Imagine working in a team and learning that your colleagues do not want to work with you anymore. As a result, your manager moves you to another team where there is an opening. How would this feel? This is a classic example of social rejection in which a group of people or an individual explicitly tells you that you are not wanted. Rejection is often hurtful, and we try to deal with this hurt in various ways.

One way we can deal with such experiences is by talking about them with other people in our lives. After all, our friends and loved ones are supposed to provide us with the much-needed support after having been rejected by others. Talking about rejection, however, may be easier said than done. When we share with others that we have been rejected, we tell them something negative about ourselves. We share that other people did not value us as much as we would like them to do so. Sharing such information with other people may be difficult if we think those we care about are going to evaluate us negatively, or even worse, reject us further. Anticipating that others will reject us may make us reluctant to share our experiences with them. Consequently, we may end up suffering in silence.

People Anticipate Social Costs

To understand how people feel about talking about rejection, my colleagues at Tilburg University and I conducted a series of studies. We asked people to assume the role of the sharer and imagine talking about one of the social situations. In both situations people were being moved to a new team but in one situation it was because your teammates don't want to work with you, while in the other one it was not due to rejection—you are randomly selected to be moved to another group. People felt more reluctant to talk about the rejection experience. This reluctance seemed to have resulted from anticipating social costs, the fear that the listeners would negatively evaluate them. Not surprisingly, people also thought disclosing rejection to others wouldn't help them feel better.

It seems that people do not think talking about rejection to be the best way to deal with feelings of rejection, in fact, they think that it may be costly to do so.

But: People Can Overestimate the Costs

Are these fears about talking about rejection grounded in reality? The answer seems to be yes, but with a caveat. In our study, participants who were asked to assume the role of the listener negatively evaluated the people who disclosed having been rejected.

However, previous work shows that when talking about insecurities or fears, people tend to overestimate how negatively other people would evaluate them. In further analyses my co-authors and I found that the severity of judgment from the listeners was less harsh than what the sharers anticipated. Thus, sharing a rejection experience with others may seem, and indeed be costly, but the judgment probably won't be as harsh as one fears.

Talking to a Close Other Can Help

It's not all grim. In another study my co-authors and I asked participants to think of someone close or distant from their lives. We then proceeded to ask them to imagine talking about these social situations with the people they thought of. Participants felt less reluctant to talk about rejection with close others. They still anticipated some social costs, but they also saw the benefits of such a conversation.

Even if you think that talking about rejection may be costly, having a close other that you can rely on may be what it takes to get the needed emotional and social support.

These findings highlight the importance of safe relationships. Letting individuals suffer in silence can be very costly given that chronic feelings of rejection may push one into feeling lonely, alienated, and depressed. Be it in friendships or in organizations, creating a non-judgmental environment may enable people to share their hurt with others and reap social and emotional benefits.

For Further Reading

Meral, E. O., van Osch, Y., Ren, D., van Dijk, E., & van Beest, I. (2021). The anticipated social cost of disclosing a rejection experience. European Journal of Social Psychology, 51(7), 1181–1197.

Gromet, D. M., & Pronin, E. (2009). What were you worried about? Actors' concerns about revealing fears and insecurities relative to observers' reactions. Self and Identity, 8(4), 342–364.

Rudert, S. C., Janke, S., & Greifeneder, R. (2021). Ostracism breeds depression: Longitudinal associations between ostracism and depression over a three-year-period. Journal of Affective Disorders Reports, 4(February), 100118.

Erdem O. Meral is a PhD student at Tilburg University and studies how people respond to belonging threats such as rejection and ostracism.