through the pains of withdrawal and purging the toxin out of our bodies. This should include feeling the pain of the rejection and understanding what the rejection object meant to the individual. By understanding the poison we can learn how to avoid it in the future, but we can tell the difference between future poisons and future healthy individuals. It only when we avoid the pain and understanding of rejection that it can lead us to relapse in the future with similar poisonous people. But just like withdrawing from drugs and the pains associated with drug withdraws needs to be done in a safe and controlled environment with supportive individuals. It is important to recognize that severe pain can lead us to further self-injury if not done in a healthy environment with healthy non-toxic individuals. If you have difficulty finding healthy individuals, your community can be a great resource, such as professionals such as counseling services, or online support system can help, and these individuals and groups can provide the healthy support to help recover from severe rejection.
The final phase of first aid is to start the process of long-term care, by dressing and cleaning the wound. This can start during the withdraw phase when one understand the pain associated with the poison, and can include protecting the individual from further injury by cleaning and dressing the wound. This can look like surrounding oneself with friends and family, changing the environment by getting rid of environmental triggers such as gifts and pictures (cleaning the wound and reducing continued infection). Finally, one must start a plan for further recovery.
The final note I want to make in this section is to remind the reader that social rejection is a physical injury, and research has shown that the same medicines that reduce physical pain can reduce the pain associated with social rejection. This also means, more dangerous substances such as alcohol and other drugs can also numb the pain. The reader should be careful of engaging in these vices to manage their pain. Taking prescribed doses of acetaminophen maybe a safer pain reducing alternative to alcohol or elicit drugs.
Continued Maintenance of the Wound and Time to Heal
The main goal of the continued maintenance phase is the continued protection of the wound until it is fully healed. This means making sure no further injury occurs by not allowing further toxins into one’s life. This maybe the most risky point of recovery from rejection, because the more one feels better, the increased chance of engaging in the same habits and behaviors that resulted in the injury in the first place increases. When it comes to social rejection this can look like trying the engage the rejector back into one’s life or engaging individuals who are just if not more toxic than the original rejector.
During the maintenance phase, the analogy of a leg cast is good because the cast stabilizes the wound and protects it from further injury as it heals. This also means committing to a set of time to allow for healing, and surrounding one self with individuals, activities, and places that can act as the cast. Note that this is an active process just like a leg will not heal or will not heal correctly if it is ignored or one cuts the cast off too soon, the same goes with being rejected.
Learning to Walk Again
I named this section learning to walk again to emphasize the final phase of recovery, which is to re-engage in the the social world from a healed perspective. Just like it takes time to walk normally after a broken leg it may take time to feel like one can engage in the social world the same after being rejected. However, there are some features of being recovered that we should discuss (1) just because the wound is healed, doesn’t mean the memory is still not painful, and (2) learning from experience.
Just because we know the causes and the situation in which caused rejection in our life, does not mean that the memory of the rejection will not hurt. This also includes good memories, if someone injures their leg skiing this does not mean they will have all bad memories of skiing. The same goes for social rejection, the problem is the combination of bad and good memories could lead us to engaging in risky behaviors that could lead us to being injured a second time. For addiction we call this relapse, for broken leg we call this not learning our lesson the first time, either way it is during this phase that we can be at most risk of injury again. This is why learning from our experience and having reminders of the pain that it caused is important.
Literature on the difference between knowledge and actual behavior is very clear in that we can know better, but it doesn’t mean we will behave in a healthy way. I know for example a second helping of chocolate cake is not healthy, but sometimes given the opportunity my behavior will be different then my knowledge. This is a common mistake individuals experience when rejected is assuming they now know better, so they trust themselves not to engage in the same behaviors. Therefore, to truly heal from rejection we must engage in the hard work of training one’s self to engage in new behaviors and not assume we know better.Just like learning to walk after a serious leg injury this can take time and hard work. One needs to be committed to changing and assuring they do not get re-injured. This means engaging in new activities, learning different socialization skills (AND practicing them), finding new groups, and surrounding one’s self with healthy friends and family. Additionally, remember that this may not feel good and normal in the beginning, developing new habits consciously never does.
Before concluding this blog, I want to close with one last thing we need to know about social rejection. A person can remove all the knives in their kitchen, but this does not mean one will never cut their finger ever again. The same goes with rejection, we can go through the healing processes, and remove the current toxin in our life, but this does not mean we will never experience rejection ever again. Rejection like physical injury is part of life and is the amazing part of life that includes taking risks and sometimes receiving rewards and sometimes feeling pain and loss. But unless we take those chances and risks we never fully live as individuals and we live life with no meaning.
At this final point you may ask Curtis most of this article was on rejection and not loneliness as well. I wanted to start this article by differentiating the two because they are often mistaken for one another. Further blogs will focus solely on loneliness as we learn how to create a social connected and meaningful world for ourselves and the people we love.