Asking for a Friend is a weekly Sex and Relationships column hosted by arts and culture writer Dana Sparks and fueled by your curiosities. Click here to anonymously submit questions regarding sex, relationships and sex education.
“How should I handle constantly running into this guy I shot my shot with and got rejected by?” - Awkward Anne
Dear Awkward Anne,
Initially, I wanted to say, “Get over it. Don’t let this guy faze you.”
Then I reconsidered; telling you to get over it is not why I run this column. And, if I’m being honest, the topic of rejection hits close to home.
Experiencing some big-time rejection radically reshaped my life this year. But, smaller, daily rejections — like not getting the job you wanted or an unsuccessful pass at someone new — matter just as much.
As it turns out, something quite interesting is happening in the brain when we aren’t accepted in the ways we hope for.
According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, rejection and pain are experienced in the same parts of the brain, meaning that emotional and physical pain share some of the same wiring. The study reads, “These results give new meaning to the idea that rejection ‘hurts’.”
Regarding this subject matter, psychologist Guy Winch explores why rejection hurts — from an anthropological point of view — and the importance of “emotional first aid” on the TED stage. Winch’s concept of emotional first aid suggests caring for our mental health like we do for our physical health. Even though there appears to be an evolutionary purpose for feelings of rejection, Winch argues that leaving them untreated keeps us vulnerable in unhealthy ways.
Following Winch’s orders to attend to our mental anguish like we do our bodily pains, let’s think about your situation.
Since you wrote to me, I would imagine that it’s not exactly pleasant each time you see him. Like adjusting to the limitations that come from having a cold or breaking a bone, heartache might change the way we function for a while.
The PNAS study used imaging of the brain to explore the feelings of pain and rejection. Participants had their brain activity monitored while they looked at images of an old lover from a relationship that they did not want to end. Images made of the cerebral cortex within the brain then illustrated where rejection is processed — one of the same places physical pain is felt.
While the study and its results are fascinating, I am amazed by the role of visual stimulation and its ability to trigger measurable feelings of rejection. It makes me wonder if seeing this guy over and over is like mentally and emotionally experiencing that rejection again and again. This might explain the default to awkward, Anne.
Being awkward is okay, especially if this was a significant let-down for you. I’ll let you in on a secret: I seem to be the go-to gal for love advice at the Emerald, but I still get awkward too. And I — like you — am still only human in all my awkward, flustered glory.
It might take a while to accept that the cord has been cut between you and this mystery man. But, you will breathe easy again. He chose to not be in your life — with or without reasoning, his rejection is valid — but still, you might need a little reminder that what he thinks shouldn’t mean so much.
That being said, varying levels of rejection are interwoven in our daily lives, so it’s important to consciously decide how we respond. Significant or reoccurring rejection can offer a framework to re-evaluate how you do things or what you want your life to look like.
Not having genuine space to process the situation can draw the problem out longer. It’s okay if you need to take the long way through campus to class to avoid seeing him for a little while, but don’t ruminate. Lingering on your rejection would be like needlessly pressing on a tender bruise.
Should you later realize your actions ultimately contributed to things not working out, learn from the situation and try to forgive yourself. If seeing this guy is like visiting the pinnacle of rejection, it might be time to look deeper within yourself. Avoid reducing the image of a person to a symbol of failed endeavors or a trigger of your own insecurities.
You were brave to put yourself out there and go after what you wanted. Let your pains and rejections mend over time — you might find that you’re stronger than you were before.
P.S. I giggled about “PNAS,” too.