LA 084: How Strong Leaders Handle Rejection and Criticism (And Keep On Keeping On)
I just returned from a long and exciting trip to Israel where I was reminded that even the very best of us are rejected and criticised.
It seems that it does not matter whether your intentions are to help and serve others. It doesn't matter if you are the kindest, gentlest, most loving and caring person the world has ever seen. You will face rejection. And you will probably face rejection by those you truly would think should be the tribe you can most trust, your own family, your own people. In fact, oftentimes, it's those closest to you whose rejection hurts the most.
The chance of being rejected by someone used to be limited to our social and work circle and our dating pool. Nowadays, thanks largely to social media and technology, our posts, chats, profiles, pictures can all be easily ignored, disliked or flamed by a multitude of vague acquaintances.
And rejection hurts deeply. Its wounds pierce our very soul and hit the core of our being. It has happened to you and it will happen again in the future, so how can we equip ourselves now to overcome rejection and soothe the sting of rejection?
Before we dive into ways we can soothe our rejection, it will greatly help to understand why it hurts and what is happening inside the brain.
When researchers placed volunteers in functional MRI machines asking them to recall a recent rejection, they found something astounding. When we experience rejection, the area that lights up on the fMRI is the same area activated when we experience physical pain.
But social rejection is worse than stubbing your toe or even being punched in the face because physical pain diminishes over a short period of time. Research shows that even being rejected by a total stranger can simultaneously make you feel sad and angry. Indeed, your brain doesn't distinguish who or what is rejecting you, the same response applies. Whether it's someone in your own group or someone you don't relate to at all. Whether it's a human being or a computer rejecting you, being ostracised stings!
Sadly, the greatest damage of rejection is self-inflicted. For most people, the natural response to being dumped by a dating partner or being the last person picked for a team is not to lick our wounds and get back on form but to become incredibly self-critical. We feel disgusted with ourselves, call ourselves names, lament how we are truly not worthy, and dwell on our shortcomings. This means that just at the moment when our self-esteem has taken a beating, we lay it on the ground and give it a good kicking ourselves. It's when that self-damaging refrain learned from a very young age that "I am not good enough" repeats it's toxic mantra.
In the days of our long-ago ancestors, rejection served a vital function. Being ostracised from our tribe in our hunter/gatherer past was akin to a death sentence, as you would be unlikely to survive long alone. The same area (the anterior cingulate cortex) of the brain that is constantly on the watch for danger or change in the environment is the same place scanning for the social clues that might point towards a future rejection. It was so vitally important to continue to belong to a tribe that mimicking intense physical pain is a terrific way to get our attention. Those who paid attention early were more likely to correct their behaviour and remain in the tribe. It's all happening in the primitive part of our "critter" brain.
As modern evolved human beings we did not, unfortunately, evolve a more reasoned response that would negate the need to gain our vivid attention. Rejection still has a way of destroying a person's life in a way that few other things can. And the number of people affected by rejection is staggering.
Why do people reject or ostracise others?
Few people who have rejected someone else can readily explain their reasoning and that's because it has little to do with "reason". Take a moment to test yourself for the last time that you rejected someone. Of course, you can justify it to your own satisfaction but what were the underlying causes?
- For some, it's the behaviour of the other person. Something they did (or did not) do that you considered to be unacceptable.
- For others, it's because they don't share your values, beliefs, personality type or your societal conventions.
- Or they failed to meet your expectations of them.
Sometimes people reject us because of our "bad" [unacceptable, wrong, ugly, contrary, different] behaviour in our interactions with them in such a way that makes them uncomfortable or upset.
That is, their brain registers our actions as something that they wish to avoid as it is deemed (by their critter brain) to be some sort of threat to the sanctity of the tribe.
The chances are very high that we do not realise nor recognise anything wrong with our behaviour. But then we judge ourselves by our intentions, whilst we judge others by their actions. We don't intend to make other people uncomfortable, and probably don't consider anything about our behaviour as a reasonable cause of their reaction. Yet, there it is. Our behaviour upsets them which means that they are not rejecting us (the human being), they're rejecting our behaviour. And we can choose to change our behaviour.
Clashing of the Titans
People sometimes simply reject anyone whose values, beliefs or personality traits are incompatible with their own.
The world is filled with people who have a different opinion on certain topics to our own. If you support "the other party" or you pray to a different god, or pray to the same god but in a different way, or support the "wrong" football team and so many more labels that we might use to describe ourselves, even the colour of one's skin, your gender or any choice you make.
