Staying Open to the Pain of Rejection

It takes a lot of guts to ask for what we want and need.

Sometimes it can seem much simpler to push away our needs, to sacrifice them on the altar of independence, to bury them behind a mountain of activity or spend our energy supporting others in the hope that we will be given what we need without having to ask.

After all, many of us—women in particular—were socialized from a young age with the focus on being helpful and this is how many of us found our first taste of approval.

“Normally, I would have steeled myself to situations like this—would have dismissed them with an ‘I don’t care’ attitude and put on my usual tough-girl mask. Or chastised myself for being selfish. But I’ve been learning to give myself more space and time so that the deeper feelings can be felt, so that the little girl I used to be can find her voice rather than being silenced all the time. So, this time when he said no, I went and sat by myself in the bedroom for a while to see how I really felt.

At first there was nothing, just a sense of tightness around the solar plexus and vague hurt feelings. I began to feel annoyed at myself yet again for taking his ‘no’ to heart. Then this sensation rose up inside. Like a wave of nausea it reached my throat, making me fold over, dry retching in disgust. Disgust at myself for having dared to think another might find me attractive. Disgust at my scrawny body. Disgust at my stupidity.

I loathed, hated, myself for some reason—believed myself to be unloveable and unworthy. My head knew none of it was really true but I had to acknowledge that somewhere, deep down, part of me obviously believed it or I wouldn’t be feeling it.”

These were the words of a woman who had been turned down by a lover when she reached out to him expressing a desire for sexual intimacy. Because she would have been the first to admit that he was under no obligation to fulfil her desires, she was stunned at the depth of darkness that was triggered by his rebuttal.

When we finally get to the stage of realizing that the universe doesn’t always easily yield to us what we need, it can take a considerable amount of effort to break long-ingrained habits of sublimating our own needs and to start taking responsibility for meeting them. To make matters worse, we soon realise that we cannot meet all our needs on our own. We need others too.  Which means having to reach out—not an easy thing for many, and made even harder by the very real fact that we don’t always meet with success when we do reach out.

We all inevitably have to deal with rejection and not all rebuttal leads to the deep feelings of rejection described above. Most of us are reasonably resilient and can take a certain amount of knock-backs on the chin. Not being offered every job we apply for, for example, or being out-bid on a house may be things we can take in our stride.  When it comes to intimacy, however, it’s a different matter.

When we reach out to another in the hope of getting close, whether they are a long term partner or simply an acquaintance or friend, we are showing a need which is deeply felt. Expressing emotional or intimacy needs to others can make us feel highly vulnerable, which isn’t always a pleasant experience. It seems to fly in the face of the strong, independent, self-reliant personality that is respected as the modern ideal.

It shows the parts of our selves that rely on others for fulfilment, something we may not want to admit to.

It is because of this feeling of vulnerability that we often prefer to push away our deeper needs, especially if we don’t hold out much hope of having them met. This is why getting to the stage of acknowledging them and starting the process of reaching out feels courageous. But this is just the beginning of a journey, rather than the end. Once we open ourselves to this vulnerability, we are also opening the door to unresolved issues, old wounds and family patterns that may need to be addressed.

Perhaps it’s no wonder many of us react by closing down again after a couple of rebuttals in the arena of intimacy.

All the guys I approach give me the brush off?

Forget it—I’ll concentrate on my career. She never wants sex? Fine, I’ll find it elsewhere. Not that either of these options is necessarily wrong but it is also worth taking the time to look at the deeper dynamics behind our feelings of rejection, especially when we get a sense that we may be over-reacting. (A reaction that seems out of proportion to the situation is one of the flags I watch for as an indication that there may be deeper issues).

So, if we don’t shut down in the face of rejection, what do we do instead?

Stop and feel.

The obvious starting place is to stop and allow ourselves to feel whatever is simmering inside. And this applies whether or not we feel the rejection has more to do with the other person than with ourselves. What is relevant is how we feel about the situation rather than whether it is ‘real’ or not.

By focussing on our own feelings rather than on who is wrong, right, blameworthy or innocent, we have the opportunity to strengthen our core sense of self-worth. When we spend our energy looking for someone to blame or in building walls to protect us from future hurt, we miss a chance of reaching greater wholeness—which is, after all, the goal of healing.

Track the feelings. 

