Helping Clients Handle Rejection
Rejection hurts. How can we help clients handle it productively?
There are no two ways about it: rejection is a universal experience and we will all face it multiple times over the course of our lives. But it still hurts! So what might it be helpful to keep in mind when you face that poor client that has been rejected (perhaps again)? This article offers some points to understand the experience and organises options for how to help your client with it according to different modalities of therapy.
Of course, your weeping client who has just been jilted in love, failed to get the job, or been excluded by a valued set of friends will feel like he or she is the only one who has ever gone through this. It will be cold comfort, however, for you to remind them that experiencing rejection (just as we sometimes experience acceptance) is something that happens repeatedly to all beings (human and other) simply because they have a pulse.
What might get the client’s ear is to explain to them the purpose of rejection. If we think back to our hunter-gatherer tribal roots, it was vital to our survival to win acceptance from the tribe (our first tribe being our family of origin). Those of you who follow the transpersonally-oriented Chakra model of development will already understand that the psychospiritual developmental work of base chakra is exactly that: taking on enough of the tribe’s ways so that they don’t kill you, but not adopting those beliefs and behaviours which are toxic and would cause you problems for your own life (perhaps much later).
Looked at in this context, we see that rejection is a valuable early warning signal for survival, the metacommunication for which goes something like: “Stop the behaviour/belief/attitude that you are engaged in or risk ostracism by the group.” Ostracism – being thrown out of the tribe – equalled death, because in tribal days it would not have been possible to survive for long without the resources of the group, such as the protection of fire. The more painful their experiences of rejection, the more human beings were likely to change their behaviour to avoid ostracism (Chan, 2017; Mental Health Academy, 2013a).
Brain Science of Rejection: It Hurts
Experiencing rejection may feel like death; it is that painful. And recent brain imaging studies have corroborated our felt sense. A 2011 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that social rejection activates the same brain pathways as when we experience physical pain (Chan, 2017). Moreover, a 2017 study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience shows that the same parts of the brain that light up when we experience social rejection are also activated when we witness others experiencing social rejection (Chan, 2017): it is that central to us! So, what options are there for helping our clients with it?
Handling Rejection: Options by "School"
First, let us note that we can’t think of a modality of therapy that would not advocate reframing things for the client. That could show up as a number of interventions:
“So, you didn’t get the job, but it was a top job. That shows that you are pushing the limits, living life to the fullest, that you dreamed big!”
“She rejected your proposal; that doesn’t mean she rejected you. She might not want to date anyone right now.”
“You’re taking his critical remarks personally, but it might be more about stuff going on for him than feedback to you”.
Along these lines, writer-turned-psychotherapist Dennis Palumbo shares a vignette about a time when he sat in on auditions to choose a young woman for a part in a show. The casting committee had already seen a number of young women when they chose one and adjourned. On the way out, Palumbo heard some of the dejected “rejects” making sense of why they hadn’t been chosen. One regretted that she hadn’t followed the advice to dress in a sexier manner. Another said that she should have played the crucial line more seriously instead of as a joke, and so on.
And what was the reason that these women had not been chosen? Palumbo writes that the casting committee suddenly realised they were hungry and wanted to go to lunch. So they chose the next woman auditioning who was not as tall as the show’s star (Palumbo, 2012)! It feels personal to be rejected, but advise your client not to take it personally.
REBT or CBT: dispute the negative thoughts
Cognitive behavioural therapy or its predecessor, Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, would have us identify the strong feelings arising from the rejection: sadness, anger, resentment, jealousy, and so on. Hiding behind the emotions, there will be a thought or belief (or several) which make the rejection “tragic” instead of merely “annoying”. When we identify those (usually irrational) beliefs, we can dispute them, replacing them with more rational, kinder beliefs.
If the client is experiencing a sense of despair, for example, that he didn’t get yet another job he applied for and is having thoughts that he is incompetent or unlikable (say, in an interview), he may wish to fight back against those thoughts with replacement ones such as, “You’re not incompetent. You have performed very well at previous jobs” or “You often get good feedback on how you present at interviews; some interviewers really warm up to you.”
Following the CBT/REBT way of treating the rejection means that the client will not allow it to control his future via self-destructive, negative thoughts which might cause him to avoid the actions he needs to take to move forward (such as applying for more jobs, which would risk more rejection) (Mental Health Academy, 2017a).
Mindfulness: Defuse, develop an Observer Self, and just watch
The burgeoning popularity of mindfulness to deal with life’s vicissitudes is not for no reason. Many are the clients of late who know all about CBT, but say that they are tired of fighting the thoughts! “Fine,” you say. “You can just watch them then.” Mindfulness is about bringing one’s awareness into the present moment in an accepting, non-judgmental way (Mental Health Academy, 2013b). In terms of the fallout from an incident of perceived rejection, the practitioner of mindfulness will want to do several things immediately:
- Acknowledge and accept the emotions that he or she is feeling as a result: the sooner, the better.
- Allow him/herself a period of grieving for the lost job, love, friendship, or whatever. The grieving constitutes an act of “fusion” or what in Psychosynthesis is called “identification”. The client at this stage really identifies (for a period) with how painful it is. Psychosynthesis, at least, asserts that we cannot fully disidentify from that which we have not identified with. We cannot defuse from an emotion or thought that we have not fully connected with in the first place. So this is an important step.
