I recently received this email about dealing with rejection. Since this is a common experience, the sender gave me permission to post this.
I was wondering what your thoughts were on rejection. Not unavailability being mistaken for rejection, but actual rejection. While you can obviously chalk up some rejection to unavailability, there are often times when it’s clear availability is not the issue.
I’m a man who is sexually attracted to women. Generally, in my encounters with women, I find I’m quick to find friendship and trust- things I value. I like talking to people and truly enjoy the company of women as friends. But when it comes to dating or trying to date women, I feel like people see through me, and that I may as well be a eunuch. That all of my social grace just kind of evaporates, and I start with nothing.
I find myself very poorly equipped to deal with rejection. I begin feeling extremely undesirable and it’s not a good sign that I intensify my workout routine after a rejection. Although I do enjoy exercise for its own sake, I must admit to overdoing it on these occasions. More than anything though, I feel overwhelmingly embarrassed by my attempts, and then feel embarrassed by my embarrassment.
From what you’re describing, it sounds like you’re expecting to see rejection, whether it’s there or not. And that makes me wonder- how would you know that someone was interested in you?
I ask because it’s clear that you enjoy connecting with and building friendships with women, and that things change when you want that to include a sexual/romantic aspect. Unfortunately, one of the challenges of rejection is that when we expect it, we often miss the signs that someone is actually interested. Not only that, but rejection is one of the shame emotions and when we’re stuck in it, it tends to make us less able to reach out and build connection.
Rejection is a particularly difficult feeling, in part because it triggers some of the same neural pathways as physical pain. It’s a double whammy because it makes it harder to take a chance and be vulnerable, while also making it difficult to trust or even see that the other person is interested. That quickly becomes a self reinforcing pattern.
I was recently at a party and watching a friend chat with someone he thought was attractive. From the outside, she seemed interested in him, but like you, he has a pattern of convincing himself otherwise and he really couldn’t see her signals. It’s not that he can’t recognize them in general, since he could watch other people have a flirty conversation and see the chemistry. But when it’s directed at him, he expects to be shot down and he misses the signs. So one question you might consider is: how would you know that a woman was interested in you? What would that look like? How would you know it was happening?
You might also think about what specifically triggers your feeling invisible or like a eunuch. What shifts you from someone who enjoys women’s company to someone who loses social skills? Are there any patterns to that? Does it happen more in certain circumstances or situations? Is there a difference between walking up to someone at a party versus a group conversation over dinner? Is there room for you to play to your strengths? For example, my voice is fairly soft, so I connect with people more easily when we can have a conversation rather than at a noisy event or club. Are there ways for you to do something similar?
Another option is to take a workshop on flirting. I’m not talking about the pick-up artist stuff, which I find generally rooted in manipulation of women and is often focused on scoring rather than creating pleasure or intimacy. Instead, there are some great classes that can help you see the signals you might be missing and connect with women more easily. Contrary to common belief, reading non-verbal cues and responding to them are skills that we need to learn and there’s nothing wrong with getting some tips.
I also highly recommend Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly. While she doesn’t address sexual or romantic relationships, her insights around how shame works are really amazing and she has a lot to offer. I especially like her framework for shame resilience, which is part of learning to deal with rejection without sinking into a shame spiral. Learning to recognize the beginning of a shame reaction can make it easier to deal with before you slide down the slippery slope (as I know all too well).
Another possibility is to work with a therapist. Shame is all about disconnection, so working with someone can help you learn to both feel the emotion and maintain the connection with another person. And that is a big part of building shame resilience. Trust me- a good therapist can be awesome.
Regarding your tendency to exercise after one of these experiences, that’s pretty common. I’m not aware of any research on it, but I can think of a few possible reasons. Doing something physical can often alleviate difficult feelings. Since you mention doing a more intense workout, I’m wondering if you’re getting an endorphin rush, which can often counteract feelings of shame. And since exercise and physical performance is often associated with masculinity, some men will do a heavier workout during emotional stress in order to feel more masculine.
Whatever the reason, I think it’s worth looking at whether your exercise is distracting you from what you’re feeling. In my experience, the only way through shame is to make room for the feelings, rather than either avoiding them or wallowing in them. If your workouts are helping you avoid them, they won’t get any better. If they’re giving you some space to calm down before coming back to how you feel, they can be really helpful. You’re the only one who can decide whether your exercise is an avoidance or taking a time out, so it’s worth thinking about that.
And for what it’s worth, feeling shame for feeling shame is pretty common. Not pleasant, but common. When I get stuck in that, I try to give myself the same care and compassion that I’d give a friend who was having a shame reaction. It’s part of being human and although we don’t have to like it, we do need to find ways of living with it. So I invite you to be gentle with yourself in those moments, rather then beating yourself up over it or thinking that there’s something wrong with you.
I wish I could offer a magic trick for overcoming shame and feelings of rejection. But I can tell you that it is possible to find new ways to move through these experiences. It’s not a quick process, but it can definitely happen. And the rewards are well worth it.