The atmosphere in the restaurant was perfect; dimmed lights, vintage wine and soft music in the background combined to make the night as special as the young man had planned it to be.
Sitting across from him, his female companion smiled flirtingly, as they discussed life, love and their respective ambitions. Finally, after about four glasses of red wine, he finally worked up the nerve to do it.
The young man abruptly stood up, to the surprise of his date and everyone else in the restaurant, and dropped to one knee. He presented her with an exquisite diamond ring, looked deeply into her eyes and asked her to marry him.
She put her hand to her mouth, tears forming in her eyes, and then slowly stood up, acutely aware that all eyes in the restaurant were fixed squarely on her.
After a pause that seemed to last forever, she finally said, “I can’t; I’m sorry,” and then promptly proceeded to walk out of the restaurant and out of the devastated young man’s life.
Very few of us will ever have to experience the pain and utter humiliation of a publicly declined marriage proposal but at one time or another we have all experienced rejection, in any one of the many forms it takes.
Whether it was exclusion by our peers in school, a university application that failed to produce a positive response, a job application that failed to produce any response at all, or a pretty girl who gave you the wrong phone number; rejection happens to all of us. Social rejection, as it is called in psychology, can be defined as an interpersonal situation that occurs when a person or group of people exclude an individual from a social relationship.
The question is why is rejection so painful to us? Abraham Maslow and other theorists have suggested that the need for love and belongingness is a fundamental human motivation thus we need to be able to give and receive affection to be psychologically healthy. This is the reason why rejection is such a threat; it robs us of something that we need for our very survival.
In fact, one school of thought proposes that the prevalence of popular culture ÔÇô whether it is in music, fashion or anything else for that matter ÔÇô is a product of our basic human need to be accepted by our peers.
A standard set of values is established through which every person’s inclusion is validated; this is how communities are created and maintained. Even fringe groups that claim to exist in opposition to the established norms of society operate in the same way; no group of people cooperates without common principles that bind them together. Regardless of how independent we may think we are, we each need to be accepted by a group for the benefit of our self-esteem, which is why group exclusion can be so emotionally damaging.
Many people actively shield themselves against the threat of rejection without even realising they are doing so.
The extreme example of this is a condition known as rejection sensitivity, and is described as the tendency to anxiously expect, readily perceive, and over-react to social rejection.
Such individuals are typically reluctant to express opinions, tend to avoid arguments or controversial discussion and are reluctant to make requests or impose on others; they are easily hurt by negative feedback from others, and tend to rely too much on familiar people and situations so as to avoid rejection. They are typically confused as to their true identity, wearing “masks” to please others and often become so obsessed with functioning, looking, and acting in a “prescribed” manner that they become rigid, inflexible, and closed to alternative behavior, even if they are unhappy in the lifestyle they cling to so rigidly.
If this description sounds completely unlike you at first, you may be surprised to find how close it touches to home, upon closer introspection. Rejection is hard to deal with but living in fear results in self-fulfilling prophecies as the avoidance of it only pushes people away.
Ultimately, one remark by the celebrated spiritualist author Don Miguel Ruiz rings true, “Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.” Maybe if we can learn to stop investing so much of ourselves into other peoples’ views of who we are, then we can establish our own identity and develop the courage to pursue our own dreams.