What is Rejection?

Rejection. Refusal, non-acceptance, declining, turning down, no, dismissal, spurning, rebuff

In this, the first in a series of articles on Rejection, I begin by describing a psychological hypothesis which can be used to explain why our language contains such a powerful word for the rejection experience itself and second, how and why the word rejection is differentially defined by individuals.

It is my aim that by the end of this series that you will have your awareness raised about aspects of rejection, see that you are not alone in your rejection experience and understand how, with practice, you can use your already existing mental architecture to use the rejection experience to your advantage.

Turning first to an explanation of why such an emotive word exists in our language to describe our experience of rejection. A point in which to start is an acknowledgment that we are social animals and very few of us choose to live in isolation from others.

Research by psychologists Roy Bauminster and Mark Leary[i] put forward a compelling argument for why we make the decision to closely connect and bond with others. They suggest that as social animals we have the need for a sense of ‘belongingness.’ They argue that this need motivates us to form close personal attachments with significant others in our lives and, even when the connection with a significant other no longer brings us any emotional or financial benefit, we find it very difficult to break the bond. This suggests that our need to belong transcends our need for physical security, rather it provides us with a sense of purpose or meaning in our life which it appears from the research is a necessary part of our well-being.

It is not surprising then that we have a powerful word in our dictionary for a state of ‘not belonging,’ the word rejection, and that when we are rejected, by a group or individual that we have a desire to form, or already have formed, a close connection with, we experience a powerful emotional response as our need for belongingness is being threatened.

Turning next to how individuals differentially define rejection. Most people if asked to define rejection would likely cite specific cases of their own personal experience. The particular instance chosen by them being either the most salient or meaningful, or their most recent rejection experience and therefore the example most easily brought to mind.

Recently, I asked four people to give me their definition of rejection and these were the responses I received;

“Rejection is someone not accepting me for who I am and then leaving me”

“Someone who refuses my request”

“Lack of acceptance, understanding and love”

“Someone not wanting you”

Expanding on these differences in definition, imagine if someone had recently experienced being rejected by their partner or had been made redundant or not been accepted for a job position or university course, or not had their telephone call returned, these different events will more readily spring to the mind of the individuals who have recently experienced them.

Further, and depending on the importance that the individual placed on the meaning of the rejection, their definition of rejection might have strong negative emphasis or minor negative inference and it will be placed somewhere on the individuals’ continuum of emotional impact. 

To conclude, our individual and subjective experience is not the only individual difference that determines our definition of rejection. Our definition can also be influenced by individual differences of mood, personality, levels of confidence and self-esteem, gender, culture, and our ability to regulate or control our emotional state.

In the next of my series on rejection, I look at more closely at the area of individual differences and how they impact on our subjective experience of rejection.


1Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.