Parashat Bereshit: Dealing with Rejection

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

Rejection is something we all deal with at some time in our lives. An early example of rejection can be found in today’s parasha in the story of Cain and Abel. The two brothers gave their offerings to God. Cain, a farmer, brought produce he had grown and Abel, a shepherd, brought an offering from his flock. God looked with favor on Abel’s offering, but God did not look with favor on Cain’s offering. In other words, God rejected Cain’s offering of fruits and vegetables. Cain did not deal well with this rejection. He lured his brother Abel out into the field and killed him. Then Cain lied to God about the murder and God exiled Cain to be a wanderer.

Besides being tragic, this story teaches us some helpful things about rejection. Rejection brings up very strong emotions. “So, Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.” Anger and disappointment, as well as some envy, fueled Cane’s terrible actions later in the story when he killed his brother.

Cain was convinced of his superiority to Abel in all matters, material and spiritual; God’s rejection of his offering was totally unexpected. He was furious due to the perceived injustice of this rejection, but also depressed due to the deflation of his self-esteem.

Rejection causes us to question our identity. When God rejected Cain’s offering, Cain was not only angry and disappointed, but he was also unsure of who he was anymore. When we encounter rejection, we question who we are. Rejection hits us in our existential core. When God rejected Cain’s offering, it threw him for a loop. We all like predictability and certainty. We like to know how things will turn out. When we are rejected, as Cain was, we are thrown into uncertainty and confusion. And because of the rejection, we start to question everything we know, even things we were sure of before.

Close examination of Cain’s moral deterioration reveals a paradoxical phenomenon. What initially prevented Cain from coming to grips with his rejection was an exaggerated sense of his self-worth. His rejection eventually causes him feelings of dejection and totally negates his self-esteem. This ultimately leaves him feeling powerless both in the effort to overcome his negative emotions and to resist the sin “crouching at his door” so that he can be uplifted. Slaying Abel was an irrational act of despair, the result of Cain’s perceived inability to regain self-worth. A lack of self-worth plants the seeds for immorality.

Regardless of how smart, hardworking, or talented we are, every one of us faces rejection at one time or another. Whether it’s rejection by a teacher, a family member, a significant other, a friend, or possible employer, rejection happens. And when it does, it can range from a mild inconvenience to emotional and financial devastation. Rejection can damage and ruin our lives – if we let it. What matters is how we deal with it.

Left unresolved, rejection can lead to tragedy. Because Cain did not work through his emotions, uncertainty, and identity crisis, he ended up killing his brother.

That’s an extreme example, but when we don’t work through our own emotions after rejection, it can lead to some level of tragedy in our own lives. We can be angry and lash out at loved ones or feel as though we don’t matter anymore. We can start making bad decisions that have long lasting consequences for ourselves and for others around us. If someone’s primary concern is to reassert a sense of control, he or she may become aggressive as a way to force others to pay attention. Sadly, that can create a downward spiral. When people act aggressively, they are even less likely to gain social acceptance.

Rejection feels lousy. The emotional aftermath is called rejection trauma for a reason. The agony we feel is genuine. Yet for many years, few psychologists understood or recognized the impact of rejection. As researchers have dug deeper into the roots of rejection, they have found surprising evidence that the pain of being rejected is not so different from the pain of physical injury. Scientists have shown that there is little difference, neurologically speaking, between physical pain of injury and the emotional ache of rejection.  Whether you are experiencing hurt caused by rejection or cutting your finger, the same area of your brain activates when you’re processing this information. This can actually be seen on an MRI. Social rejection can influence emotion, cognition, and even physical health.

Beyond the physical sensation, rejection also strikes at our need for acceptance and belonging. Over time, the need to be included became hardwired in the human brain. When rejection happens, conditions don’t match with our evolutionary need for connection and community, causing anxiety and self-doubt.

C. Nathan DeWall, a psychologist, says that humans have a fundamental need to belong. Just as we have needs for food and water, we also have needs for positive and lasting relationships. Social rejection increases anger, anxiety, depression, jealousy and sadness. It reduces performance on difficult intellectual tasks and can also contribute to aggression and poor impulse control. In 2003, Leary and colleagues analyzed 15 cases of school shooters, and found all but two suffered from social rejection.

Coming to terms with rejection is a process, much like grieving a loss. The five phases of rejection are essentially the same as grieving a loss. First, there is denial. You think there must be some mistake. Next, is anger. Once you realize the rejection isn’t a misunderstanding, you begin to feel angry. Next is bargaining.  You think there was a faulty assumption or lack of information. You think that if you could just talk to that person, you would win them over. Next, is depression. On top of feeling angry and disappointed, you are sad, embarrassed, confused, hurt or all of the above. Your self-confidence takes a hit. You may begin questioning your self-worth. Finally, there is acceptance. Hopefully you are able to learn and grow from the experience.

Humankind Is endowed with moral autonomy, with freedom of choice. We can subdue our anger and even our sense of unfairness or we can be controlled by them.

Rejection can sometimes be a clue that you behaved badly, and you should change your ways. But frequently, we take rejection more personally than we should.

The narrative in this week’s parashah has universal relevance. For all individuals, there is a first time in our lives when we are confronted with rejection, as in the case with Cain. This is part of the human condition.

So, how should we deal with rejection? First, recognize that rejection is part of life. Next, accept what happened. Then, process your emotions. Treat yourself with compassion. Stay physically and mentally healthy. Don’t allow rejection to define you. Finally, grow from the experience.

Learning how to deal with rejection in a healthy fashion is a valuable life skill you can use in all facets of your life-personal, professional, and romantic.

Here is a final suggestion: Try to make rejection your friend. It can be a catalyst to rethinking and clarifying your goals and opening up your mind to new options.