Our bodies provide strong signals that we might be struggling with rejection: a churning stomach, tightness in the chest, or a sense of shutting down.
“Focusing on the body and physical sensations helps us open up to our emotions,” explains psychologist Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD, author of Bouncing Back from Rejection. “To whatever degree your struggles with rejection are conscious or unconscious, paying attention to your sensations can be a helpful first step toward addressing them.”
Becker-Phelps uses the acronym STEAM (Sensations, Thoughts, Emotions, Actions, Mentalizing) to describe the five domains where it can be helpful to develop self-awareness. “When you can reflect on your sensations — as well as all the domains of STEAM — you will be able to question your reactions to rejection and have space to consider alternatives.”
Accessing one domain, such as sensations, can be a doorway to working on another, such as habitual thoughts. “People who tend to expect rejection also struggle with being self-critical,” she notes. “They play the roles of both critic and victim.”
Pay attention to how your body feels when the self-critical voice in your head is active (I’m so stupid! Why do I always mess things up!?). Or when the victim voice is dominant (My boss has always had it in for me!). Make two columns on a piece of paper — one for the critic and one for the victim — and write down the thoughts and sensations associated with each.
“The goal of expanding your awareness in this way is to help you go beyond just living the experiences to being able to reflect upon them,” she says.
Mastering accurate self-talk is critical to handling rejection, says psychologist Christian Conte, PhD, author of Walking Through Anger: A New Design for Confronting Conflict in an Emotionally Charged World. When he works with someone struggling with a rejection, he asks them to first describe it in the most extreme way possible (e.g., “I didn’t get the job I applied for because I made a fool of myself at the interview, and I’ll probably never find a decent job because I’m the worst person possible”). Then he asks them to repeat the description with no adjectives or interpretations: “I applied for a job and I didn’t get it.”
From there, you can reframe the experience, he says. “It becomes ‘This situation is not what I wanted, but it’s not the end of the world, and I can handle it’ instead of ‘This always happens to me.’” Eventually, this more balanced form of self-talk can become as habitual as self-criticism used to be. “We master what we practice.”
This originally appeared as “Cool a Rejection Reaction” in “Embracing Rejection” which was published in the October 2021 issue of Experience Life magazine.