Can Rejection Be Good for You?
March 27, 2012
When I was just a child being raised by a single mother, I had endless hopes of a future with my absent father. At 15, I finally got my chance to live with him—and it was everything I dreamed it would be. But I was a teenager with a quick wit, and I butted heads with my new stepmother. After spending an entire school year living with them, they sent me to “visit” my mother. They didn’t take me back.
That kind of rejection doesn’t just hurt. It makes you doubt your worth. Being rejected by another human being, no matter how trite or severe the situation, changes you. It dissolves dreams and hopes and leaves you naked. Rejection can hurt like a wound.
We all experience rejection, and it comes in countless forms. But at the core of all rejection, I believe, is a desire to feel connected and valued. We can’t feel rejection unless we first want something, after all. We might want a job, but what we really want is some security and confidence. We might want to experience romance, but what we really want is someone who makes us feel special. We might want a church family, but what we really want is support and love. At the core of our desires is a longing for a sense of stability or feeling of importance. Rejection keeps us from what we want. Rejection is the enemy. Rejection wants us to give up.
Recently scientists discovered that our bodies process feelings of rejection and social pain (associated with feelings of depression and anxiety) in the same part of the brain as physical pain. To better understand what this means, we have to first understand what scientists believe about pain.
Harm, whether physical or social, activates certain areas of our brain that cause us aggravation. We are forced to respond to this internal alarm system. Theoretically, pain doesn’t have to be so ... painful. The actual “pain” of being hurt is in our heads. Pain is so attention-stealing because it’s a survival mechanism. Our brains want to keep us alive, and that means protecting us, prompting us to stop whatever it is that is harming us—including rejection.
This study went on to show that higher levels of rejection in a person’s life result in “more negative self-feelings and reductions of self-esteem.” Rejection literally changes our brains. But these changes aren’t a self-sabotaging function—they’re defense mechanisms. When we face rejection one too many times, our brain learns to protect us. Many of us have experienced this. We’re afraid of trying again. We’ve been rejected by that guy or girl. We’ve been turned down for one too many jobs. We didn’t get into that school. We didn’t get the raise, the kiss or the invite to that friend’s event. We feel separated.
The fact is, we need other people to survive. It’s part of our design. And rejection threatens this basic need, so our bodies literally process it as pain.
Jesus and rejection
Luke tells us the story of Jesus’ return to Nazareth after He’s had some success teaching in the countryside. Imagine 30-year-old Jesus, fresh out of the desert, articulating His cause clearly and with passion and getting His first taste of a supportive audience. Luke 4:15 even tells us “everyone praised him.” Now, depending on which Gospel you read, the story differs here. But upon returning to His hometown, Jesus decided to speak at the synagogue, the Jewish public space, clearly hoping to continue His mission and passion with the people He knew best from His childhood.
At first, things looked up. The crowds were amazed and asked themselves, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” But then they realized something. This wasn’t a prophet. This was little Jesus, the carpenter’s kid.
The crowds belittled Jesus.They had no faith in Him. And to top it off, Jesus wasn’t able to do miracles. Jesus wrestled with their rejection, and for a time, He was left nearly powerless.
Outside of His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before His crucifixion, I imagine getting rejected by His entire hometown must have been one of the most hurtful experiences of His life. But Jesus didn’t stop. He didn’t stop after Nazareth, and He didn’t stop after the cross. He had a cause, a passion, a reason to go on.
Jesus‘ encounters with rejection changed the way He understood His ministry. After all, Jesus spent a lot of time in little cities—not metropolitan centers. He didn’t run with the “in” crowd. In fact, He was called a drunkard and a glutton and hung out with people who were very familiar with rejection.
Jesus’ rejection became someone else’s salvation.
As disciples, we’re called to imitate Jesus, to take up our crosses, and perhaps even to turn rejection into compassion—both for ourselves and for others. We should realize that pain is not evil, and rejection should not be feared. We shouldn’t fight the feelings it invokes in us. Rather, this rejection can be used as a catalyst and a chance to love others. Sometimes we’re in a position to be rejected—but sometimes we’re in a position to reject someone else.
For me, I ended up in this position 10 years after my father sent me away. He called out of the blue to tell me he was dying and wanted to see me. This was my chance to reject my rejector.
But I didn’t do it.
Even when we suffer the results of rejection, we still have the power to accept someone else. Jesus didn’t let rejection stop Him. Jesus was constantly responding to pain and death with resurrection. And we should too.
It’s time we accepted our rejection.
Chris Abel is a seminary student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and occasionally blogs at www.foldingthoughts.com.