How to get over the sting of rejection

How to get over the sting of rejection
Photo: Shutterstock

Twelve was the age I first experienced romantic rejection.

The rejector was the epitome of my type at the time, with his crispy brown spikes for hair, boyish chipmunk face, and donning of early 2000s surf company attire (Hollister, Billabong, and Quiksilver were all the rage back then).

I remember my classmates chasing the poor boy around the room at a party I was hosting until he begrudgingly agreed to slow-dance with me. We exchanged all of two words while awkwardly swaying, my hands balled up into fists against his scrawny shoulders.

Six years would pass before I’d experience the first rejection that actually mattered to my young gay heart. I was 18, it was the summer following my graduation from high school, and I’d just walked inside San Francisco’s only 18+ gay club.

A sped-up dance version of Chris Brown’s “Forever” pulsed from the speakers. To my right shimmered a light-up, color-changing dance floor. To my left, a trim go-go dancer shimmied inside a cage.

From across the room, I noticed her: a woman with dark-brown hair, olive-colored skin, piercing green eyes, and lips turned upwards into a confident (bordering on cocky) smile. A white tank top accented her toned biceps. The way she walked was halfway between a strut and a glide.

We got to talking. Up close, she smelled like cocktails and Abercrombie and breath mints. I shared that it was my first time at a gay club and that I was about to leave for my first year of college up in Davis.

She and I moved to the dance floor along with her two gay guy friends she’d come with. And when she kissed me, I remember my heart thumping (as loud) as the base next to us. I remember exhilaration flooding through me as, immediately after, her friends lifted me above the sea of dancing LGBTQs—all while the words, “I just kissed a girl,” repeated in my head.

The moment felt surreal. It didn’t even matter that the kiss had been, truthfully, a bit awkward and not the most enjoyable. I was just so elated to have finally had one.

Because of this, the girl’s radio silence (in response to my “I had such a nice time” text that I sent the following day) came down over my heart like a bag of boulders. It was the sting of the first dating rejection that actually meant something; a girl had been the one to inflict it. Though nothing like the pain of my first break-up to come, it was still both a scuff to the ego and a jab at the heart.

Relationship expert Rachael Lloyd says romantic rejection is one of the most painful types. “It literally cuts to the very heart of who we are and how attractive we deem ourselves to be. And no one is exempt,” Lloyd said.

Florida State University psychology professor Baumeister highlights how rejection “blocks the need to belong, which [he] would argue is the most powerful motivation there is.”

On average, LGBTQ+ people are more likely to face rejection throughout their lives, starting with their families and the culture at large.

 As lesbian author Sarah Schulman wrote, “Many gay people will say that their families are ‘fine.’ But when you ask for details, this means, basically, that the gay person hasn’t been completely excluded from family events. Or that their partner, if they have one, is allowed in the house. Very few experience their personhood, to be actively understood as equal to the heterosexual family members.”

Even for those of us who had accepting families, none of us are completely impervious to the scars left behind by our collective history. That history includes psychiatrists like Richard von Krafft-Ebing describing homosexuality as a “degenerative sickness.” It includes the DSM that listed it as a psychiatric disorder until as late as 1973.

Here’s some of what I’ve found helpful in navigating this painful and somewhat inevitable human experience.

1. Take a break to recharge, recover, and regain your sense of self

Back in my 20s, I developed a bad habit. When a relationship or dating situation didn’t work out, in an attempt to comfort myself, I’d immediately rush right back into a similar one. This would only compound the original hurt and leave me feeling worse than before.

It was akin to burning the forest down before giving it a chance to re-grow. I didn’t grant myself the space to fully heal, even though I needed time for my heart to restore, my nervous system to reset, and my vision to de-fog so that I could assess potential dates with clearer eyes. The only way to stop that swirl of negative feelings was to withdraw from the game entirely. 

Following a rejection or relationship dissolution, consider deleting your dating apps for a while. Re-channel your energy. In re-aligning your priorities, you’ll slowly take back your power.

2. Heal the deeper-rooted trauma. Is it really the person who’s presently in front of you that’s causing the negative feelings?

Back in college, I met a girl at a party who I ended up dating for a few weeks after that. She’d come over to the hot tub. I’d go over to her place and she’d cook dinner. We’d hold hands at the local movie theater.

