A sting when we’re least prepared, and when we least expect it.
Rejections are the emotional cuts and scrapes of daily life. They come in various forms—social, professional, romantic, or bias-related (based on gender, race, religion, disability, sexual preference,education, etc.). And they can have different magnitudes of emotional and psychological impact.Some, like paper-cuts, just cause an annoying sting, such as when friends ignore our posts on Facebook or a neighbor walks by us in the supermarket without saying hello. Others are deeper and more painful, such as when a friend doesn’t invite us to their party or our close colleagues don’t include us when they have drinks together after work. And a few can be huge, such as when the person we love decides to leave us, or when our families turn their backs on us because they disapprove of our religion, lifestyle, or choice of mate.
Each of us will experience many rejections in our lifetimes, but are some ages and stages more “rejection-heavy” than others?
To answer this question, I posted a survey on the Squeaky Wheel BlogFacebook page and asked readers when in their lives they faced the most rejection.
The results were quite clear.
More than 200 people responded to my survey (thank you, readers!) which allowed me to perform a basic statistical analysis (t-tests, to be specific). The results clearly indicated that most people faced more rejection in one specific period in their lives than in any other—the middle-school years.
Indeed, middle-school seems to represent a veritable gauntlet of rejection, and the accumulated social rejections of this period outweigh even our most intense periods of romantic rejection.
What makes this stage of life even more challenging is that many adolescents and pre-adolescents are entirely unequipped, in terms of emotional and psychological maturity, to manage such harsh experiences. Considering how incredibly formative these years are for our developing identities and self-esteem, it is no wonder so many adults trace their deepest emotional scars to the social rejection they experienced in this period.
The survey also indicated that after the middle-school years, the amount of social rejection we experience declines gradually, though not steadily, throughout our lives.
The trend for romantic rejections was similar to that of social rejections in most ways but one. Although the sheer weighted volume of romantic rejections did not rival the social rejection we face in our early teens, we are likely to experience significantly more romantic rejection in high school than during our college years or young adulthood.
Although many people don’t actually date in high school, one does not have to ask out a romantic prospect in order to feel rejected by them. Rejections at that stage of life can be communicated in a variety of subtle ways that are no less painful.
Similar to social rejection, according to my survey, romantic rejections gradually decline during the college-age years and plateau in our early twenties and young adulthood.
However, unlike social rejections, the survey revealed that romantic rejections return, and with a vengeance, later in life, a resurgence related to one specific life event—divorce. Divorced men and women both reported a surge in romantic rejections after separating from their partners. This is not surprising. What is surprising was that the emotional magnitude of these midlife rejections actually rivaled the severity of romantic rejections people experienced in high school.
Some people might assume that as we mature, we are better equipped, emotionally and psychologically, to manage the emotional pain of rejections and keep it in perspective. Yet the nature of rejection is such that it hurts at pretty much any age. (See 10 Surprising Facts about Rejection.)
That said, my survey did not ask about how people recovered from rejection. I’m inclined to think we probably do a somewhat better job at getting over hurt feelings and broken hearts (of comparable magnitudes) as mature adults than we do as teenagers, but that has yet to be verified scientifically.
(I should also mention that despite garnering more than 200 responses, my survey cannot be considered “scientific” for a variety of reasons. Truly scientific surveys sample random people from the general population while my respondents were all readers of a psychology blog—that is, people with an interest in both psychology and, presumably, rejection. As such, they might not represent the population as whole.)
How to Help Tweens and Teens Manage Rejection
Given the elevated public awareness of the bullying epidemic in schools, one might hope that schools would do a better job educating students and their parents about bullying (which is a severe form of rejection) and how to manage the emotional wounds it inflicts. But sadly, bullying is still not discussed adequately, and the psychological and emotional aftermaths of rejection is hardly addressed at all.
I would suggest that parents read 10 Surprising Facts about Rejection with their tweens or teens, and discuss it with them. Learning that everyone experiences significant emotional pain when they are rejected, and that there is a biological and evolutionary basis for this response, could at least help normalize the emotional pain tweens and teens feel in such situations, and provide a platform for communicating about it with their parents.
Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, keynote speaker, and author whose books have already been translated into thirteen languages. His most recent book is Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013). The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem (Walker & Company) was published in January 2011.
Dr. Winch received his doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University in 1991 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in family and couples therapy at NYU Medical Center. He has been working with individuals, couples and families in his private practice in Manhattan, since 1992. He is a member of the American Psychological Association.
In addition to the Blog on this site, Dr. Winch also writes the popular Squeaky Wheel Blog on Psychology Today.com, and blogs for Huffington Post.