(About a 22 minute read)
One of the mysteries of my life is that sometime between my 37th and 39th birthdays, I lost my fear of rejection. It simply disappeared, evaporated, without my having done much of anything to overcome it.
It’s been about twenty years now, and I can only recall a single instance of the fear returning during that time. That happened six years ago, and though the memory of it is still vivid for me, the fear lasted only a few hours. I was visiting someone from my childhood, an older man that I had looked up to, and whose rejection I was always afraid of incurring. It was more of a flashback to old fears, than the emergence of new ones.
Now, it seems to me possible that I’ve had other episodes of the fear during the past twenty years, episodes I no longer remember. But if so, it does not seem likely they are many. Instead, my memories are of doing with ease things that would have once made me feel awkward or embarrassed — or that I would have once never risked doing at all for fear of rejection. To be clear, I can’t say rejection has never concerned me in all that time, but I think I can safely say that any concerns I’ve felt have very seldom risen to the level of fear.
Which is a good thing because the fear can be debilitating. It can significantly influence your daily life, causing you to behave in ways you might not otherwise behave. Among other things, the fear of rejection can impact your partnership and marriage prospects, your friendships, your other personal relationships, your career, and the quality of your life in general. You can pay for it not only in lost opportunities, but also in anxiety, acute self-consciousness, social awkwardness, and even emotional suffering.
It is even for a few unlucky people, significantly more traumatic than hearing my poetry sung aloud!
The Science of Rejection
So far as I can find out, scientists have been studying rejection for about two decades now, but the focus of most of their studies has been on rejection itself, or the pain and suffering it causes, and not on the fear of rejection per se. In this post, however, I will do the opposite by focusing more on the fear of rejection than on anything else. Still, let’s start out with a few things the scientists have discovered.
One fascinating discovery has been that the brain by and large does not distinguish between the pain of rejection and physical pain. Instead, it uses pretty much the same neural pathways to process both kinds of pain. In brain terms, a broken heart and a broken arm aren’t all that different.
In fact, this is so much the case, that Tylenol can actually work to lessen the pain of rejection. In one study, scientists placed a group of people on a daily regime of Tylenol for three weeks. Then, in the actual fun part of the study, they brought the people into the lab, where they arranged for them to be cruelly rejected. By placing these lucky people in an fMRI scanner, the scientists discovered that the folks taking Tylenol suffered significantly less pain from being rejected than the folks taking sugar pills. Again, the brain treats a broken heart and broken arm much the same.
One difference, however, has to do with memory. That is, we can relive and re-experience the pain from rejection much more vividly than we typically re-experience the pain from physical injuries:
Try recalling an experience in which you felt significant physical pain and your brain pathways will respond, “Meh.” In other words, that memory alone won’t elicit physical pain. But try reliving a painful rejection (actually, don’t—just take my word for it), and you will be flooded with many of the same feelings you had at the time (and your brain will respond much as it did at the time, too). [Source]
So why is emotional pain in the case of rejection so closely linked to physical pain and — at least in our memories — even more vivid than physical pain?
The short answer is, because we’re social animals. The slightly longer answer is that for millions of years during our evolution, we and our ancestors lived in circumstances in which getting kicked out of our community meant nearly certain death. Humans generally don’t survive all that well outside of groups, except in the fictional imaginings of some authors, adolescents, and ideologues. Consequently, those individuals who became our ancestors — that is, lived long enough to have offspring — were the folks who suffered the most from rejection, thus making them the same folks who took the most care to avoid being rejected by their groups.
Obligatory Warning Lable
The science, while fascinating, is still very much emerging, and does not — so far as I can find — thoroughly address the question of how to deal with the fear of rejection, which I think can be at least as consequential in its own ways as the pain of rejection.
Naturally, at this point, I would like to be in a position to tell you that my years of relative freedom from the fear of rejection have provided me the “the seven secret insights” into how you, too, can overcome the fear of rejection
, and that those powerful insights can be yours for only $29.95! But the fact is, I can’t. The best I can offer you is a mix of science and personal observation virtually guaranteed to mess up your life that might or might not prove useful to you. In other words, it’s up to you to test these things for yourself.
Three Things That Probably Won’t Work Alone
Going through the online advice on how to deal with the fear, I repeatedly came across three things that I believe — based on both science and personal experience — are unlikely to work. As I see it, if you try them and they do in fact work for you, then you’ve beaten the odds. With that said, here they are in no particular order:
• Overcome your fear of rejection through willpower alone! This is what I tried for a number of years with limited success. For instance, when I young, I made a point when attending parties to introduce myself to as many women as I could. However, it took an act of will to make myself do it, because I was actually rather shy back then. I did find out, though, that I could indeed now and then will myself to do it, and that it did indeed pay off on occasion. So why do I say “it probably won’t work”?
