Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

Imagine I’m standing at a podium in a room with 500 people and I ask this question, “Who among us today would like to be rejected? Please raise your hands.” Then there’s silence…and more silence. Then people start heading for the exits. If you stop and think, who would raise his hand? Who wants to be turned down, let go, asked to leave, ignored, or denied? Unless you’re a masochist, then chances are you avoid rejection. In fact, many of us fear it; it’s a common fear.

Yet as much as we fear it, it’s still a normal part of life, especially in dating and relationships. Every time you ask someone out on a date or hold back asking, consider just how much the prospect of rejection is influencing your behavior. I know men who won’t date at all because the fear is just too great. These men say, “Being turned down is too embarrassing. I can’t stand it.” Also there are men who become so pained by the notion of rejecting others that they too decide to remain unavailable. These men wonder, “What if a guy approaches me at a bar and I’m not interested? I don’t want to hurt his feelings.” Despite the unanimous consensus that rejection sucks, sooner or later you will experience it, whether it be on the receiving or giving side of the equation.

When I think back on my past relationships that ended in rejection, I’m reminded of how excruciatingly painful they felt. Some rejections were worse than others; some left me spinning for weeks afterward. When I was 19, I outed myself to a straight guy, exposing a three-month long crush I had been harboring. After revealing my attraction, the guy said, “Thanks but no thanks.” Although to his credit, he was kind about it; he wasn’t a jerk. Yet I still felt rejected all the same. I remember listening to Bonnie Raitt over and over and over again. Her lyrics are so dire: “I can’t make you love me if you don’t. I can’t make your heart feel something it won’t.” I’m sure many of you know what I am writing about; these feelings are universal (not to mention full of drama).

So if rejection is inevitable then what are we to do – hide and avoid rejection for the rest of our lives? That’s a bit unrealistic and means fear got the better of us. How about we take an opposite approach? Even though it’s human nature to shy away from being rejected, what if we didn’t shy away at all, but in fact chose to tolerate it? Sure my suggestion sounds counterintuitive; however such an approach is more strategically offensive and less defensive, more empowering and not disempowering, more open-hearted than closed.

My point is we cannot control being rejected; however, we can control being prepared. So ask yourself this the next time you are rejected (and there will be a next time), can you handle the rejection skillfully? Are you able to endure the difficult feelings by offering yourself reassurance? Moments of rejection demand a focus on self-care. These moments require self-validation and more kindness towards your situation. In psychobabble terminology, this approach is called self-soothing. There are times in life when we have to comfort ourselves – being rejected is one of those times.

This all sounds pretty elementary right? Well it can get a bit complicated if you have a history of rejection or suffer from a past wounding caused by rejection. Specifically for many of us gay men, rejection was a common influence in our developmental years. We grew up receiving nasty, negative messages about homosexuality. We were taught that to be gay would bring unavoidable rejection from parents, classmates, teachers, etc. – the whole world really. Now of course not all gay men experienced childhood rejection specific to being gay, but many of us did.

As a result, we became highly sensitive and overly anxious at the slight bit of rejection. This is understandable, considering our nervous systems were overloaded and blown-out from the constant anxiety that society was against us. If you endured this type of wounding, then chances are when you feel feelings of rejection today they are exaggerated by your past. Your body retains the memory of feeling overburdened with fear.

Congruency is another psychobabble term to help describe this idea. When you suffer from unresolved rejection wounds, there are incongruencies between the current circumstances and the level of emotional response, meaning the response is bigger than the situation merits. Therefore, the self-soothing you need to calm down gets hijacked by your emotions. Feeling rejected today gets compounded with feelings from yesterday.

So my point is that self-soothing is not as easy as it sounds. In those difficult moments, we are not only reassuring ourselves of the current rejection but actually offering reassurance to the past wounding as well. We are giving ourselves now what we didn’t get then, which is validation that we will be okay. Therefore, healing might take longer since you’ll be attending to the present and past simultaneously – so be patient.

In closing, I offer empathy to all of you suffering from rejection. I know first-hand; it’s a painful experience to manage. In my past rejections, there were times when I basically lost my marbles – oh, I was a mess. The good news now is that I have learned how to tolerate rejection. That doesn’t mean rejection is any less painful, it just means I no longer lose my marbles when feeling the pain. You too can learn this skill; you too can learn its okay to be rejected.

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