Taking the Sting Out of Rejection

5 min read

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Humans. We’re a social beast. We’ve gotten this far because we’ve banded together to create language, technology, and civilizations.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we need each other. Loneliness is a contributing factor for all sorts of physical and mental problems from depression and Alzheimer’s to diabetes and heart disease. We need each other, friends. That’s why rejection stings so badly.

But not all rejections are created equally. Your husband rolling his eyes at you isn’t the same as you ending up old and alone in a cabin somewhere. Evolution hasn’t really caught on when it comes to these ordinary, harmless rejections. Your body rings alarm bells, whether someone yawns in your face while you’re telling a story or your town excommunicates you, forcing you to live on a deserted island.

But what if we could practice coping with social rejection? What if we could take some of the sting out of inevitable, harmless rejections like interruptions, side eyes, and put-downs?

Source: Jackson Simmer/Unsplash

Source: Jackson Simmer/Unsplash

Improv and Social Rejection

Improv might be one way to practice fielding just such rejections. A Finnish study led by Sirke Seppänen compared psychophysical markers (heart rate, skin conductance, facial muscle activity, and electrical brain activity as measured with EEG) of participants being rejected in interviews versus during a 25-minute improv session.

The 39 participants talked about themselves in the interview, as the interviewer repeatedly devalued, interrupted, and nonverbally rejected them (frowning, looking bored). During the interview, about half the participants knew the interviewer was an actor and about half didn’t, but Seppänen and her team found no significant difference in the psychophysical markers between the two groups.

The other part of the study was a 25-minute improv session in which participants knew social rejections were fictional. Fascinatingly, Seppänen and her team found remarkable similarities between the psychophysical markers during the improv and interview rejections. In other words, although participants knew the rejections were fake during the improv sessions, their brains and bodies acted significantly similar.

I reached out to Seppänen so she could help me understand the significance of her study. She explained, “We found that regardless of cognitive awareness of fictionality, bodily responses to social rejections in real-life and fictional contexts were associated and relatively similar. This finding provides biological evidence and empirical support for using applied improvisation to simulate social encounters for educational purposes. While improvisational scenes frequently simulate reality, they remain always and entirely fictional. However, if genuine emotions emerge within a fictional context, improvisation may provide a safe, fictional environment in which to explore sensitive and challenging topics reflecting everyday life.” Her study provides evidence that improv could be a safe space for people to grapple with and handle rejection and boost their social confidence.

Seppänen also pointed out the importance of the participants’ biological responses to devaluing. In the study, devaluing took the form of “yes, but” statements. For example, if a participant described a film as being especially interesting, the interviewer might respond with “Sure, that film was OK, but Barbie was better.”

In improv, “yes, but” statements tend to slow scenes down. They’re not as extreme as “no” statements because they don’t usually stop the scene entirely. However, they also don’t provide much new information or detail to keep the scene flourishing.

The word “but” signifies a critique or devaluing of the other person’s idea. Seppänen explained that in her study, hearing “but” literally changed people’s heart rate. She says, “The heart rate slowed immediately following the onset of rejection, an effect that is associated with feedback processing, such as social rejection. This heart rate deceleration effect became even more distinct during improvisation versus real-world context. Words truly matter, since even one simple, every day ‘but’ can have such a bodily effect.” This finding provides more evidence for applying improv’s “yes, and” principle to everyday life. When we devalue other people’s ideas with a “yes, but” statement, we run the risk of shutting down their creativity, escalating tensions, and stalling progress. Improv’s emphasis on “yes, and” can help people retrain themselves to devalue less and support more.

The Takeaways

  • If you want to be more collaborative and supportive, practice “yes, and” statements and avoid “yes, but” responses that devalue others.
  • Improv may be a great training ground for dealing with social rejections in a similar way that it seems to help people with social anxiety. Find an improv class in your area and give it a shot. It may seem counterintuitive to try improv if you find social rejection devastating, but studies have shown that improv has a bigger impact on less confident people. Improv could be just the thing to give you that confidence boost and take some of the sting out of life’s minor rejections.

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