Learning Points: Rejection hurts just like physical pain and we are hard-wired to experience it

A recent study has shown that rejection is a far more profound and physical experience than we might think, writes Richard Hogan
Learning Points: Rejection hurts just like physical pain and we are hard-wired to experience it

A recent study suggests that shows that being rejected can be one of the most painful experiences we have as humans. Photo: File photo

You mightn’t think it, but being the St Columba’s Boy’s National School traffic warden was a pretty decent way to meet girls. 

Each morning and afternoon you’d find me in position, shouting into the air: "Prepare to stop traffic!", to which my colleagues would launch their lollipop signs out in front of disgruntled parents rushing to and from work. Our job was to safely allow our fellow peers across the road — and by God, we took it seriously. 

And, if a little chitchat occurred with someone you had a crush on from the cohort of St Columba’s girl’s primary school, so be it. 

This was probably the reason I put myself forward for the role in the first place, no girl could possibly resist an eight-year-old boy in a white plastic hi-vis uniform, or so I thought. For it was in this role that I first felt the bitter taste of rejection. 

There was one girl in particular that used to send my heart into spasms each time she crossed the road. Like a demented bird of paradise prostrating itself in front of a love interest, my voice changed. It became louder, deeper, and more articulate. 

And when she had passed and our eyes had finished meeting for that one glorious moment, the day seemed somehow empty, without promise. 

Each morning as I donned the uniform, it was her face that drifted into mind. I knew I had to disturb the universe and talk to her. One morning as she passed, I started up a conversation. I used the good ol' Catholic Church as my ‘in’ to the conversation. 

"You making your Communion this year?", and I was off. 

I surreptitiously asked for her second name, and later that day I was going through the telephone book ringing everyone with her second name asking if they had a daughter called Laura.

The mobile phone hadn’t been invented yet, so I had to go through a few channels of vetting before I landed at my destination. 

Her father wanted to know who I was and what my intentions were, but finally, I was voice-to-voice with the girl I had been secretly in love with for many weeks. 

The conversation flowed, and we discussed everything from ET, what we will spend our Communion money on, to 99 Red Balloons, my favourite song at the time (I had a crush on Nena too, but didn’t divulge that). 

The next morning I was standing in line, my voice changing as my eyes glimpsed her coming towards the crossing. The smile was hanging ear to ear, all the things we were going to talk about reverberating in my mind. And then she just passed. 

No chat, no furtive glance, nothing. I felt sick. Hurt. And every day she passed from that moment, nothing was spoken between us. I replayed that phone conversation many times. Maybe it was Nena, maybe she picked up on my interest in her! Why the hell did I mention another woman?!

When we experience rejection, we often speak in what we think are exaggerated feelings to capture the sentiment. ‘Love hurts’, ‘the pain of rejection’, ‘a broken heart’. 

But the reality is that experiences like this are not metaphorical hurts but literal ones, for research shows that when we experience rejection, exclusion, or isolation, the same part of the brain that is responsible for feeling pain — the dorsal part of the anterior cingulate cortex — is active. 

The question we have to ask ourselves is why are we hardwired to experience rejection so severely. The answer lies in our evolutionary past. 

When we were starting out on this human adventure, we needed to be in groups to survive; to be rejected from a tribe was a death sentence. We could not survive on our own. 

So rejection was a far more profound experience, and our body developed an alarm system to warn us of the serious imminent threat. 

Interestingly, behavioural scientists and psychologists carried out an experiment to explore the brain's response to rejection. 

They were immediately confronted with a problem — how to organically find someone who felt rejected in the moment. 

They couldn’t exactly hang around a school waiting for a young traffic warden to have his heart broken. So they contrived a situation in a waiting room where two members of the research team started to pass a ball to each other and then include another unsuspecting member of the public. 

After a while of passing it between the three, they excluded the unsuspecting participant and just passed it between themselves. 

Afterwards, they questioned the participant who had been excluded and what they found in all experiments is that the person being excluded spoke of feeling hurt. 

As the study progressed, they gave the unsuspecting participant painkillers before they started the experiment and in all cases participants who were excluded experienced that exclusion less painfully than those who were not given medication. 

It's an interesting study, that shows that being rejected can be one of the most painful experiences we have as humans. 

Rejection does hurt; it hurts like a physical pain. 

We are hardwired to experience it because it was the difference between life or death as we navigated our early existence. 

So, when our children experience rejection, just remember, it does hurt — it hurts a lot. And our job, as parents, is to help them work out those feelings so that they build that reservoir of resilience.

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