Overcoming fear through sheer force of will is problematic for a few reasons. First, it requires a sustained, conscious effort. You need to keep reminding yourself, pushing yourself “all night long”, as it were, to stick with it. If you stop pushing, you stop doing it. Which means that it’s fairly easy to just give up at some point — especially if you are not met with immediate success.
Again, all the while you’re pushing, the fear is still there. You are at best overcoming your fear, rather than bringing about an end to it. And that means you are constantly feeling your fear no matter how hard you push yourself to act in despite of it. That’s fine and dandy if you’re a masochist, but not so good if you prefer to live without sweaty armpits.
Last, there’s the backsliding. You can be successful on Tuesday, and yet a disaster on Friday. Again, this is because you have to keep pushing or you stop overcoming. Put differently, sheer willpower doesn’t appear to have a positive learning curve. In my experience, merely willing to overcome fear lasts about as long as most New Year’s resolutions before the backsliding sets in.
To be sure, I’m speaking here of willpower alone. It should be noted, however, that it can be a vital first step when combined with other techniques.
• Overcome your fear through studying the causes of it! It’s quite tempting — almost instinctual — to search for the causes of your fear in your past. People who do this tend to discover any number of life events that caused their fear. Everything from a hyper-critical parent to social rejection suffered in middle school. But so far as I can see, all such analyses suffer from at least one major problem: They aren’t solutions.
No matter how accurately you identify the personal causes of your fear, the knowledge by itself does little or nothing to resolve the issue. So something further is needed, but what? Frankly, I’ve yet to come across in popular advice a “something further” that seems likely to work. One author, for instance, advised conjuring up your memories of past fears, and then having the “adult you time travel back in your mind to reassure the child you that everything will be alright in the end”. Somehow, I seriously doubt that will work for large numbers of us.
To be sure, I do not wish to discourage self-examination. Knowing yourself is key to so many good things in life, but in this case, it’s just not enough unless or until it can be combined with some other technique that will render it effective.
• Overcome your fear by focusing on the good things that will come from acceptance rather than on the bad things that will come from rejection! The problem that I see with this nugget of advice is fairly simple. Just imagine you’re in a poker game. You’ve got $100 bet, and your feeling mighty anxious you might lose it. Would the sensible way to overcome your anxiety be to bet another hundred? Or a thousand? Or ten thousand? As you can see, the more you jack up the potential cost of losing, the more anxious you are likely to become. So why should “focusing on all the good things that will come from acceptance” make you much more than acutely conscious of how much you’ve got to lose if you are indeed rejected?
To sum up, each of these three things seems to me unlikely to work all that well alone. Yet, in combination with other techniques, I believe they can often enough make a contribution.
Encounter therapy is a standard tool of psychotherapists. Not to be confused with encounter group therapy, which is a very different thing, encounter therapy involves overcoming one’s fears by physically encountering them, over and over again, if necessary. For instance, a psychotherapist might encourage an especially shy person to walk up and down a busy sidewalk bouncing a basketball in order to draw attention to themselves. The shy person is thus forced to confront their fears.
Encounter therapy appears to be at least fairly effective, although I doubt it works for everyone. For instance, back in the day when I was approaching women at parties, it never did get much more than temporarily easier to do so. That is, it tended to get a bit easier as the night wore on at any given party, but by the time of the next party, I was back to square one.
It seems to me that encounter therapy is best combined with play. Put differently, it’s best to make a game out of it. For instance, instead of bouncing a basketball down the street — which is for merely shy people — decide to directly confront your fear of rejection by setting yourself the goal of getting rejected by a stranger at least once or twice a day. Setting a goal turns it into a game. Then go out and find a stranger. Ask him or her to, say, give you a ride across town. If by some odd chance they accept your offer, then find another stranger. And keep at it until you get your coveted daily dose of rejection.
Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? The fact is, it has actually worked for some people, and in my opinion, it most likely would work for most of us. But it won’t work unless you begin by making yourself do it — and that’s where sheer force of will comes in. Apparently, it’s best to keep at it for perhaps 100 days, maybe longer, in order to see decisive results.
If it seems rather daunting to bounce out of bed tomorrow morning on a mission from Café Philos to achieve being rejected by strangers twice before midnight, then perhaps you can ease your way into such a noble pursuit by beginning with visualization.
The basic idea here is to face your fears. That may sound cliché but it’s actually a fairly effective technique. You begin by, as vividly as possible, imagining a situation in which you are rejected. Here, your memories can come in handy. What was the worse rejection you ever experienced? Drag that sucker up as vividly as you can recall it. It can help to write it down in alarming detail. The point is to get make it as real as you can.
Now intensify it!
Yup, you heard right! Make it worse! Think of some way it could have been even worse than it was, and then vividly imagine how you would feel if that actually happened to you.
