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Overcoming Personal Rejection in Business

Overcoming Personal Rejection in Business

Rejection, even when it is mental, is experienced in just the same way as if it were felt physically. In other words, modern brain sensing technology can now tell us that being rejected verbally fires almost exactly the same neurons as being physically hit. As a result, we’ll do a considerable amount to avoid such pain and this is particularly the case when we know the odds of possible rejection are high. Not only does this affect our lives in general, making us more avoidant than we could or should be in many cases, but it spills over into many of the decisions we make at work and this could be to our detriment.

As painful as rejection is to all of us, it clearly provides a vital service to our existence, coming from deep in our evolutionary past. In our hunter/gatherer past, being rejected or banished from our small tribe would have been life-threatening as surviving alone for long was impossible. Feelings of rejection then are an early warning system to alert us when we were at risk of being ostracized in some way and that we need to change tactics if we did not want this outcome.

In the modern world our being rejected by one or more people in our “tribe” is unlikely to be a death sentence and we will often be a member of several social “tribes” in any case (so being rejected by one is not quite as painful). However, these highly primitive and powerful emotions have just as much resonance today because our need to feel wanted or “belong” is so strong. When we get rejected, this need to belong becomes destabilized and we often feel very much alone, and may engage in plenty of worrying and even then engage in lots of negative speculation about what went wrong – which can make us either sad or angry – neither of which is very helpful. We see much evidence for these rejection outcomes today with more reported depression than ever and much societal violence in response to even quite mild rejection (including aggression toward family members, co-workers or even completely innocent people).

Perhaps the worst implication of experiencing rejection, even if it is only small or in minor ways is that research shows it actually temporarily lowers our IQ and lessens our ability to reason efficiently (mainly because the negative emotional chemicals are literally flooding or drowning our rational thought in our brain!). And this is not necessarily a short-term effect. Some people carry a particular rejection with them for weeks, months and even years or may start to see a rejection “trend” or pattern which leaves them scarred for a lifetime.

So what can we do differently about our natural feeling of rejection?

Too many books and articles simply suggest that people should not take rejection quite so personally and try to get on with life, by ignoring it, taking a new path, engaging in a distracting activity or just grieving for a short while with friends before “getting back on the horse”. The trouble with all of these kind of suggestions is that they are an attempt to appeal to reason, which, in most circumstances, already knows what to do but has little or no influence over the strong emotional brain in this situation (at least for the most part). So what are we to do? The entrepreneur Jia Jiang may have one possible answer.

Jiang decided that the rejection he felt from investment firms when pitching his start-up idea and company plans was so devastating and emotionally hurtful to his wish to continue with what had been a life-time dream, that this rejection was worth much further investigation.  He therefore spent a year researching what became the book: Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible Through 100 Days of Rejection. In this book Jiang suggests that rather than trying to change our mental “self-talk” from negative to positive after a rejection that we should try instead to become more accustomed to it and thereby more resilient. He therefore deliberately started to put himself in simple situations in which he knew he would be rejected. For example he:

  • Asked a stranger if he could borrow $100
  • Requested a burger “refill” at a fast food restaurant
  • Tried to give $5 to 5 random people
  • Asked to make a passenger announcement on a flight
  • Asked for a free room in a hotel, etc.

Although the first few requests almost inevitably led to rejection, three things happened according to Jiang:

First, he started to get some OK’s and positive responses (and in fact many more of them than he could ever imagine, as he describes in his book and often when he expected the opposite. This made him realize that he had many self-limiting beliefs about not asking for what he wanted or needed.

Secondly, his fear of rejection decreased quickly, the more he experienced it. Hence, by taking the risks he did his ability to deal with rejection, when it came, was nowhere near as visceral for him

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, he learned that general rejection or when people said “no” to him, said much more about the “rejector” than it did about him as the “rejectee” (which was the reverse of his prior thinking).

The point here is not that we can completely overcome our fear of rejection but simply to suggest that we can build a “thicker-skin” and realize that this healthy emotional reaction is needed but perhaps can be too powerful in our lives. Perhaps we can therefore come up with our own list of “brave” things to do to build our thicker skin (over 10, 50 or even 100 days like Jiang) to reap the benefits he experienced over a relatively short period of time – which he says has been completely life-changing ever since.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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