Richard G. Petty, MD

Overcoming Rejection

I am sure that most of us have faced some form of rejection at some time or other in our lives. People with high self-esteem seem better able to take rejection in their stride, but usually only if it is “earned.” Simply trying artificially to build your self-esteem rather than having built it on a platform of past achievement, will probably not work very well.

New research in the journal Psychological Science from UC Berkeley indicates that this does not mean that people with low self-esteem are doomed to respond defensively to criticism and rejection. The key seems to be that people who are better at controlling their impulses are less vulnerable to rejection.

There were 38 female and 29 male participants in the study. The first completed the Rosenberg self-esteem scale, one of the most widely used self-esteem measure in the social sciences. They then completed a questionnaire on their ability to focus on tasks at hand without distraction. The subjects were arranged into two groups – low self-esteem and normal-to-high self-esteem – based on their scores on the Rosenberg scale.

Each of the volunteers then viewed images showing positive, neutral, negative and rejection themes while being subjected to sporadic loud noises. A startle probe measured the force of their eye-blinks in response to the abrupt sounds. Eye blinks are a good measure of the startle response and correlate fairly well with the activation of the “fight or flight” reaction.

As anticipated, all the participants blinked more strongly when the loud noise was paired to such negative images as dead animals or mutilated bodies. However, the people with low self-esteem blinked more forcefully in response to pictures portraying themes of rejection loneliness and alienation. Paintings with negative themes or acceptance themes, such as lovers embracing, did not elicit the same response in low self-esteem people.

In other words the powerful was in which rejection activates the threat system in people with low self-esteem suggests that their fear of rejection runs extremely deep and engages neurological systems involved in reacting to a threat.

On the other hand, those with low self-esteem who scored higher for attention control, which included the ability to focus, were able to modulate their immediate reactions to rejection.

Some previous work has suggested that self-esteem is part of a primitive emotional warning system that warns us if we are in danger of being socially excluded. While the evolutionary function of this detection system was originally intended to motivate people to stay socially connected, the constant anticipation of rejection can create problems, with the system being triggered by the merest whiff of rejection. They may become hypersensitive and have a brain that generates a cascade of defensive reactions if they sense any kind of disapproval.

Although this is a small study, the evidence is that rather than teaching self-esteem skills, the solution for them might be to improve their abilities to focus, concentrate and regulate their internal states.

In other words develop some specific forms of self-control and resilience.

For many people this may be the most effective way of helping them to cope with disappointment and maintain close relationships.
“No man is free who is not master of himself.”
–Epictetus (Phrygian-born Greek Stoic Philosopher, c.A.D.55- c.A.D.135

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
–Sir Edmund Hillary (New Zealand Mountaineer and Explorer, 1919-

“Mind control is not one’s birthright. The successful few owe their success to their perseverance.”
–Ramana Maharshi (Indian Hindu Mystic and Spiritual Teacher, 1879-1950

“The cyclone derives its powers from a calm center. So does a person.”
–Norman Vincent Peale (American Cleric, Writer and Self-Help Expert, 1898-1993)

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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