Rejection hurts. And it’s totally normal!
What does rejection resilience have to do with sexual violence prevention and consent?
Sexual violence, including sexual assault, abuse, and harassment, is a form of violence that exists on a spectrum. Sometimes it’s easy to know that an action was wrong, such as when it causes obvious harm, or when it lines up with our assumptions about sexual violence. There are many ways that the culture we live in contributes to a way of thinking that excuses interactions that might be considered less extreme but are still harmful. Also, we are conditioned not to see the harm that some of our words and behaviours can have. It’s important to recognize that coercion, or pressuring someone, is not consent.
The following article is meant to be a tool for self-reflection on how we navigate rejection from romantic or sexual interests. The examples help to show different ways rejection can look, and provide some tools to better cope with rejection. It’s essential to think about the impact our words and behaviours can have, rather than the intent.
Getting consent means having conversations with romantic and sexual interests to make space for exploring what you both want. Sometimes this can mean finding out that someone isn’t into it, or isn’t into you. Getting a “no” or being rejected, whatever that looks or sounds like can be painful. Humans have a biological need to belong. When we perceive that others view us critically, our survival instincts kick in. We may start to worry: “Will I be shunned, ignored, looked down on, laughed at, isolated, or alone? Are my worst fears coming true?”. New rejections can even reactivate feelings from old rejections, including childhood traumas. It’s reasonable to want to avoid the pain of a no. The trouble is that, in trying to avoid pain, it can be easy to miss another person’s cues or not recognize their needs.
Consent means respecting the other person’s needs and boundaries, and not pressuring them to change their minds. It means not just hearing a “no,” but also making a safe space for someone to give a “no,” and always taking that “no” for an answer. We need to be conscious of how we respond to rejection. We must make sure that we’re not getting caught up in our reactions to the point of overlooking the other person’s right to say no or change their mind.
So what does rejection look like?
Look for nonverbal cues
Someone showing that they’re not into it. This can include: the person leaning away, crossing their arms, being tense, avoiding eye contact, not reciprocating, pushing away, or trying to ignore or distract themselves. Our senses can usually tell when things take a wrong turn. Think about times when you know someone wasn’t into you: what body cues did you notice that let you know that the other person didn’t reciprocate?
On the other hand, there are a lot of clear signals that can tell you when someone IS into it. These can include leaning in, smiling, eye contact, laughing, touching, and mirroring your body language. Think about times when you were connecting with someone who you know was attracted to you at that moment. What did that feel like in your body?
If you’re not sure if someone is “excited” nervous or “scared” nervous – for instance, if they’re giggling or laughing – it’s important to ask or check-in to make sure they’re having a good time. Even just reminding the person that you only want to do what they want to do and that you can stop at any time, can make your partner feel safer if they do want to have sex, or give space for them to let you know if they don’t want to.
Listen for verbal cues
There are also a lot of ways that someone can show with their words that they’re not into it, including the person directly telling you they’re not interested, but could also be less direct. For example, if they change the topic, make an excuse, or bargain down what you’re asking for to something else. Someone may suggest an alternative sexual activity because they’re excited about that act, but sometimes this kind of suggestion is a way of getting out of something they don’t want to do – which is not consent. It’s important to look for other cues or ask for clarification if you’re not sure!
Another critical indicator of consent is a person’s tone of voice. Only “yes” means yes, but what does this look like in practice? Even if someone says the word yes, if they sound unsure, withdrawn or distracted, that’s a sign that a person is feeling conflicted about or pressured to give a yes. This pressure doesn’t have to be coming from you: there are lots of messages we receive every day that tell us what we should want or what we think the expectations are of us in and around sex. These messages get internalized and can inform our responses.
Verbal ways that someone might let you know that they’re interested in sexual activity can include telling you they’re into it, asking questions about your preferences, or giving hints about their interests or preferences. It can be fun to be coy or indirect, but if you’re ever not 100% sure you’re on the same page, moving to directness is always a good idea.
Changing your relationship to rejection
Take a moment to think over different possible outcomes (at least one negative) when you go into a situation where rejection is possible. Avoid attaching yourself to one particular outcome. What feelings might each possibility offer? What tools do you have to handle each possibility?
Question the media’s portrayal of relationships and sex as a matter of life or death. In reality, we are all so much more than our sexual or romantic experiences.
If you do get rejected, it’s likely going to hurt – remember this pain is normal and something that everyone goes through from time to time. It’s okay to not be okay at this moment. Try to accept the emotions you’re feeling. Often fighting difficult emotions only makes them stronger, whereas leaning into and acknowledging our feelings can have a reassuring effect.
Keep in mind the old cliché: there are other fish in the sea. It might feel like this was the only person for you or your only chance for sex, but there will be other opportunities for sex and love even if it takes some time.
Remind yourself that being rejected doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, it just means that you and that particular person weren’t right for each other. You have no control over how another person feels about you. Rejections often are about expressing personal boundaries that may have very little to do with you or something you did.
Give yourself credit for putting yourself out there. You took a risk, and that takes guts! Remember that taking risks, and sometimes getting rejected, helps us grow towards meaningful experiences and develop a strength that will serve us in all areas of our life.
Remember that part of someone being a good match for you is that they think you’re a good match for them.
Shift your self-talk. Replace “I’m ruined” or “someone will pay” with “I’m in pain but I’m not broken”, “Other opportunities await me”, or “It was brave of me to ask them out.”
How to take care of yourself
Check in with your body. When something is hard to hear, we often clench our bodies as if we’re under physical attack.
Seek out of sources of connection. This could be people, pets, or interests, or you can immerse yourself in an activity when a rejection feels difficult. These sources may help to shift focus away from a partner or love interest and reinforce that the rejection doesn’t define you.
Develop a rejection routine. Some routines could involve going for a walk, working out, watching a movie, indulging in your favourite food, or listening to music. They could also involve gathering with friends and family. It doesn’t matter what the rejection routine is, what matters is that you make sure to take some time to take care of you. Allow your rejection routine to include things that bring you into your rejection, rather than being an escape. While escape can be a part of it, the truth is we need both to heal: something to take the sting out of the rejection at the moment, and something that can bring us back to it so that we can tend to the wound.
You are worthy of love/sex… but you’re not entitled to it!
While we all know rejection hurts, it’s still important to respect the feelings of the person in which you are interested. Don’t try to change their minds or pressure them into saying yes. Everyone has the right to say “no,” and you can’t force someone to like you or participate in sexual activity. It’s natural to feel angry, upset, or confused, but lashing out at the person won’t change how they’re feeling or what their boundaries are. We all need to make space for others to express a “no” and respect each other’s boundaries so that we can be sure when we hear a “yes,” that it is given out of genuine interest and enthusiasm, and not out of fear or pressure. For more information on navigating boundaries with sexual and romantic partners, read our article on consent conversations.
How to support a friend who’s been rejected