Rejection Sensitivity

people standing on green grass field during sunset

I recently lost a friend, N.

N. wasn’t a particularly close friend, and we didn’t have a falling out per se. The friendship just fizzled, until eventually he decided to unfollow me on Twitter, to put a final nail in a slow process of undoing.

A flaccid “what happened?” text went unresponded to, and just like that, the relationship was over.

Rationally, I know there was no reason for him to respond to a text asking for closure. Our friendship was brief, just over a year, and for the last six months, not much of a friendship at all. It amounted to a mostly barren Signal thread, with the odd message here or there about astrology, or a podcast neither one of us listened to completion.

Such is the condition of modern friendship.

Still, I have put an inordinate amount of time into thinking about what happened. I know I have. I’ve tweeted about it several times; I shared the anecdote with a couple of friends over lunch; I am writing this essay now.

The truth is that I interact with too many people, and as a result, I lose both friends and acquaintances all the time.

The number of people I speak to on any given timescale far exceeds Dunbar’s number, and if I took every instance of rejection personally, I would be a very depressed person. I have lost friends, acquaintances, and people who exist in the liminal space between the two for all sorts of reasons: I’m too flaky, they don’t like what I write here or on Twitter, my real or imagined allegiances with people they’ve decided are their enemies, I don’t sufficiently respect their otherkin identity, they don’t sufficiently respect my professional identity.

Sometimes it’s because I’m being an ass, but a lot of the time, it’s just a statistical normality. Cast a wide enough net, you’re bound to lose a certain number of fish.

So why does this one—the loss of N.—still linger in my mind?

Why dwell on him, and not the myriad other people who’ve peeled away for whatever reason, both good and bad? Why not over-analyze the young financier for whom my idiosyncrasies were too much to handle? Or what about the techno-optimist who I cancelled coffee plans on one too many times, who rightfully and rationally put up a boundary to stop speaking to me?

Maybe, in my heart of hearts, I dwell on all of them, but in my mind, N. is just THE ex-friend, the überexfreund, a proxy for all other people who have stopped talking to me, who I myself have stopped talking to.

We live in a strange era where we’re encouraged to do everything in excess.

We apply to hundreds of jobs. We swipe on hundreds if not thousands of people on dating apps. Many of us are like me, and perpetually have an infinite loop of notifications on an infinite loop of communication apps.

In a world like this, rejection is to be anticipated. It has to be.

This frequency and volume of interaction, and therefore rejection, is unprecedented in human history, though. Not everyone is built for this lifestyle. Many of the people who actively seek it out aren’t built for it. When you attend film school they warn you about this: People aren’t designed to be rejected as often as you’ll be as a filmmaker. Take it all with a grain of salt or you’ll lose your mind.

It’s not just artists now though. It’s everyone, all the time.

In the romantic sphere, it was once in fashion for women’s publications to instruct their readers on how not to catch feelings.

Incels, a subculture mostly composed of young men, say, “It’s over.”/“It never began,” in the same way a Muslim might say, “Inshallah.” LinkedIn, Quora, and AskAManager are all rife with questions like, “Just got rejected for my 20th job this year—how not to take it personally?”

It’s not personal. Try and shut the part of your brain off that takes it to heart. It’s not you; it’s the system. It is you; here’s how to fix yourself.

From dating apps to job applications, we’re told to “think of yourself as a product. How would you market it?” Can people ever find product-market fit? Should an individual “scale”? Probably not.

Ghosting, another behavior that’s ubiquitous both professionally and romantically, speaks to our shared disposability. A formal rejection just isn’t agile.

What if the rejectee, the awkward date, the poorly prepared job candidate, wants to litigate it? You have to keep it moving forward. You don’t owe anyone an explanation; you do it owe it to yourself to keep forward momentum.

I am not the first nor the last to point out the pain wrought by ghosting, or rejection more generally. But it does seem like most of our complaints about modern life stem from our insistence on living life in a consumer/creator dichotomy.  (Even hot button issues like cultural appropriation boil down to an IP issue, if you think about it.)

We’re not automatons though, no matter how hard we try. There is no Rational Brain that can desensitize us to this lifestyle.

The messiness of social media offers some of the firmest evidence that these emotions will come out one way or another. We are constantly greeted by outsized reactions to rejection from men and women. We have to remember that when we reject someone for a date, or a lunch, or a job, it’s not the first rejection they’ve faced.

It’s never a one-off for anyone. It’s one of thousands.

When people make an angry TikTok, what seems like an overblown reaction is really the proportionate reaction to a culmination of rejections.

“Self-care,” another consumer product, can’t ameliorate our alienation. The most primal tool we have is yelling into our phones, hoping someone hears us.

That’s the crux of incel culture, too. One rejection is a tragedy, but so is a never-ending stream of them.

At the end of the day, rejection doesn’t ever become a statistic. It becomes a painful memory, no matter how many.

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