What is a fate as bad as death?….in the past, estrangement from family or friends, along with the corresponding exile away from the campfire or town gates, meant literally getting thrown to the wolves. Not surprisingly, our brains are wired with circuitry so that we can scrupulously avoid such fates….The neurological wiring that makes us feel [social] pain, new research suggests, also means that a common painkiller could ease the sting.*

Recent blog posts have centered on the health and overall benefits of PLAY at work and in love. But what if someone doesn’t want to play with you. What if you get rejected. Take Tylenol. TYLENOL for Social Rejection – social pain that hurts even worse than physical pain. You know yourself (or if not try this and see) that you have a harder time vividly re-experiencing a physical pain than re-experiencing the kind of social pain you feel at the thought or sight, let’s say, of the one who rejected you in love. In work, play, love – doesn’t matter where, hardly even matters who did the rejecting. OUCH. Social rejection – the team that didn’t want you, the job you didn’t get, the old love you see with his/her new love, the person who snubbed you on the street – hurts out of the same part of the brain as physical pain and can therefore be treated as such. Tylenol. So what’s all this social fuss about?

The answer lies in our evolutionary past. Humans are social animals; being rejected from our tribe or social group in our pre-civilized past would have meant losing access to food, protection, and mating partners, making it extremely difficult to survive. Being ostracized would have been akin to receiving a death sentence. Because the consequences of ostracism were so extreme, our brains developed an early-warning system to alert us when we were at risk for being “voted off the island” by triggering sharp pain whenever we experienced even a hint of social rejection.

Take the ball-tossing game. Goes something like this: Three people (2 researchers, one subject) sitting in a waiting room. One researcher starts tossing a ball to another, which goes around evenly among the 3 of them until on the second round when they skip passing it to the subject. Silly as it sounds, dozens of studies have shown how this mild a rejection can cause mood and self-esteem altering emotional pain. And that’s nothing. Total strangers in a waiting room, so makes sense how much more painful social rejection can be where it might matter a bit if not a lot more. You know that party you didn’t even want to go to, and still you felt bad that you didn’t make the cut. Or that meeting, or the memo you didn’t get. Who cares? We do because, like it or not, the brain is wired to care. Happens to the best of us. I can remember myself having been rejected in love one time around a special birthday. People sent me flowers because they loved me and it was my birthday. So there I was stretched out on the sofa with a serious case of physical and emotional blah’s staring into space, at some point noticing the flowers all around, and realizing, Holy Hannah, I’m in my coffin. For heaven’s sake girl get moving, get up.

Some get it worse than others. The brain’s natural pain killing response (μ-opioid, morphine) varies among us. And, some personality types seem even to thrive on social rejection. For example, one study found that some independent types may take social rejection as a validation of their specialness, inspiring creativity and productivity; contrasted with other types for whom there has been found a lowering of cognitive functioning during the post rejection phase. The fear of social pain is so great for numbers of clients** that they are willing to constrict their lives severely in work, play, and love to keep themselves feeling safe. Talk about blah’s though, and good for them knowing there must be a happier, healthier, more productive way to live their lives, if they can learn to modulate the pain. A couple of them are, as we speak, considering experimenting outside of their comfort zones in love and work with Tylenol on hand, and I for one cannot wait to hear whether and how that worked out. What fun!

There are, of course, ways other than Tylenol to deal with life limiting social pain. One is to bring some care and discipline to the self-talk judging you relentlessly for it. Talk Back. Welcome to the human race. It’s normal, okay. It helped us to survive and thrive as a species and is not going away anytime soon. Better to know we might feel pain, and then to venture forth anyway than to be blind sided by it, which is worse if for no other reason than how foolish we might feel to have not seen the possibility for it coming. Just so you know, it’s ALWAYS possible, because there is no accounting for taste and what makes people a good match in work, play, or love over a long enough haul to prevent rejection. But life is what our thoughts make it, thoughts are not facts, and people who manage social rejection constructively tend to do so with a different mindset than those who do not. So here’s a list from of ways people who deal with it well tend to think about rejection:

  • They know when someone doesn’t want to talk to them or hang out it’s often not a true rejection at all. The person was just distracted or had other plans, and has nothing against them as an individual.
  • When they are rejected for real, they know it’s not always a reflection on them and may be because the other person was having a bad day.
  • They know they can’t be a good match for everyone they meet.
  • They know that rejection is just part of the process of trying to do things like form a social life. They realize making friends is partially a numbers game. They think long term, and focus on what their end goal is, rather than worrying how any one interaction plays out.
  • They realize everyone gets rejected at times, even self-assured, good looking people who seem to have it easy.
  • They realize that trying to avoid all rejection would mean embracing a safe, boring, people-pleasing life.
  • They view rejection as a way to screen out people who wouldn’t have been a good match for them anyway. They almost see getting rejected by someone as a favor, since they’ve been given a clear message that they should put their energy into pursuing other prospects.
  • They realize some rejections are a good thing, like if a bigot rejects them for being non-prejudiced.
  • They realize no one else cares all that much if they get rejected. They may even admire them for having the guts to risk going after what they want.
  • They see every ‘no’ as one step forward towards them getting a ‘yes’.
  • They see rejection as an opportunity to gain feedback and learn from their mistakes.

And, remembering that the injury causing the pain was related to an age-old fear of dying as a result of not belonging, seems like a no brainer what else there is to do. Plant yourself firmly among people, ones who love you if possible, just to soak in all that love and belonging. And, if no one is around, go to the movies, go to church, join a meet up… Plant yourself among people just to show your brain everything is okay. You may be in pain, again happens to the best of us, but it will pass and, even if it feels like a fate worse than death at the time, you can get up and get moving among the living, life goes on and you are not going to die. Practice, practice, practice…and see what happens.

For help with this or something else, Contact Me at:

Email:  Madelaine Weiss

Phone:   202 617-0821

*Gary Stix, “Feeling the Pain of Rejection? Try Taking a Tylenol.” September 1, 2010, Scientific American,

** Examples and illustrations are fictional composites inspired by but not depicting nor referring to any actual specific person in my practice or life experience.

Copyright © 2017. Madelaine Claire Weiss. All rights reserved.





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