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The Psychology of Rejection

Guidance from mindfulness and mindset coach Craig French.

Key points

  • Studies have shown that rejection activates the same brain areas as when we experience physical pain.
  • Engaging in mindfulness enables us to reframe perceived failures and rejections as learning opportunities.
  • Bringing awareness to your mindset can impact how you cope with rejection.

Maybe the fear is that we are less than we think we are, when the actuality of it is that we are much much more. –Jon Kabat-Zinn, Arriving at Your Own Door: 108 Lessons in Mindfulness

When I entered my third year of graduate school, I began a practicum at a community mental health center under the guidance of one of my professors, Scott Fraser of Wright State University. He had a major impact on my learning and shaped how I would conceptualize cases going forward. Within the first week, he sat me and another colleague down and handed us a list of articles and books by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Daniel Siegel, and others. Our job was to read up on mindfulness and be ready to discuss the readings in our supervision. He also encouraged us to begin our own practice of mindfulness and breathwork.

Having grown up with a spiritual background from Hinduism, I was familiar with the concepts that we were discussing, such as Dhyana, which means a type of contemplative meditation, but it was the first time I would be bringing this to bear in my work. Soon we were running supervised groups for mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) groups with lower-income individuals in the community. Most of them had never heard of such methods but seemed to appreciate this nonjudgmental, gentle, and compassionate approach. It was then that I realized how powerful this practice was as a tool for anyone who was open to receiving it.

In using mindfulness in my life and in my practice, the value it offered expanded my horizons of what it meant to be empathic, compassionate, and aware. Nowadays, mindfulness trainings have expanded globally helping thousands of individuals and communities alike. They offer clients a framework of active acceptance when dealing with negative feelings and situations, one being the experience of rejection.

Rejection is a topic we may not always focus on, and, yet, we deal with it on a day-to-day basis. For South Asians, often considered a “model minority,” rejection in one’s career can be devastating. While there is profound ancient wisdom around mindfulness embedded in the South Asian psyche, which is now being studied by Western society as a valuable perspective, such ideas don’t always translate in daily life. Societal pressure adds to the devastating effects of rejection.

Courtesy of Craig Jared French
Source: Courtesy of Craig Jared French

To understand more about the psychology of rejection, I interviewed Craig French, a practicing Zen Buddhist, sales executive, and mindset coach who conducts programs on several topics including rejection. A founding board member of the Angel City Zen Center in Los Angeles, French shares how much mindfulness meditation helped him manage his mental health and well-being when he was a salesperson. Furthermore, he realized how much this type of work could benefit companies, especially employees who deal with burnout, stress, and anxiety. As he began to lead mindfulness workshops, a topic that kept resurfacing was the concept of rejection and how salespeople often have to deal with it on a daily basis. Given his background in mindfulness and Buddhism, French was compelled to explore this issue further. Yet, it all began with his own dramatic experience of rejection that ultimately led him to want to “dig deeper into the psyche and mental aspects of rejection.”

“One of the biggest moments of rejection in my career was filming the pilot episode of ABC’s Shark Tank. I had a clothing brand called Crooked Jaw and was asked to fly out to Los Angeles to pitch the Sharks on investing in my business. Well, needless to say, I did not get the investment and had to face rejection on national television. That episode still re-airs to this day, so I am forced to relive that experience whenever it is on TV.”

While this was a deeply impactful experience, it did not deter him from moving forward and was the impetus to greater understand the psychology of rejection. “As a business owner once again," he says, "I am constantly pitching my wellness services to companies who tell me ‘no, not right now, mindfulness and solving burnout is not a priority.'” It is in these moments that French chooses to lean on his practice of mindfulness to face such rejections and be able to move on to the next opportunity.

Bringing a Mindful Mindset

So how does one use mindfulness to deal with rejection, especially given all the negative/noisy messages we receive about failure and success? French recommends beginning a daily simple mindfulness practice “to recenter yourself through your breath.” Mindfulness meditation emphasizes the idea of being with thoughts, emotions, and sensations without passing judgment. French shares how “this will allow your body to process whatever it is you are experiencing without having to immediately react or respond to the situation.

"The idea is to just sit, for the sake of sitting, without a specific goal, and over time, you may find yourself in a better place—mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally. By using this time in meditation, or ‘Zazen,’ you can reframe your so-called failures and rejections as simply learning opportunities and areas of personal growth.”

Evolutionary Underpinnings of Rejection

“Pain is not wrong. Reacting to pain as wrong initiates the trance of unworthiness. The moment we believe something is wrong, our world shrinks, and we lose ourselves in the effort to combat the pain.” –Tara Brach, psychologist, author, and proponent of Buddhist meditation

In teaching salespersons how to cope with rejection, French grounds his strategies in the physiological impact on the brain. Studies have shown that rejection not only impacts us psychologically but also activates the same brain areas that are activated when we experience physical pain. This has been attributed to evolutionary strategies for survival in hunter-gatherer tribes. According to evolutionary psychologists, the brain developed an early-warning system of mimicking physical pain around being rejected by a tribe. Those who reacted were fearful of ostracization and more likely to correct behaviors and act in favorable ways, gaining an evolutionary advantage and securing their positions in the tribe. We can often recall and relive social pain much more easily than physical pain. Given that we humans value the need to belong, our brains amplify our discomfort around being disconnected from others.

French shares that, in sales, the pain of rejection can be minimized by accepting that it happens all the time and that it is part and parcel of the experience. He discusses five important tips alongside his suggestion of a mindfulness practice to help empower salespersons by reframing the act of selling, using one’s intuition, and not taking things personally. These tools can also be used in all areas of life where we may encounter rejection.

Because rejection is so integrated into our physiological and emotional wiring, it serves to re-frame the act of “selling.”

  1. Be an analyst. Look for the right fit. We should never be pursuing a sale just in the hopes of “selling.” It’s critical to manage and respect your own energy by doing due diligence to assess if a lead is good. To generalize: When we are rejected in a situation, maybe it’s not the right fit, person, situation, or job for us.
  2. Be consultative as opposed to a “salesperson.” If you aren’t clear if a lead is good yet, dig deeper. Are you asking the right questions? Ask the prospect, What is your biggest problem right now? Listen to really hear what is being said. It is said that a successful company is built by loving the problem. If you are truly connected to both the problem and the solution (the product you are selling) you are then providing a service and helping people: This certainly changes the paradigm of selling. If a person refuses your help, well, that’s not really a rejection of you. To generalize: If a person refuses your help, there may be many reasons why (e.g., they may not be ready for what you have to offer or don’t see the value of what you bring). Use your intuition; check in with yourself and the client.
  3. Are you up for the task of speaking with people today? If not, don’t do it. You wouldn’t run a marathon with food poisoning. Don’t blow a good lead if you aren’t up for the task. If you are off your game for whatever reason, assess what tasks you would be good at for the day. To generalize: This is a good rule of thumb for self-awareness.
  4. Is a client getting annoyed or frustrated? Don’t accelerate through the chaos. Stop. Breathe. And assess if this would be better continued at another time. To generalize: Try to bring awareness as to how you may be escalating a situation.
  5. Don’t personalize. Try not to take things personally. While this is easier said than done sometimes, we never know what is happening on the other end of a call. Give people and yourself the benefit of the doubt. To generalize: Check yourself for #3 and #4, and if they don’t apply, then go easy on yourself.

Rejection is something inevitable that we all must deal with at some point in our lives. Craig encourages individuals, especially those in sales, to expect it, treat it as a necessary step, and not take it too seriously. Ultimately, focusing on the positive moments and remaining persistent toward goals can help alleviate the physical sting of rejection.

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