Rejection: The ups and downs of daily life

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Sometimes a single piece of news can significantly change our mood

Recently, having felt confident for some time, one of my clients unexpectedly cancelled our next and all subsequent sessions. I thought the single session we had went well so was a little surprised. And then within a few days, I received three more such cancellations. What was going on? Is there something about my counselling I’m not seeing? Am I actually incompetent and have just been lucky so far to work with clients for so long? Should I give up and do something different?

Then the following afternoon I saw three returning clients with a number of sessions behind them. The sessions went really well (I thought), and I felt in such a good mood that clearly I was born to be a counsellor. Those cancellations must have been something to do with the weather.

I am sure this short story isn’t unusual insomuch that we all have this tendency to validate or invalidate what we think of ourselves based on what others appear to think of us, with consequences on our self esteem. Being turned down for a job, or a date, can negatively affect our self esteem as much as succeeding in either can boost it. Why does this rejection affect us so much?

What the theories state

Psychological theories vary from modality to modality. But let’s start with some a href=””>evolutionary theory.

In order to survive, humans lived in groups much as primates do. Individually they would get picked off by predators or indeed other groups of humans. Evolving to experience pain when ostracised from the group, and feeling pleasure when accepted by the group, served to act as a stick and carrot for humans to seek groups to survive. Romantic rejection works in similar ways, only this time as a mechanism to improve the chances of producing even more humans.

Another biological corollary is that when faced with a threat, even a psychological one like the unconscious consequences of rejection, the person will find themselves in fight-or-flight mode. This causes the body to release adrenaline and we experience stress. Not good for our health.

Cognitive behavioural approach

CBT challenges beliefs we have about events. So while we’re not going to deny that we’ve experienced rejection, we’re going to re-frame what that means to us. So, yes, we’ve had some knock-backs. But what logic have we been using? Does it contain cognitive distortions like overgenralising (I am rejected every time) or personalisation (it’s my fault)? We might challenge the first distortion by recalling some examples of when we haven’t been rejected. And the second by thinking of other reasons why we weren’t chosen.

There’s also what I call the “bulldozer approach”, where we carry on regardless, without letting recent evidence put us off. Indeed one of CBT’s founding fathers, Albert Ellis, overcame his anxiety around women simply by challenging his self-beliefs through speaking to 130 random women and perhaps asking them for dates. Although he never did get a date, he overcame his shyness.

Person Centred approach

The Person Centred approach works quite differently. Essentially it starts by valuing a person’s own authority to achieve their potential in life. Part of that work is to identify when a person has become a victim of their conditions of worth. Put simply, this is when a person’s self esteem is based too much on approval from others. And this works for both positive and negative signals. A person both avoids rejection and seeks approval from others when these conditions are in play. A Person Centred therapist will help the person internalise their valuing system.

Psychodynamic approach

Within the psychodynamic approach, there are a number of ways in to examining further might be going on. For my part, I would be drawn to Attachment Theory, and how events such as my example and social or romantic rejection evoke a feeling of abandonment (or fear of it) from early infancy. This is known as an “anxious attachment style”, and a therapist will be looking out for signs of it playing out in the therapy. For example what happens to the person when the therapist has to cancel a session, or even more subtly, when the therapist hasn’t conformed to the idealised role the person projects onto them, perhaps by failing to intuit a need in the person.

The more the person recognises their attachment dynamics, and how the therapist isn’t really going to abandon them, the less power the emotions will have to inflict hurt on the person.


All three approaches lead to much the same outcome – that is to leave the person in a position where they can better tolerate rejection. A side effect might be that by limiting the power of the downs, there might be less to enjoy with the ups. The bonus, though, is less stress and more opportunities than when we’re being constrained by the fear of social failure. And that helps our confidence too.