Why rejection hurts so much: A relationship counsellor on the dangers of guessing why they don't like you
Filling in the blanks adds insult to heartbreak
Maybe it's your first date; maybe you've been seeing each other for a few months: the person who thought was worth a try has decided that "it's not going to work." Why? Do you need to lose weight? Grow back your hair? Are they repelled by your sense of humour? Do they just know, at the core, what a dripping bag of trash you are? The rejected heart can't help but wonder: what makes me unlovable?
Janna Comrie is director of The Comrie Counselling Corporation and frequent contributor to CBC Life. Years of experience helping clients work through the hard feelings and dark thoughts surrounding romantic rejection have taught her a lot about the topic. She told me that although it's totally natural to wonder why someone dumped you, you're probably getting it wrong. Also, it's really important to learn to take 'no' for an answer.
They don't want you and you'll never know why
There are some social situations, like one of Comrie's counselling sessions, that are conducive to honesty and healing. Romantic rejections, on the other hand, are more like police interrogations: they encourage silence, lies, and vague evasions. But poor communication is not the only thing standing between you and the truth. Often, says Comrie, even the rejecter doesn't get why they're doing it: "A lot of times people will make up something — I just can't stand his table manners, their voice is annoying — and the reason they give is either so small or so ridiculous that it's obvious that it's not the real reason they're breaking up with the person." The real reason they are breaking with the person, says Comrie, is that they are simply not ready for a relationship or perhaps that they low-key fear being rejected first. But often the rejected is unaware of the true motives underlying their actions. This means that whether they ghost you or actually stop and explain what they actually think, you're never going to know for sure why they don't want you.
You're probably wrong about why they don't want to be with you
One of the most frustrating break-up clichés to hear is "it's not you, it's me". It's frustrating because you don't want to know about them. You want to know what's wrong with you. And you have plenty of theories. Perhaps you should have worn better shoes or tipped the server more generously. You shouldn't have brought up politics, and they definitely misinterpreted that joke. While "why they don't like me" theories are invented with particular occasions in mind, Comrie has discovered that they follow certain patterns. Women most commonly explain being rejected by thinking "I'm not pretty enough; I'm not thin enough." For men: "I'm not tall enough. I don't make enough money. I don't have a good enough job." Others imagine they are not smart enough or hip enough or classy enough. This can change depending on who is rejecting you. While you are certainly too ugly for some, that doesn't stop you from being too stupid for others. Hypotheses of this nature pick out some standard of desirability ("women should be thin") and propose that the other person does not think that we meet it. Sometimes, says Comrie, the standards are quite general: "It's just me as a whole. Nobody likes me; nobody seems to get me."
Whatever explanation you settle on for why they don't like you, you're probably wrong. Comrie says that height, weight, income and the like explain some rejections, but not nearly as many as people think. Her patients "have ghosted people because their ex came back into the picture and they didn't know how to deal with it; because they lost their job and felt like a loser and were too embarrassed to admit it; and because they got medical diagnoses and the relationship was too new for them to feel comfortable sharing it." Just having "no chemistry" without any further explanation is another common cause of rejection, as is coincidentally reminding the person of someone else, like an ex or relative. In Comrie's long clinical experience, the real reasons that people reject others usually don't reflect anything important about the person being rejected. It really is about them.
Where do all our wrong and poorly evidenced rejection theories come from? According to Comrie, your thoughts about why people reject you say more about your own insecurities than anything else. "You assume that everybody sees the faults you see in yourself… Whatever you think your flaw is, that's often what people assume is the reason for rejection." So when men point to height and occupation and women to beauty and body shape as reasons for rejection, it reflects their own suspicion that they are falling short of gendered standards of desirability rather than the actual evaluations of the person who rejected them.
Often the meaning we assign to rejection hurts more than the fact of rejection itself. The other person has seen something in us that makes us unlovable, which is why it can sting even to be rejected by a person who, all things considered, we don't like very much. It awakens our personal doubts about the ways we may be falling short in the eyes of others. Uncertainty about why we've been rejected puts these thoughts in an echo chamber, and the blanks left by vague non-answers and evasions are Mad Libs for your self-loathing imagination. When it comes to why you feel bad, it's not them, it's you ruminating on all the things that you think make you rejectable.
Taking "no" for an answer
People often try to argue, explain, or beg their way into a second chance. Because if they get un-rejected, they don't have to face their own secret belief that they are too short/ugly/broke/long-winded/left-handed/etc to deserve human love. Don't do this. First, it's not going to work. Comrie says that even if the person accepts your explanation when you make it, they'll be looking for another reason to drop you almost immediately. Second, even if it does work, then you could wind up in an awkward relationship dynamic: you're in it because you don't want to face your insecurities; they're in it because they lost an argument. You'd both be much better off in something where both parties are there because they actually want to be. Third, whatever insecurity you're trying to avoid facing, it's probably not about that. Remember, the other person is probably thinking mostly about themself, just like you are. So just accept that they don't want to be with you as gracefully as you can manage. Taking "no" for an answer is the most important skill to learn in dealing with rejection, and it makes things better for everyone.
What should you do with all the urgent thoughts about why they rejected you? Comrie doesn't say you should ignore them. Whether the other person actually gave you a reason for rejecting you or whether your theory is just a latent insecurity jolted to life, you should still reflect on it. If the reasons you think you were rejected actually indicate things about yourself that you would like to change, then Comrie says you should work on changing them. However, she adds, "If it's something you like about yourself or a core value about what you are… move on and trust that that person clearly wasn't a good fit for you." Not all social standards are worth meeting, so choose which ones you want to bother with.
Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.