I never felt a strong connection with her. So after a couple of months, when she said she couldn’t see us taking things to the next level, my disappointment seemed illogical—because truthfully, I couldn’t see it either. But it still stung. As Gigi said on The L Word, “It’s amazing how the ego takes a hit even when you know somebody isn’t right for you.”

I didn’t know that the reason I felt this way at the time was that I was projecting past hurts, upsets, and rejections onto the current situation. The woman that summer had just brought them to the forefront again, scuffing my ego without genuinely getting to my heart.

Their energy and mine just aren’t compatible. How beautiful it would be if our souls could rest easy with this as its (simple) takeaway rather than be so deeply affected by things not working out. But past trauma is real. And healing it isn’t a one-and-done deal; it requires continual care, attention, and consistency.

3. Cultivate a full life to keep one person, or the idea of them, from becoming your entire world or eclipsing all else

Following one of the rejections that hurt most in my life, I had far less going on—few hobbies, and minimal awareness of my passions. I wasn’t working or volunteering. At 19, drinking, clubbing, and tanning by the pool were among the most common activities my friends and I took part in. When your life looks like this, you’re more vulnerable to unconsciously placing another person at the center of it—and then feeling shattered once they bounce.

It’s tempting to turn to one source to meet your needs, particularly the younger we are. Centering a person might feel efficient, as all your energy needs only be channeled into a single place. And yet connecting elsewhere is so important. Though I hadn’t when still a teenager, I did gradually wake to the importance of cultivating a greater number of meaningful connections.

If a relationship I’d been excited about doesn’t work out, though it still hurts, I bounce back much more quickly. That’s because I’m sent back to a life that I find meaning in.

In the aftermath of rejection or breakup, grow your life a little more each day. Embrace chosen queer family.

4. Come up with alternative explanations for the rejection

There are infinite reasons why someone might not feel a connection. Sometimes it’s a genuine personality incompatibility or values mismatch. Other times, it’s not even personal to you—a person’s past trauma could be getting in the way of their feeling sparks with almost anyone (apart from those who aren’t actually available for connection).

For instance, one woman I briefly dated told me she was attracted to the feeling of pursuing and the anxiety of waiting to hear back. She’d dated a series of partners whom she felt were never truly that interested or invested in her. She told me she felt “very calm” with me and like she could be herself—but that she didn’t see things working out.

An article in Your Tango outlined some of the psychology behind this: “If your romantic past was like a rollercoaster, stability may feel ‘boring.’ People with a more anxious or activated attachment style might be uncomfortable in ‘safe’ relationships that provide security because they’re used to chaos.”

In my early 20s, I dated a woman I’d been very interested in on the first date or two, but my attraction fizzled out after a few dates. At the time, I couldn’t understand why, but I now know that it, at least in part, stemmed from my own unhealed insecure attachment style. Especially considering that she was one of the few securely attached people I’d dated in my life at that time.

5. Learn from it

I’ve found it helpful to distinguish between two types of rejections. The first is when you don’t have a relationship with the person. They reject you before spending time with you or giving you a chance. It’s not something you did; they just didn’t feel drawn to you from the start.

The second is when you did have some form of relationship. You spent significant time together. You shared experiences.

With the first type, maybe the fact that they didn’t even give you a chance hurts. At the same time, it can help to remind yourself that the person doesn’t truly know you yet. Often the decisions we make about strangers are a response to our conditioning. These rejections usually involve quick judgment based on pre-held prejudices, sometimes derived from instinctual fear of difference or the unknown.

It can also help to remember that the person saw your behavior on a few isolated occasions. Who you are to the rejecting person, at the moment they formed an impression of you, isn’t who you are in your entirety. Or, if you were doing something that put them off, your behavior is either under your control to adjust or might not elicit the same reaction in a different person.

With the second type, since they liked you enough to have a relationship, this rejection likely isn’t a petty or snap judgment type. It usually goes deeper. Even though it still might hurt—and it’s completely okay, beneficial even, to honor that hurt— these types of rejections always give us a chance to learn and to grow.

Rejection is difficult, but there are ways to navigate through it. Self-care, grasping what happened, and turning the focus back to your internal experience can help you. Tending to your heart, mind, and spirit can guide you toward becoming stronger, more open, and more available to the next person—one who both deserves your love and is in a place to return it.

Teacher fired after church sees pic of her kissing her same-sex partner

Previous article

South Dakota is about to pass a trans healthcare ban

Next article