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PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Posts from — March 2018

The Myth of Rejection

Men are disturbed not by things,
but by the view which they take of them.
| Epictetus

The Myth of Rejection

Rejection takes many forms, none of them pleasant. We may be rejected by someone to whom we’re romantically attracted, passed over for a promotion, judged harshly by an adult child who feels resentful about wrongs we had no idea we’d committed, treated with blithe inconsiderateness by someone we had thought was a friend, and so on. Clients sometimes come to philosophical counseling in the throes of rejection, tormented by unanswerable questions—”How could he/she do this?”—with their peace of mind and sense of self-worth in tatters.

Philosophically, they’re stuck in a stance that is essentially the opposite of the one adopted by the ancient Stoics, who taught acceptance with poise and equanimity of those “natural” unfoldings of fate that are “indifferent” to us. These clients themselves often realize that they’re caught up in a massive overreaction, not because being rejected by someone, especially someone about whom we care a great deal, doesn’t hurt, but because the suffering such an experience typically brings can be so intense, we may feel that we can’t survive it, that our very life and identity are at stake.

What all this drama misses is what we might think of as the “myth of rejection.” an idea that explains and even brings within reach the wisdom that allowed the Stoics to remain self-possessed and steady in the face of adversity. Seeing through the myth of rejection involves what various therapeutic and educational modalities call a “reframe,” which means a new way of looking at a situation. It’s a good word, because the “re-” prefix implies rightly that what’s being reframed is already framed. Put another way, it’s not the rejection that the client suffers but his or her story about it, the meaning and significance the client has assigned to it, which frame the experience in a certain light. Immersed in suffering, the client rarely recognizes that it is this framing that is in a real sense creating the experience as the experience it is, and that there are other ways to frame it that are far friendlier, to understate the matter. By helping the client to come out of immersion in his or her framing, the philosophical counselor reveals a hitherto hidden element of choice, so that the client, from this higher vantage, can see his or her role in creating the suffering that seemed up to that moment to be entirely a matter of factual conditions, “out there,” indifferent to the client’s anguish. To see that the hands about one’s throat are one’s own is instantly liberating, since the client is not suffering through any conscious choice, but as a result of an unwitting choice that must be brought into conscious awareness to be revised. We hurt ourselves only because we don’t recognize our complicity in turning pain into suffering. As the saying goes, “He who writes can rewrite.”

The myth of rejection begins to come into focus in a reframing that calls us to a deeper honesty than immersion in suffering has acknowledged. It takes only a few questions to make this clear to even the most deeply immersed client. In session, little more is required than asking questions that speak directly to the client’s self-respect, which gets passed over in the Sturm und Drang of having been rejected. In the case of an unrequited romantic attraction, for example, the counselor might ask the client, “Do you really want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you?” The question cuts through all the drama and goes to the heart of the truth, and no client has ever as much as hesitated to answer this question with a resounding no. “Then,” the counselor asks, “what have you really lost?” “Really” here means, of course, “in truth,” and in truth, no client who has been rejected would choose consciously to be treated that way. All that we lose when we’re rejected by someone, it turns out, is something we don’t want. What was a calamity is transmuted by the alchemy of philosophical dialogue into useful, perhaps even saving information and direction. The truth always sets us free, provided we meet it with the willingness of the student—to be shown, to learn, to move more deeply into our life and experience. There is a liberating clarity in truthfulness that allows rejection to be just another step on our journey, and beyond that, a golden opportunity to rise above disappointment and recognize the treasure buried there.

March 31, 2018   Comments Off on The Myth of Rejection