The shamans practice tracking and we can too by using our imaginations, senses and memories to follow our emerging feelings back in time. All emotions have a distinct ‘flavour’ which we can track into the past, similarly to the way a smell or taste can instantly evoke a forgotten memory.

As we sit with what comes up from our depths in response to rejection, their ‘flavour’ may bring to mind other times when we have felt the same way. These experiences may appear, at first glance, to be completely different. But usually, if we keep following them—allowing them to appear and recede naturally—they may show us a repeating pattern and even lead us back to an original wounding. And often simply becoming aware of a recurring pattern or of the origin of our pain can be sufficient healing.

A word of caution, though. What appears in visual imagery in our minds isn’t always fact. Our minds can present archetypal images and stories that can help us understand the themes we are dealing with but it doesn’t necessarily mean that what we see actually happened, especially if we are digging into the distant past. Our aim with tracking isn’t to uncover an ultimate reality. Rather, it is to bring ourselves to a place of greater self-understanding and integrity.

Understand it’s a partial truth. 

We have a tendency, as rational humans, to want to see things in black and white. Something is either true or it is not true. I have to confess openly that this is not my perspective on the world. Like the story about the elephant and the blind men (where each blind man has a different experience of the elephant because he can only feel part of it), I believe there is a truth in every perspective.

And this means that although what I’m feeling may seen totally irrational, I make the assumption that there is a truth lurking in there somewhere if I am willing to be open about what it is. Accepting the validity of our feelings is an important step in unravelling hurt, especially as much of the hurt can stem from early childhood or even beyond—times when the rational mind was not so active and when we had little in the way of wider understanding to act as a context for the pain.

It’s not uncommon for feelings of rejection to stem from times when our very life depended on the nourishment and support that came from parents—parents who, as we all discover, are fallible and not always able to be there for us.

On the other hand, realizing that the truth of my emotions is also only a partial one is helpful in maintaining a degree of perspective that stops me getting totally swamped by them. It allows me to tap into the constant observer who can bear sacred witness to my journey, rooting me in a sense of stability that can support the growth I may need to do in order to heal old pain or to change the way I relate to the world.

Express It!  

Sometimes it’s not enough to just feel.

What emerges from our depths can be so forceful, so immediate, that it needs to be expressed in order for it to be understood and released. And even if it is gentle, expressing what we feel can be wonderfully liberating as well as illuminating. When we exteriorize an emotion, we can look at it from another perspective and see angles we mightn’t have seen when it was kept inside. It also helps to clear energy blockages by allowing our energy to flow outwards rather than having it kept tied up inside.

What form of expression we choose depends on the mood we’re in and the kind of people we are. For those who find comfort in writing, then letting it all out in a stream of consciousness on the page can work. Others may find a physical activity—using cushions, punch-bags, free-flow dance moves or whatever—is what works.

Often just having the physical space to pace and speak out loud can shift our awareness and perspective—with growls, howls, whimpers and tears allowed to emerge alongside the words.


And, finally, this is where we acknowledge that we can’t do it all by ourselves. There are times when our solo efforts are not enough to clear more deep-rooted issues and this is particularly true for those of us who may have a general reluctance to reach out for help in the first place.  If we are going to make one promise to ourselves in dealing with feelings of rejection, it should be to take any deeper issues we uncover to an experienced ‘someone’ (therapist, healer, shaman, etc.) who can support us in working through them.

The simple experience of finding that our needs can be met—even if it is through a professional service—is empowering in itself.

There are many reasons why our reaching out doesn’t always work. Sometimes we’re asking someone who is not in a position to, or doesn’t want to, give us what we’re looking for. Maybe our way of reaching out, of communicating, isn’t readily understood by another. Perhaps it’s just a question of timing.

Certainly we can go a long way towards successfully fulfilling our needs by being more aware of who we are reaching out to, refining how we communicate and being mindful of timing (asking a lover for wild passion when she’s worn out and needs rest is unlikely to yield what you want). And being flexible about how our needs may be met can also result in a greater chance of fulfilment.

But there is also the possibility that our unconscious fears and beliefs continue to bring us into situations where we repeat old hurts until we become aware of them, and can integrate and move beyond them. Ultimately, using our time and energy to look at our own personal dynamics when it comes to feelings of rejection is what leads to greater resilience in the long-run, and to that sense of contented fulfilment.

(Photo: Minoru Nitta at Flickr)

(Post originally featured on Elephant Journal)

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