The Potential Benefits of Remembering that “Everybody Hurts”
Picture how you reacted when a romantic partner broke up with you. Did you eat an entire tub of ice cream? Did you lock yourself away for hours while scrolling through photos of your ex? Social rejection—whether in romantic relationships, within friendships, or at work—is something that everyone experiences in life, but we do not always know how to cope with rejection effectively.
Research shows that people often respond to rejection in ways that are probably not helpful: eating unhealthy foods, making risky decisions, behaving aggressively, lashing out at other people… The list of unhelpful responses to rejection is long.
What if you could respond in a more effective way, simply by changing how you treat yourself? Self-compassion, a concept derived from Buddhist teaching, involves taking compassion and turning it inward. People unfamiliar with the idea of self-compassion may actually find it easier to be compassionate to others than to themselves.
Self-compassion has three interconnected components: self-kindness (treating yourself in the way that you would treat a close friend or loved one), common humanity (acknowledging that all human beings are imperfect and that everyone suffers), and mindfulness (acknowledging negative thoughts or feelings without getting carried away with them or trying to push them away). Over the past 18 years, considerable research evidence supports the benefits of self-compassion in a wide variety of areas: reacting to trauma, coping with health problems, and dealing with loneliness in one’s first year at university, just to name a few.
In my own research, I tested whether people who are more self-compassionate (compared to people who are less so) might respond less negatively to rejection. I then tested whether temporarily inducing a self-compassionate mindset would lead to relatively more positive responses when recalling a painful instance of rejection.
In one study, I found that among people who were highly self-compassionate, the links between feeling high belongingness (in other words, not feeling rejected) and negative mood/depression were relatively weak. Specifically, highly self-compassionate people were relatively less affected by feeling rejected. Less self-compassionate people were relatively more affected by feeling rejected.
In a second study, I followed undergraduates over the course of two weeks. Before the study started, they had filled out a measure of self-compassion and another measure of general self-esteem. At the end of each day, they wrote about what event most affected how socially included or excluded they felt that day. They then filled out more questionnaires about their mood and feelings of acceptance. Among highly self-compassionate people, the relationship between daily acceptance feelings and positive mood was relatively weak. The flip side of this result is that among people who were less self-compassionate, the link between daily acceptance feelings and positive mood was relatively strong. These results suggest again that people who practice self-compassion may be less affected by daily fluctuations in perceived acceptance.
Then, I did a study where people wrote about a time that they felt especially rejected, but in one of three different ways: in a self-compassionate way, in a high-self-esteem way, or with catharsis (“really letting go”). People who wrote about their experience of rejection from a self-compassionate perspective showed more positive reactions (better mood, better temporary self-esteem, and fewer temporary depressive symptoms) than did whose who simply “really let go.”
So, the good news? Many studies have shown that people can learn to practice self-compassion. The overall pattern of my results suggests that, at least in some ways, self-compassion may be beneficial when coping with rejection. So, the next time that you are hurting from the sting of rejection, it might help to remember, as the popular old R.E.M. song suggests, that “Everybody Hurts.” Maybe everybody could use some self-compassion, too.
For Further Reading
Koch, E. J. (2020). Remembering that “Everybody Hurts”: The role of self-compassion in responses to rejection. Basic and Applied Social Psychology. doi: 10.1080/01973533.2020.1726748
Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-compassion, self-esteem, and well-being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00330.x
Neff, K. D. (2003). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2(3), 223-250. doi:10.1080/15298860309027
Erika Koch is Associate Professor of Psychology at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada. She tries to practice self-compassion in her day-to-day life (but mindfully acknowledges that she does not always succeed).