Now that I’m dating after a long break, there is a new rule in my household: I don’t waste time dissecting dates’ text messages. The aftermath of first dates used to find me analyzing every comma with my ever-patient friends. I’ve kicked the habit recently, because I’m actively trying to wean myself from self-consciousness around rejection.
As many of us, based on the pandemic conditions in our areas, navigate IRL dating and sex, we may experience a renewed sense of joy and exploration. Yet being open to love and sex also means opening ourselves up to rejection. Even in my getting-back-out-there optimism, I frequently find the ghost of those old insecurities creeping back in.
I’m not alone: “At least what I see in North America in 2021, generally most people don’t have skills to deal with rejection of any kind,” says Karen B.K. Chan, a sex and emotional literacy educator who lectures on “rejection resilience.” We are taught that finding and keeping a partner is key to our worth, so sexual and romantic rejection can carry a particularly sharp sting.
Yet giving and receiving a “no” doesn’t have to be a verdict on our value. In fact, “no” is as much a part of affirmative consent as “yes!” With reflection and self care, it’s possible to transform receiving a “no” from a destabilizing experience to a constructive, even joyful one.
We’re Taught to Equate Sex With Worth
“The way that we learn sex, intimacy is largely social, familial,” says Desireé Robinson, a Maryland-based sex therapist. Too often, these societal messages teach us to judge our worth by our ability to “land” a sexual or romantic partner.
Because we live in a competitive, capitalist and white supremacist society, “There’s an emphasis on sexual connection as achievement,” says Chan. We receive these messages differently based on gender. Men and masculine people are taught, for example, that having sex with someone is “scoring.” Toxic masculinity can also discourage men from forming intimate friendship bonds, leaving them reliant on sexual relationships to get their emotional needs met—and thus, creating a hypersensitivity to romantic rejection.
Meanwhile, women and feminine people are taught to judge ourselves based on our ability to attract and “hold down” a partner. “It’s proof that you’re worth it, that you’re good enough,” says Chan. Women and femmes are also taught to be “fixers,” says Robinson. “We’re the ones who are identified to hold it down—the remedy, the nurturer.” This can lead us to wrongly interpret breakups as a reflection of our inability to “fix” a relationship (or even a partner).
There’s a class element here, too. Women, bisexual people, transgender people, and people of color of all genders are more likely to experience poverty than white men—and, thus, to potentially rely on romantic partners for basic housing and food security. This economic instability means that romantic rejection—for example, a partner leaving us—can derail us materially as well as emotionally, leaving us vulnerable to poverty and violence.
Finally, notes Robinson, our punishment-oriented society teaches many of us that if something goes wrong, it’s our fault. This can be particularly traumatic for Black, brown, and Indigenous folks, who experience disproportionate school discipline, policing, and incarceration, all part of a system designed to punish individuals for societal injustices. As a result, marginalized people may blame themselves for perceived failures in relationships.
Putting “No” Into Perspective
As a result of these messages, when someone we’re interested in tells us “no,” we tend to automatically assume a judgement on our worth. We may have a mental script triggered by rejection, which replays negative things we’ve been made to believe about ourselves.
In truth, someone else’s “no” to a particular sexual act or to a date could mean many things. “We don’t understand that no could mean ‘I have a headache.’ No could mean “I’m drained,” Robinson says. “No” to a date could mean that that person isn’t interested in a relationship at all. It could mean they don’t feel drawn to us emotionally or physically—but this is a reflection on their preferences, not an objective judgement of our looks, personality, or value.
When we date we should be looking for the right match, not to be universally liked.
So it’s totally okay to not be everyone’s cup of tea, just like not everyone is ours. “It’s not about merit—it’s about relational things that happen between you, that aren’t quantifiable,” says Chan.
If someone says they are rejecting you for discriminatory reasons—because of your body size, for example, or sexual orientation—consider it an opportunity to miss their negative energy, and an invitation to heal from that bias. We don’t need to be around people who don’t value us, and we don’t need the approval of folks who don’t see our luminous worth.
This healing is so important, because when we operate from a fear-based place, we may settle for relationships that don’t actually suit us. We may avoid putting ourselves out there. We may even subconsciously choose partners or situations that we feel rejected by, in an attempt to win their affection and thus prove “I am worth something,” says Robinson.
When we operate from a place of insecurity, we’re also at a greater risk of harming others. If we make someone else’s “no” all about us, we fail to acknowledge that they are independent people. At worst, this can motivate us to violate that person’s consent in order to validate ourselves—needless to say, a violent and unacceptable thing to do. When we operate from a fear of rejection, “We toxify our relationships, we toxify the environment around us,” Chan says.
We are all worthy of love and respect without judgement or conditions. And the only person who can truly validate us is ourselves. Becoming more resilient to rejection requires meeting our own needs and loving ourselves unconditionally, so we can see both ourselves and our partners as whole beings worthy of respect.
Next time we experience sexual rejection, we can take a moment to feel our feelings. If we’re feeling a little stung but taking it in stride, we can suggest another activity or ask what our partner would enjoy doing instead. If we’re overwhelmed, we can respectfully take space from the person we’re with—go to the bathroom, take a walk, or go home for the evening.
Chan advises actively caring for ourselves after rejection. Ask yourself: What can I do to comfort myself? That might be a cozy nap, a pleasurable meal, or a walk with a friend. Then, when you’re in a calmer state, you can introspect on what that experience of rejection brought up for you. Robinson suggests asking, “What is the unmet need that has been triggered?”
You might find that the unmet need is a past trauma that is asking for healing. Often these are childhood experiences of rejection. “If I was teased a lot for having stained teeth or for my body size or being poor, what happens often is we turn against ourselves,” says Chan. If we haven’t worked through that trauma as adults, we can find this same self-hatred is triggered in every future rejection.
The solution is to turn back toward ourselves, and give ourselves the love and care we craved from others. “Can we love the person those kids humiliated?” Chan asks. That self-love begins with small things. Do I feed my body when it’s hungry and sleep when it’s tired? Do I speak kindly to myself? Do I take my own emotions seriously?
By nourishing ourselves physically and emotionally, we’ll stop starving for other people’s approval.
We can also minimize the sting of romantic and sexual rejection by investing in other kinds of love. “In modern times, sexual and romantic affiliation and relationships and status have really taken on center stage,” says Chan. We’re taught that our romantic and sexual partners should meet all our needs. Yet no one can “complete” anyone else, and we can experience intimacy in many different kinds of relationships.
By cultivating lives full of love, from friendship to caretaking, we won’t see rejection as a verdict on whether we’re “lovable”—simply as a reflection of what that person does or doesn’t want at that time.
Learn to Love “No”
For Robinson, letting go of the self-judgement that can come with rejection is an experience of deep hope. “You always have opportunities to repair, to heal, to try something new,” she says. “Whether you’re thirty or 56, you get to say ‘This is no longer how I want to show up. I desire more pleasure, more connection.’ ”
Even while following these steps, rejection will likely still hurt. After all, despite my “no-message-analysis” rule, I still experience a pang when a potential date doesn’t text me back. But rather than choosing to spend the next day obsessing over every space, comma, or emoji, I give myself some time to feel the sting, acknowledge that they weren’t the person for me, and ask the universe what’s coming next.