Peter Baumann of the Being Human Foundation writes about his experience and understanding of being rejected. We find rejection everywhere. How are you effected by rejection?

The waiter approached the table looking uneasy. We had just finished a great meal at Angelo’s and I was waiting to sign the credit card receipt. You probably guessed, the card had been rejected. It was an awkward moment, and I felt like the card—rejected!

We all love inclusivity and belonging, and the thought of rejection has a negative connotation. We prefer to think that we’re all in this together, and rejection just feels unpleasant—we don’t like to see anyone left out and left behind. Rejection has a strong emotional component, yet, if we look at rejection in purely functional terms, it’s actually a healthy and important part of life.

On every level we can find rejection. At the atomic scale, positive and negative electrons reject each other because of different polarities. Biologically, our bodies reject cells that are foreign to us, like pathogens. Our bodies generally reject everything that’s perceived to be harmful to our health. Eat rotten food, and your body throws it up; touch poison ivy, you’re getting a rash—your skin is trying to expel the poison.

Rejection is actually quite important socially, as well. We instinctively find rejection unpalatable, but the threat of rejection is important for creating group cohesion and encouraging pro-social behavior. People who are really lazy—freeloaders who just hang on and don’t carry their own weight—have to feel at least the threat of rejection in order to get motivated. We clearly reject someone who’s a child molester, a thug, a thief, or a cheat. As a species we have cultural guidelines, morals, and ethics to reject and accept—to reward good behavior (the pro-social) and punish bad behavior (the anti-social).

It’s useful, though, to become aware of the distinction between rejecting a person and rejecting their behavior. As a species we’ve come at least part of the way. More and more, the rejection based on gender, race, and status is becoming unacceptable.

We could make even greater strides on this issue if we’d take into account that on our most primitive level we have a default function: “better safe than sorry.” In short, we unconsciously reject anything we don’t know, anything that’s “other.” Consequently, rejecting people with “other” skin color, sexual orientation, and any other form of “otherness” is a primitive instinct.

This instinct plays itself out even when we reject people with other belief systems and other political perspectives.

With conscious awareness, we can detect this reflex easily, avoid many destructive conflicts, and replace them with constructive dialogue. Accepting its appropriate function can allow us to go beyond unconscious rejection.

Peter Baumann,

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