Whether we choose to admit it, rejection is an inevitable part of life. For some, it may be a broken heart. For others, it may be getting fired from a job. Maybe your feelings of rejection are so unique to you, that only you have the words to describe them. Regardless of the circumstance, the effect is often the same. The feelings rejection creates are synonymous with looking at a void imbued with negativity; growing at a rapid pace. This rapidly spreading void can plant seeds of doubt in every area of our lives, causing us to question ourselves, and sometimes our existence. Feelings of rejection can capture our thoughts throughout every waking minute of the day and prevent us from sleeping at night. Rejection can be debilitating, diminish our ability to see hope, and overshadow our beliefs. But is what we are experiencing actually real? Could this perhaps be a question of perception over reality? Or is this really about two opposing forces that mimic each other; rejection and redirection, and which one we choose to believe?
Defining Rejection and Redirection
The Oxford Dictionary defines rejection as, “the dismissing or refusing of a proposal, idea, or a concept.” However, a study conducted by Mark Leary, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, found that rejection is often viewed more through the lens of social acceptance and exclusion. Leary’s study also suggested that in some cases, the emotional pain of feeling excluded or rejected is no different than the pain experienced from physical injury. Leary’s study ultimately concluded that social rejection has serious implications for a person’s overall emotional, mental, and physical health.
Redirection, on the other hand, is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as, “the action of assigning or directing something to a new or different place or purpose.” Redirection is often illustrated as encountering a detour, or when someone is forced to find another way when things do not go as planned. Very little empirical evidence from studies that equate redirection with social acceptance or exclusion. No studies or research correlates redirection with the physical manifestation of pain.
Similarities and Differences Between Rejection and Redirection
Both rejection and redirection are generally unexpected. Whether it is through a breakup, being fired, or some other means, rejection typically happens when we least expect it. Redirection is no different. When we plan to travel one way, say on a road trip for example, and we see those orange detour signs telling us to go another way, generally we were not expecting it. Both rejection and redirection require change. The occurrence of either rejection or redirection indicates that we can no longer continue on with the relationship, job, or the direction we were traveling anymore. The unexpected nature and requirement of change of both rejection and redirection often makes us uncomfortable, to say the least. After all, no one says, “I sure am glad that my spouse just served me with divorce papers,” or, “it’s a good thing I just got fired from my job that I’ve been at for over 10 years.” Even in the context of redirection, very rarely does anyone react favorably to being sent on a detour when they only have minutes to get to an appointment or work. Rejection and redirection appear to be mirror images of each other when it comes to the characteristics of cause. However, these two principles could not be more different when it comes to the resulting effect. You rarely hear of individuals getting counseling for encountering traffic detours. You typically do not hear about substance abuse and depression when an obstacle requires an individual to find another way. Yet, these are often the effects that follow rejections. Divorce or separation from a spouse, termination from a job, even getting fired by a highly valued client, have all been associated with mental health issues, substance abuse, and in some cases, suicide. Why do two words that seemingly have the same causes have drastically different effects? The answer may lie in the lens, or rather, the paradigm we use to evaluate them.
What is a Paradigm?
A paradigm is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as, “a typical example or pattern of something.” In practical application, a paradigm can also be defined as “a set of ideas for understanding or explaining something, especially in a particular subject.” A common example of a paradigm that was pretty significant in history was the belief that the world was flat. For a period of history, maps were drawn as if the world was flat, voyages were planned as if the world was flat, and it was the accepted reality of those times. However, centuries later we now know that our world is not flat, but it is round. How did we get to this point? How did we change our perspective of the world? It all starts with a paradigm shift.
What is a Paradigm Shift?
A paradigm shift is a concept that originated from American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn, and is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as, “a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions.” A paradigm shift is what led to the theory that we now know as truth, which is that the world is round. That paradigm shift led to innumerable voyages, explorations, and discoveries that benefited humankind. The same limitations that existed when the theory of a flat world was the prevailing view, are the same limitations that exist when you perceive that rejection is happening to you. Without a paradigm shift from rejection, which is inherently negative, to redirection, which in most cases is purposeful, you limit yourself from the endless possibilities that can lead to the most optimal version your life.
