by ⁨Sarah Poh|02-11-2021
Psychological phenomenon

In my previous article, I wrote on the archetypal of the lost child. I shared two etiologies -- the neglected and the abandoned. Both etiologies involve a sense of being rejected, with the abandoned experiencing rejection more acutely. 

The lost child archetypal is quite common. But more common than that is the experience of being rejected. Have you wondered why some people are able to shake off rejection far easier than others? 

Self-perception and perception of others 

Our self-perception comes from accumulative experiences of how others have treated us, what others say about us, what others did not say about us, and our evaluation of our social standing based on the cultural and societal standards and expectations. 

When we internalize early life experiences of rejection, we form negative self-perceptions that can last a long time until we are convinced of otherwise.  

The internalized experience of having been rejected colors our perception of others being rejecting of us. Meaning, we become more sensitive to the possibility of rejection and actively (though unconsciously) gather evidence to support our presumption of others rejecting us. Such a paradigm is by no means intentional. As our mind can only compare based on what we already know, we are attracted to reinforce what we already know rather than what we don’t know.  

Coping mechanism 

The developing mind of children thinks in a concrete manner termed as dualistic thinking. Children below 11 years old are largely unable to comprehend contrasting characteristics in a single entity. For example, they can only think of their parents as good or bad parents, not parents with needs and fluctuating moods. 

Negative experience with parents can be processed in a variety of ways. But for illustration purposes, I shall highlight the common permutations. 

Permutation 1: 

“I did something bad, there’s something bad about me, I need to change to correct this negative experience with my parent(s).” 

→ Child initiated changed behavior → Parent respond favorably to the change → “I’m okay; the world/parent(s) are okay” 

In this permutation, the child successfully preserves a coherence sense of “good self 1” and there’s an increased sense of self competence in managing the world. 

Permutation 2: 

““I did something bad, there’s something bad about me, I need to change to correct this negative experience with my parent(s).” 

→ Child initiated changed behavior → Parent did not respond/ respond adversely → “I’m not okay, the world is not okay”  

 If Permutation 2 happens regularly enough when the child is between 0 to 3 years old, the child will have a fragmented sense of self characterized by disorganized attachment style. “The ugly” term in the Still Face experiment is how disorganized attachment style is constructed. 

Permutation 3: 

Parents are inconsistent in how they treat their children. They reject their children occasionally and unpredictably. Children find it difficult to make sense of their parents. 

→ “Am I good or bad? Are my parents good or bad?” 

Permutation 3 gives rise to insecure attachment styles. Depending on the temperament of the child, the child may choose either to be rejecting their parents (which is characterized by avoidant attachment style) or be tentative towards their parents (which is characterized by anxious-ambivalent attachment style). 

As you would have expected, permutations 2 and 3 result in low self-esteem, which is more susceptible to negative emotions. 

You may notice when parents respond badly to their children, children by and large assume responsibility for bad treatment from parents. This is the choice for survival. Being vulnerable, children cope by changing themselves to suit their parents. In addition, infants below 1 years old cannot differentiate themselves from others yet. Hence, infants immediately internalize negative experiences as “bad self”. Lastly, those who reject their parents do so to survive bad feelings towards self by projecting (also called externalizing) “bad self” onto their parents and sometimes other less risky targets. Those who are ambivalent towards their parents likely have greater psychological resources and are able to hold both a sense of “good self” and “bad self” within. But this psychological gymnastic endeavor expends energy and therefore increases propensity in depression.   

Building psychological resilience 

People with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style are constantly in the process of reconciling contradicting feelings about self and the world. Though they may come across as having more psychological ailments during teenage years and early adulthood, they are well positioned in having psychological resilience as they mature into middle adulthood. In contrast, people with avoidant attachment are devoid of psychological growth as they persist in projecting/ externalizing all negative experiences as problems from the world outside of themselves. Their early childhood wounding remains concealed through repression. Hence they lose opportunities in learning about self and the world as they continue to keep themselves within their bubble. Any attempt to bring about greater consciousness in them will be met with great protest and avoidance.  

The shortcut at protecting self from bad feelings about self by thinking “others are bad, I am good” can bring about momentous relief, but it comes with a heavy interpersonal cost especially in personal life where intimacy is desired but avoided. People in closer relationships with the avoidants become targets of their rejection.

The only sustaining way to not let rejections affect your feeling about self is to build psychological maturity which will inevitably bring psychological resilience. 

People with psychological maturity develop a sense of peace with self and the world. Therefore they are less shaken from any single event be it rejection or other distressing events. 

Characteristics of psychological maturity: 

Stable sense of self

  • Does not fluctuate due to external evaluation
  • Less need for external validation

Diverse coping strategies

  • Able to balance between withdrawing inwardly to be introspective (which is a meditation process) and engaging outwardly to build connection with others. 
  • More empathetic, hence able to draw from rich psychological resources. 
  • Focus more on contributing to the world (generative) than on surviving/meeting one’s material needs (which is perceived and exaggerated). 

People with psychological maturity have a sense of abundance whereas people without psychological maturity are stuck with a sense of deprivation. 

When you are busy thinking of how you can contribute to others in meaningful ways, you will be less concerned with how others perceive you. Your self value is based on the positive difference you have made for others, not on evaluation/ perception of others. Rejection is used as an information for the purpose of improving contribution (purpose), not for the purpose of ego elevation.      

Developing psychological maturity takes time and a willingness to grow psychologically. This growth can be catalysed through psychotherapy since psychotherapy is a focused process of reorganizing internal information in meaningful ways to serve psychological growth. 


Early rejection whether explicitly or in obscurity has a long lasting impact throughout life. Unless we face it and process it, its impact will keep replaying and affect our experience with ourselves and others. Grieving and making sense of these early rejections promote psychological growth and resilience.    

As William Shakespeare once said, Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so. Are you aware of your thinking? 


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