- When the client is ready to move on from the grieving, s/he will still have thoughts of being unlovable, incompetent, or essentially flawed. The task is to notice them, but not engage with them if they are not helpful. Thus, the rejected person may say, “I’m having the thought that I’m incompetent; it’s just a thought.”
- In merely observing the thoughts but not necessarily engaging with them, the client is practicing the art of “defusion” (called “disidentification” in Psychosynthesis). The person comes to have both a “Thinking Self” (generating the thoughts) and an “Observing Self” (watching the thoughts). This creates a more spacious psyche, from which the person can better decide which thoughts, behaviours, and attitudes are more helpful to engage.
- The tendency is to dwell on negative thoughts arising from the rejection. That may be normal, but the mindfulness practitioner will want to keep bringing the awareness back to the present-moment experience, back to the fact that they are “just thoughts”, not reality. He or she may even say, “Thank you, Mind, for your contribution” (Wikihow, n.d.; MHA, 2013b).
Solution-focused therapists are ever aware that the client in the throes of rejection pain is likely to bring heavily “problem-saturated talk” to session. While we note the validity of acknowledging and accepting present emotions and grieving for what has been lost (as above), the solution-focused school invites the client to turn attention to what can or should be done now to move forward (Mental Health Academy, 2017b).
We can summarise the typical suggestions that “live” most happily in this modality. They have to do with “doing something else”: taking the focus outside oneself and distracting oneself from the pain. You could, for example, suggest to the client that you jointly brainstorm other things to take the client’s attention off the lost love/job/friendship, etc. Some things that other commentators have suggested include:
- Getting into physical activity. Regular exercise is a great boon to the art of distraction, as one is totally “in the moment” with one’s body, and thus less able to ruminate.
- Learning something new. Maybe the client always wanted to sign up for French lessons or photography class; now might be the time.
- Meeting new people.The new ones not only help to distract the client from lost (rejecting) others, but may well be friendships (or more) that can develop afresh. The client may be able to meet new people through the above activities: while getting physical activity or learning something new.
- Travelling. The client may wish to put geographical distance as well as time between the rejection incident and his or her life (Psychologia, n.d.).
As therapist, you will be able to help the client come up with a plan for moving forward in a positive way, incorporating these and other solutions that will assist in letting go of the pain.
We would be remiss not to add the perspective of the psychodynamic school of thought, including the specific modality of transpersonal psychotherapy (Psychosynthesis is a principal therapy in this).
Transference: When the past is present. If the client is troubled by the rejection and has the time and will to delve into it more deeply, you can help her discern whether the rejection is painful merely because it happened now in the present, or whether the client might be more sensitised to rejection because of incidents or ongoing relationships earlier in her life (Mental Health Academy, 2013c).
One female doctor, for example, felt completely rejected and destroyed by critical comments the director of her clinic made to her on numerous occasions, experiencing them as a total invalidation of her medical skills and experience. When she looked into the situation more closely, she had the insight that her father often acted in a cold, rejecting way. He loved her as a daughter, but believed that frequent criticism would help his children become better in every way, as there is always something a person can improve on.
The woman realised that unresolved issues with her father were causing her to have a transferential reaction to the director (another male authority), in which she made him into a surrogate father in order to try to gain the approval (read: acceptance) that she never felt from her own father. Once she realised that her psyche had done this “setup” of the director as transferential father, the critical comments no longer had the hold over her that they had had. She was able to relax, take what value she could from the comments, and let go of feeling so rejected, which brings us to another important point in terms, particularly, of the transpersonal modality.
Instrument of growth and development. Rejection is an experience: like acceptance, humiliation, intimacy, conflict, and comfort. Particularly if we are able to disidentify/defuse – developing that Observer Self with which to watch our emotional reactions and thoughts – we can use rejection as a springboard to psychological and spiritual development, as we can every experience. In order for it not to be mis-educative – that is, something that we react to by shutting down and avoiding – we must embrace the experience in full, taking what we can from it.
Ultimately, our psychospiritual development demands an increasing capacity for that inner locus of control: the inner core of steel which may not like experiences such as rejection, but which acknowledges that the only approval/acceptance which really matters is the one that we give to ourselves. It might take a while for your hurting client to get to that, but that’s the goal with which we can most nobly assist them.
- Chan, A.L. (2017). This is why rejection hurts (and how to cope). Huffington Post Healthy Living. Retrieved on 26 March, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- Mental Health Academy. (2013a). Using the chakra system in counselling and psychotherapy. Mental Health Academy.
- Mental Health Academy. (2013b). Mindfulness: The clinical interventions, the benefits, the methods. Mental Health Academy.
- Mental Health Academy. (2013c). Transference and projection. Mental Health Academy.
- Mental Health Academy. (2017a). Cognitive Behaviour Therapy: The Basics. Mental Health Academy.
- Mental Health Academy. (2017b). Solution-focused therapy: An introduction. Mental Health Academy.
- Palumbo, D. (2012). How to survive rejection: Keep giving the marketplace your best. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 26 March, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- Psychologia. (n.d.). How to deal with rejection in love – When he doesn’t love you back. Psychologia.co. Retrieved on 26 March, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- Wikihow. (n.d.). How to handle rejection. Wikihow.com. Retrieved on 26 March, 2018, from: Hyperlink.