How Your Paradigm of Rejection May Affect More Than Your Mind
Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD)
To most people, the effects of rejection are more associated with how you feel emotionally. A recent article published by Andrea Bonlor, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and professor at Georgetown University, suggests that emotions may not be the only aspect affected by rejection. In the article, Bonlor supported the theory that a relatively new condition that stems directly from the perception of rejection, called Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD), is very real and can cause great impairment and distress.
In another recently published article, Dr. William Dodson, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist, expanded on a working definition of RSD. According to Dodson, RSD is an intense emotional response caused by the perception that you have disappointed others in your life, and that because of that disappointment, they have withdrawn their love, approval, or respect. Dodson explained that the same painful reaction can occur when you fail or fall short of the high goals and expectations you set for yourself. Dodson concluded that RSD can even be physically painful because rejection activates the same parts of the brain as physical pain.
RSD is not the only condition that is associated with the perception of rejection. Inconsistencies between our thoughts and our actions can lead to cognitive dissonance. In a recently published article, Maike Neuhaus, Ph.D., a psychologist who focuses on self-leadership, defined cognitive dissonance as the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. According to Neuhaus, our natural tendency is to seek consistency in our attitudes and perceptions, and a conflict, can cause unease or discomfort. In the article, Neuhaus used examples of eating a donut while vowing to start a diet, and sunbathing while also being aware that excessive sun exposure causes skin cancer. Through the donut and sunbathing examples, Neuhaus illustrated how the conflict between beliefs and action can cause discomfort that one will feel the need to resolve. Using Neuhaus’s rationale, it’s plausible to expect that a lawyer, whose professional identity and beliefs say that they should uphold the law, experiences cognitive dissonance if they violate the law by driving home from a bar intoxicated.
Why It Matters
Beyond the obvious implications to a person’s mental, emotional, and physical health, many professions have well-established ethical obligations that can be compromised by conduct that is influenced by the negative effects of the perception of rejection. Lawyers, for example, have ethical obligations that involve a lawyer’s state of mind in the representation they provide to their clients. ABA Model Rule 1.1: Competency, states, “a lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client.” ABA Model Rule 1.1: Competency, goes on to elaborate that, “competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.” In recent years, a stronger emphasis has been placed on the emotional, mental, and physical well-being of a lawyer, to determine whether they are competent to provide representation to clients. Perhaps this is because studies conducted by the ABA show that approximately 28% of lawyers suffer from depression, approximately 19% have or have had severe anxiety, and approximately 11% of lawyers have had suicidal thoughts in the year preceding the study. While a causal relationship between lawyers and rejection has not yet been studied or adequately established, it would not be a surprise that at least some of the statistics here derive from or are related to the perception of rejection.
In life, it is inevitable that unplanned and sometimes unfair events will have a detrimental effect on our lives. We cannot choose when these occur, but we do have the unilateral and unequivocal power to choose how we view them. Will we view the proverbial curveballs that life throws at us as rejection, leading down a path of emotional distress, mental anguish, and possibly physical pain? Or will we view those same curveballs of life as redirection, leading down a new path of purpose, experience, and growth? Two words with similar meanings, similar causes, but drastically different effects. Rejection or redirection; which will you choose to believe is at work?
Bonlor, Andrea, “What is Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria?” Psychology Today, July 25, 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/friendship-20/201907/what-is-rejection-sensitive-dysphoria
Dodson, William, “Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria: Symptom Test for ADHD Brains,” ADDitude Magazine, February 28, 2022 https://www.additudemag.com/rejection-sensitive-dysphoria-adhd-symptom-test/
Neuhaus, Maike, “Cognitive Dissonance Theory: An Example & 4 Ways to Address It.” Positive Psychology, February 28th, 2022, https://positivepsychology.com/cognitive-dissonance-theory/
Higuera, Valencia, Legg, Timothy J., “What is Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria,” Healthline, Nov. 19, 2021, https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/rejection-sensitive-dysphoria
Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, Macmillan Education, 2022
“New study on lawyer well-being reveals serious concerns for legal profession,” American Bar Association, Dec. 2017 https://www.americanbar.org/news/abanews/publications/youraba/2017/december-2017/secrecy-and-fear-of-stigma-among-the-barriers-to-lawyer-well-bei/
Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2022
About the Authors
Joey M. McCall is the managing partner of McCall Elizee, a law firm in Miami. Lauren T. Smith is a clinical psychologist with a specialization in trauma-responsive mental health practices.