"Although we have bandages for cuts, chicken soup for colds, and ice packs for bruises," says psychologist Guy Winch, "most of us have no idea how to treat day-to-day emotional injuries such as failure, rejection, and loss." Of these, rejection is something all of us have in common. Everyone experiences rejection at one time or another, whether it's a rejection of our ideas, proposals, offerings or our very own behavior. How many can say they didn't suffer through an embarrassing rejection at work?
Rejection is particularly painful because we all need to belong, to be accepted and to feel a part of the tribe. So when we receive criticism at work about how we come across, for example, or when we do a less than stellar job delivering an important presentation, we experience the pain of social rejection—we're evaluated and we feel rejected. Studies conducted by professor of psychology Naomi Eisenberger show how the emotional pain we feel from a rejection is as real as physical pain: It activates the same neural regions that are implicated in physical pain processing.
What can you do to quickly spring back from an embarrassing rejection?
1. Appreciate the defining moment.
Embarrassing rejections sting and are remembered for a long time—sometimes they stay with us for years. If you look back, an embarrassing rejection was probably a defining moment in your life, an event that gave you an insight into yourself. This could have happened 10 years ago or just yesterday. Capture the lesson. Reflect on what you learned from the incident that can make you a better leader, a more astute businessperson or a more effective salesperson. This practical exercise lessens the sting because you're now actively looking for the good in what happened.
2. Remind yourself of the "spotlight effect."
The "spotlight effect," discovered in research at Cornell University, refers to the fact that people considerably overestimate how much attention other people are paying to them, whether it's their embarrassing moments, their behavior or their appearance. So, for example, when we feel that our presentation wasn't well received, we're likely exaggerating the extent to which others noticed every possible flaw that we believe existed. It's helpful to remind yourself once in a while that the social spotlight doesn't shine as brightly on us as we believe.
3. Argue with self-criticism.
It is, of course, important not to discount our part in an embarrassing rejection. However, this needs a light touch. In Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt And Other Everyday Psychological Injuries, Winch explains that all too often when we try to understand what went wrong, we end up over-personalizing the rejection and become too self-critical. You need to be able to "argue" with your self-critical voice and practice some self-kindness. "To win this internal debate," notes Winch,"we need talking points, arguments we can use to formulate a more balanced understanding of why the rejection occurred." Instead of kicking yourself when you're down, be your own defense counsel.
One way to do this is to list (in writing) any negative or self-critical thoughts you have about the embarrassing rejection and list counterarguments for each self-critical thought. Whenever you have a self-critical thought, get in the habit of immediately articulating the relevant counterarguments.
4. Drop the defensiveness.
John Gottman considers defensiveness in personal relationships as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This applies equally to our business relationships. We’ve all been defensive, but this strategy is never successful, especially in a professional environment. Defensiveness signals that we're not taking what happened seriously, that we're brushing people off. Take responsibility. This will help you redirect the negative emotions into positive actions.
5. Ask for feedback.
A way to constructively cope with the rejection is to explore what led to it and to ask for feedback. This might bring to light any misinterpretations or misjudgments on either party involved. It might also lead to a reconsideration that can soften the blow. The discussion can open up a portal for a stronger relationship, based on openness and candor.
6. Desensitize yourself to the word "no."
A toddler hears the word "no" 400 times a day. Although that number decreases in our adult years, it's still unpleasant to hear "no thanks" to a proposal, a pitch or in response to a sales call. It can be especially embarrassing if we have devoted a lot of effort to the request or involved other people's effort and time in the process. To take the sting out of the rejection and develop resilience in this area, consider a strategy that psychologist call desensitization. This is a diminished emotional response to a negative event after repeated exposure to it. That's why a seasoned salesperson learns to take "no" more easily after getting used to making repeated cold calls. Take the rejections head-on. They're simply one of the costs of doing business.
7. Keep your chin up.
Embarrassing rejections bring about a variety of emotions, such as distress, sadness and even shame. Acknowledge the emotions, and allow yourself to feel bad—for a short period of time. Then make a decision to move on. Keep your chin up, and seek out the company of others in your network. In other words, after an embarrassing incident, don't close your office door, avoid the lunch room, or take the afternoon off to brood over the incident. You strengthen your emotional intelligence when you're able to manage your emotions. A study at UC Berkley shows those who are in positions of authority are able to recover from mild rejection more quickly.
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Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.