Why others tend to underestimate how much rejection hurts
Rejections are the emotional cuts and scrapes of daily life. We all experience them in magnitudes both large and small, and whether the person rejecting us is a lover, a friend, a coworker, a boss, a classmate, an institution, or even a relative stranger—they always hurt.
But while even mild rejections really sting, profound, repeated, or unexpected rejections can elicit emotional pain that is literally excruciating. Since everyone is familiar with the hurt rejections cause, when we find ourselves in the throes of a fresh rejection, we expect those around us to exhibit ample and authentic empathy for our pain. Yet, we’re often disappointed, as even our nearest and dearest might not quite get how truly hurt we are, how preoccupied we feel with what happened, how incapable we are of talking about anything else, or how impossible we find it to move on.
But before you question the loyalty and caring of your friends and family, consider that many studies have demonstrated that we consistently underestimate the emotional pain others feel when they get rejected. Even more interesting, we are just as likely to underestimate the emotional pain we ourselves felt when we reflect on our own past experiences of rejection.
The question is why do these empathy gaps exist?
Why We Have Empathy Gaps for Rejection
One of the reasons rejection hurts as much as it does is that the same pathways in the brain that are activated when we get rejected are activated when we experience physical pain. When it comes to assessing our own or others’ tolerance for physical pain, it has long been established that we consistently underestimate our abilities as well as those of others to manage pain. For example, the majority of women who had planned to give birth without pain medication change their minds once they experience the onset of contractions.
We have a similar distortion when it comes to accurately assessing the emotional pain caused by rejection. In one study, participants were paired up. One person was put through a rejection experience while the other observed them. Despite being present for the events and seeing the rejected person’s emotional reactions, the observers consistently underestimated the amount of emotional pain their partner had experienced.
In another study, people were put though a rejection experience and asked to indicate their level of emotional pain immediately afterwards and again one week later. By the time a week had passed, their recollections of their emotional pain became muffled such that they significantly underestimated how much hurt they had actually felt.
These empathy gaps occur because our assessments of visceral experiences (like emotional pain) are likely to be minimized unless we’re actually experiencing it in the moment. In other words, we are simply incapable of accurately predicting how rejection will feel in the future, how it will impact us (or another person) unless we’ve experienced a rejection very recently ourselves.
To illustrate this point, researchers had middle school teachers evaluate a vignette about bullying and rate the emotional pain the bullied child felt. One group of teachers was first put through a rejection experience before being asked to rate the vignette and another was not. The group of teachers who were put through the rejection experience rated the emotional pain of the student as much higher than teachers who were not put through the rejection experience, and they suggested much tougher punishments for the bully as well.
Who Should We Turn To When Seeking Empathy for Rejection?
When seeking empathy and emotional support, we should always turn to those who care about us most and who have proven themselves to be skilled at expressing care, love, and emotional validation. But if time has passed and our emotional wounds have not yet healed, the people most likely to ‘get’ how we feel (and why our wounds have not yet healed) are those who’ve recently been rejected themselves in some capacity or another (the rejection does not have to be identical in circumstance).
We should also consider, that rejections cause emotional wounds that go beyond mere emotional pain. Rejections can damage our mood and ourself-esteem, they can cause surges in anger and aggression, and they can impact our feelings of belonging. Those wounds also need to be ‘treated’ and I will be discussing them in greater detail, as well as how we should treat them in upcoming articles—so stay tuned.
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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.