Some people hold their beliefs, values and life choices so tightly that they will instantly reject anyone who is not completely aligned. Others may simply choose not to trust you and hence, partially reject us.
When we don't live up to someone's expectations we may be rejected. Even if, in your opinion, those expectations are unknown to you or unrealistic for anyone else to expect.
There are many parents who have rejected their child because they didn't get the right grades or follow the parents preferred career path. There are ex-partners who expected you to stay young and fit as they grew old and round or you became too "clingy" or too "distant", too "argumentative" or too "compromising". There are ex-friends who waited for you too many times or disliked it when you paid attention to someone else or you changed your religion.
Whatever the "reason" for rejection, it hurts. Because "reason" is drowned out by the forward hitting emotion. That is, your brain chemicals have done their work in your critter brain before you can consciously choose whether to override the feelings using your executive brain.
Knowing How to Respond to Rejection
Your first reaction is likely to be a combination of sadness and anger. It's not unusual to lash out at someone close to you (both physically and emotionally). In fact, that maybe your first noticeable sign that you are feeling rejected. Teenagers screech at their parents, husbands shout at wives, wives sob in the bathroom - as often as not, they're feeling rejected and may not even know it.
Recognise that something is wrong and stop a moment to recall the trigger. If it's a feeling of rejection (that special cocktail of sadness and anger where you feel less loved [oxytocin] and more tense, ready to fight or run away [adrenaline]) then establish whether the trigger could have been your "bad" behaviour, a clash of beliefs or values, or your failure to live up to others expectations.
But why should I have to do this? Isn't it their fault?
Remember, most of the damage rejection causes is self-inflicted after the event. Those rejecting you are probably not even aware and almost certainly don't care what you are going through and they ain't going to change, but you can help you now.
It is tempting to let our sadness and anger run its course. Maybe you'll feel better eventually, maybe you'll tip over the edge and do something regrettable and irreversible. Fortunately, there are healthier and better ways to respond to rejection, things that we can do to soothe our emotional pain, rebuild self-worth and curb unhealthy responses. Here are three plus one more:
Kill your inner critic!
In the aftermath of rejection, it's tempting to recite all of your faults and beat yourself up for whatever you did "wrong"- stop it! Please do review what happened, as factually and objectively as you can, and consider alternatives for the future. Labelling yourself with derogatory terms, such as "I'm such a loser", "I'm an idiot" are not helpful. Thinking "I should probably avoid talking about my political opinions at work," is fine.
And please remember, most rejection is due to "fit" and circumstance - not personal. Unearthing all of your own deficiencies in an effort to understand why it didn't work out is unnecessary and likely to be misleading.
Revive your self-esteem
Yes, your self-worth has taken a big hit and it's important to remember what you have to offer. Remind yourself of all the attributes of yourself that are valuable, things that make you a good teammate, partner, friend, employee. List five positive qualities about yourself that are important and matter and write them out (by hand preferably). And if you're struggling to find them, have a look at this list:
This is emotional first aid and will lift levels of oxytocin and serotonin in your brain which will soften those feelings of rejection and replace them with acceptance and pride.
Enhance your feelings of social connection
Remember, the other(s) may not actually have rejected you, you just think they have!
You are a social creature, we all need to feel wanted and valued by the social groups to which we belong (or would like to belong). Rejection destabilizes this need, leaving us feeling unsettled and untethered.
We need to remind ourselves that whilst one group or individual may have rejected us, we are valuable and matter to others.
If your own team didn't invite you to lunch today, grab a coffee with your exercise buddies instead. When your partner ignores your texts, call your mum for a chat and remind yourself of the joy of hearing your voice brings to others. When your child gets rejected by the playground football pick, make a plan to hook them up with a different friend as soon as possible.
Dust off your feet
Plus one more... When all is said and done, there are some people in this world who are simply not going to like you. And that's OK. It's their loss.
Sometimes, there's a group of people where you want to be. The "cool kids", the elite clubs, the trendy set. The trouble is, they don't want you. Maybe it's your behaviour, maybe it's your beliefs, maybe you make them feel bad about themselves, maybe you're not rich enough, cool enough, pretty enough, talented enough... and it really is all OK. The simple truth is that they are not worthy of you and that's their bad.
Even the Lord Jesus was rejected and He advised His disciples that Whoever does not welcome you, nor listen to your message, as you leave that house or city, shake the dust off your feet [breaking all ties with them]. Mat 10:14, Mar 6:11, Luk 9:5
Don't waste your weight, your honour, your glory, your respect [Kavod] on those who are unaccepting.
For everyone else "Accept one another" [Rom 15:7] and edify and include them.