Coping with Rejection: Why Our Minds Weave Plausible, But Hurtful, Narratives

All of us have a natural tendency to personalize. We see the dyad and interpret it through a causal lens. So, if I try to make a friend and that person isn’t interested, my attempts are conceived of as the causes of my rejection. It’s a simple, yet often illusory interpretation. But, it makes sense and fits the observed data, therefore we maintain it. And that’s an aspect of the functions of our brains.

It’s often thought that brains weave truthful tales and have evolved to perceive reality; in fact, it also seems that they’ve evolved to provide comfort and aid anxiety even at the expense of truth, as noted by psychologist Amos Tversky. While a rejection may sting, it does so less than fear. Personalization at once provides a sense of assurance, and thus closure, and, possibly, control; for, if I’m the cause of the rejection, then maybe I can change the other’s mind. Randomness, for most, is hard to tolerate. But randomness is what we usually get.

Additionally, we have a tendency to inflate our own abilities while significantly undervaluing those of others; most people think they’re smarter than average, even though they can’t all be. And the faults we easily find in someone else, we, as often, can’t discover in ourselves. Our egos, or desire to be right, provide more support for personalized assumptions. So, all of this begs the question: Can we be spared of our self-imposed suffering, which comes by way of our erroneous interpretations?

In a recent session with a brilliant client, who is unquestionably more rational than the norm, we learned of his tendency to take on risky gambles while foregoing easy wins. He told me a story about a beautiful woman who approached him and offered him her phone number; in response, he decided not to call her. His friends couldn’t understand his choice, and he struggled to as well. A guy who did so well with calculating odds in other areas continued to pursue seemingly lost causes when it came to love. To him, the odds were reversed, as he couldn’t trust her intentions or at least believe that she’d sustain them. In his mind, the sure thing was actually not so certain, and the lost causes held higher probabilities of success, or at least that’s how he behaved. In addition, the scenarios he chose were win-win games. If he succeed, he’d feel good about himself in completing a daunting task; if he failed, he could remind himself that the woman he pursued was unattainable in general. So, what about the woman who was attracted to him? The odds are that she personalized.

Since most heterosexual women don’t pursue much, as is the social norm, when they do, they likely view the small sample as indicative of their value, or at least can. If you were to ask this woman if she believed that the man she gave her phone number to rejected her because he didn’t like her, she’d probably say yes, unless she frequently approached men she was attracted to and had an inordinate amount of confidence in herself. But, if she knew my client and witnessed his tendency to pass on love, she’d know that the appearance was deceptive and, if she also believed she was unlovable, that her sample size was too small. Her rejection was simply a random occurrence. She couldn’t have known that my client struggled with intimacy and that she just happened to pick someone who was emotionally unavailable, which indirectly could have contributed to her personalized reaction.

As difficult as it may be to accept, people can just as easily be rejected because the person whom they’re fond of idealizes them rather the undervalues them. Our minds are quick to search for certainty and closure, and even to create a sense of control, so it’s up to us to learn to live with the ambiguity.

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