At this point in my life, I have experienced rejection in nearly every form. In stand-up comedy, I learned quickly that not everyone is going to like me. In writing for the internet, I've learned this much more ( much, much more). I now react to people telling me on Twitter that I'm a cunt the same way I react to seeing a fly in my drink—annoying, sure, but it's not going to ruin my day.
So why is it that I can't handle romantic rejection? If I can brush off someone heckling me onstage, why can't I handle being told by men on the internet that I'm not hot enough to say no to sucking dick?
Romantic rejection has turned me into my worst self. Take my first boyfriend, for instance—let's call him Sid. Sid dumped me after I told him I loved him. At the time, I knew that I wasn't genuinely in love with him. I was just eager to say it to someone who wasn't a member of my family, or a close friend, or a loaf of bread. But it was too late. I had thrown my shit directly into the fan. Two days later, we were over. I didn't take it well.
I decided that the only way to deal with my pain would be to get incredibly drunk. My two best friends agreed, and we proceeded to drink copious amount of whiskey together. Four hours later, a bumbling, horny, mess of an idiot, I had texted Sid approximately 15 times. He responded to the last one, asking me to stop texting him. So, naturally, I called.
We spoke for around 20 minutes. I don't remember anything that was said. All I remember is how I ended our conversation. I told him that if he wanted to get back together, to text me tomorrow morning the word "bacon." If he didn't want to get back together, he should text "scrambled eggs." We hung up, and I woke up the next day reflecting on what I had done. I must have sounded like one of those early ringtone commercials where horrific graphics would dance around the screen while a far too enthusiastic voice would say something along the lines of, "Want this hee-hawing donkey noise to be your ring tone? Text DONKEY to 44544!" That was me. I was that commercial. "Want this self-loathing drunk woman to be your girlfriend again? Text BACON." He never did end up texting me—not even "scrambled eggs." I haven't said "I love you" to anyone since.
Two years ago, a guy I hooked up with wouldn't accept my friend request on Facebook, even though he told me to add him. I mean, he even pressed the "request" button on my goddamn phone. The next day, hours after he pretended to still be asleep as I left his apartment, I looked at his page. He posted a status. He definitely saw my request. He purposely ignored it.
I was furious. Rather than be the bigger person and leave it be, I got over-the-top drunk on my friend's couch and sent him a series of irate messages. I believe a "fuck you" was thrown somewhere in there, along with "you suck," and I think even "you have a stupid haircut." The next morning, I woke up and again regretted it all. Three months later, he finally responded by writing "whoa." He then ended up requesting to be friends with me.
Every instance I've done something like this (and there are more instances than I'd like to admit) I've always thought to myself afterwards, This is not me. I am not this person. So, why did I keep being that person?
As it turns out, self-esteem had a lot to do with it. Rejection hits everyone harshly, but those with lower self-esteem take it far worse. On a biological level, a study in 2011 conducted by the University of Michigan found that intense social rejection activates the same regions in the brain that become active when experiencing physical pain. In 2013, a different group of researchers at the University of Michigan explored this even further and found that not only do rejection and physical pain share the same kind of hurt, but our brains even emit the same opioids as a response to try and ease this hurt. This same study adds that "people who score high on a personality trait called resilience—the ability to adjust to environmental change—had the highest amount of natural painkiller activation."
So, that's where that self-esteem stuff comes in. As psychologist and author Guy Winch explained in an article for the Huffington Post, "Research says that people whose self-esteem is lower will experience rejection as more painful, and it'll take them a little longer to get over it. Meanwhile, those who have higher self-esteem—but who aren't narcissists—tend to be more resilient."
Motherboard delves further into how The Brain Takes Rejection Like Physical Pain.
Oh. So that must be my problem. I have confidence in my abilities as a writer and performer, which is why rejection doesn't affect me harshly onstage. But I've never been confidence when it comes to love. My formative dating years were filled with immense disappointment and abject hopelessness. It makes sense to put the blame on one's self, especially when the amount of rejection received is triple that of the amount of rejection doled out. Over the years, I created two key reactions upon being dismissed by potential suitors: I either angrily lashed out, or refused to accept their dismissal and stayed invested in them, convinced they might change their mind. I have a history of prolonging my heartbreak with the same uninterested man for years. The more they told me "no," the more I was determined to make them say "yes."
Lately, I've been trying to learn from my previous mistakes, and I've been handling rejection far better than I have in the past. Most importantly, I've forced myself to stop wondering "why?" every time a guy turned me down. In the past, things with a guy would be going great for a short while, and then, out of nowhere I'd be told that we need to stop seeing one another. Immediately, I wanted to know what it was about me they suddenly found unattractive. As if that was going to help my self-esteem in any way. I no longer let myself go through that investigation.
Recently, I met this guy Julian on Tinder. We had a great first date—we hung out until 5 AM, kissed goodnight, and went on a second date the following weekend. On this second date, Julian bought me dinner. We had drinks, and were up until very late again. This time, things got hotter and heavier. Julian begged to eat me out. I told him I was on my period, but he didn't care. He still wanted to do it. Being the giving lover that I am, I granted him his wish. He ate me out for over 30 minutes, then told me he wanted to give me a massage. I let him do that too. He left my apartment that next morning telling me he'd see me again soon.
We spoke the next day, and I asked when we should hang out again. That's when I got a text from him reading, "You probably don't want to hear this, but I don't want to date you. I'd love to hang out as friends though."
If I received this text just a year ago, I'd be demanding more information—like, what the fuck? What happened in the span of one day to make you change your mind? Was it my vagina? Did it scare you? I told you I was on my period. Do you not know what a period is?
I restrained myself, and simply said, "That's cool, but I have enough friends." After that, I deleted his number from my phone.
It's not that I didn't still wonder why he'd rejected. It's just that I decided I didn't need to know. I'm finding the confidence in myself not to care.
I'm finally taming this wretched beast inside me. Now that it's down to a controllable size, it only gets easier and easier. I still have my hiccups here and there. After all, I only deleted Julian's number because I knew the next time I got drunk, there was a good chance I would text him. Hey, I never said I defeated the beast. It's not possible. The pain of rejection will always be there. Dealing properly with how to process that pain, that's what makes for a better and more confident person.
Follow Alison Stevenson on Twitter.