Next, do it again! Make it worse than the worse you thought it could be. Rinse and repeat this fun game for an hour or more daily. Spend at least ten minutes on each stage in the progression. And remember — writing it all down is better than just thinking about it.
The astonishing fact is that is a science-backed method for putting a significant dent in your fear of rejection. Your goal should not be to stop with visualizations though. You should, when you’re ready, progress to actual encounters.
Frequent readers of Café Philos may be forgiven if — up until this very post — they thought I didn’t know anything about how to have fun. I am quite certain, however, that I have by now laid that myth to rest once and for all.
A Cognitive Landmine
In general, I’m a great fan of the notion that we are more efficiently changed through our actions than through our thoughts. Put simply, a hundred days of seeking a rejection or two a day is, in my opinion, more likely to ameliorate one’s fear of rejection than a hundred days of contemplation.
Yet, I have also noticed that sometimes no amount of experience will do the trick because the experience is being interpreted in a counter-productive way. So I’m now going to mention one belief in particular that has the potential to undermine one’s efforts to deal effectively with the fear of rejection through action, or for that matter, through any other means.
The idea here is fairly simple: Emotions, very much including fear, are reactions to the world as we see it. But the world as we see it is by and large informed by our beliefs about it. “Was she laughing at me or with me?’ The answer I give to that question might say more about my beliefs about her, and about people in general, than it says about her in fact. With that in mind let’s
forget all about this stuff, break open the beer keg, and party till it’s Christmas! turn to a belief that could be the cognitive foundation of one’s fear of rejection.
First, I would suggest you carefully examine yourself to see if in anyway you might harbor the desire that everyone like you. That can be a bit tricky to do because it requires great self-awareness. Time and again, I’ve heard people say that they do not desire everyone to like them, only to turn around moments later to say something that directly contradicts that notion. It seems to be a frequent mistake.
In fact, the desire for everyone to like you — whether you are conscious of it or not — is one way to create the fear of rejection. That’s because desire and fear are companions. To desire something is to automatically fear that you won’t get it. To fear something, you must see it as capable of thwarting a desire, unless your fear arises as an instinctual, knee-jerk reaction to, say, a sudden noise. Otherwise, fear and desire travel hand-in-hand. So, if you desire for everyone to like you, you fear rejection from anyone and everyone.
Now, the desire for everyone to like you is based on the unrealistic belief that it is actually possible for everyone to like you. Think about this carefully. Even though people routinely say they desire the impossible, they don’t really do that. At least not in any significant way.
For a desire to get hold of you, you must — at the very least — think that it is remotely possible for it to be realized. You may tell yourself that you truly want to walk through walls, but you don’t fear that you won’t be able to. You don’t ache when you see a wall you can’t walk through. You don’t feel frustrated that the wall is solid. In fact, you show few if any signs of genuinely desiring to walk through walls. Thus, if you come to an honest belief that it is impossible for everyone to like you, you will cease to desire that everyone will like you — and with that cessation, you will no longer fear rejection from everyone. You might still fear it from some people, but not automatically from everyone. At least, that’s been my experience.
It is important that this is more than a mere intellectual exercise to you. Instead, the truth that it is impossible for everyone to like you must be real to you. As real to you as a memory of an actual experience. So, if you wish to take this approach to your fear of rejection, you must be willing to study the issue until you can all but see the truth.
Once you have become clearly aware of the various reasons not everyone can like you, you will find, I believe, that you have not only lost your desire for everyone to like you, but also quite often your desire for this or that person in particular to like you.
For instance, one reason not everyone can like you is because there are intractable personality conflicts between people that you or they are powerless to change. But once you see that, you are very likely to recognize when you have encountered someone with whom you have such a conflict. And you are no more likely to believe they can like you than you are likely to believe everyone can like you.
The bottom line is that if you harbor on any level a belief that everyone can like you, you need to root out that belief if you are to deal effectively with the fear of rejection. In my experience, if you can do just that much, you will have gone a long way toward solving the problem.
There is much else that could be said about this subject but
lucky for you, a blog post is not a book. However, I’ll briefly mention some further ideas you might want to consider:
- Try setting your expectations of being liked low, but not too low. Put them in neutral, so to speak, rather than in forward or reverse.
- Avoid end of the word thinking about rejection. I have too many friends who bump up their fear of rejection by fantasizing that the actual experience will be far worse than such things tend to be. Yes, it can be painful, but you’ll survive.
- Check your motives for wanting someone to like or accept you. Are they honorable. Unless you are a fairly wicked person (in which case, we should get together for coffee), dishonorable motives will backbite you. That is, the intention to, say, exploit someone will increase your fear of being rejected by them.
- For much the same reason, avoid being hyper-critical of people. If you are, you will tend to take it on faith that any rejection you suffer from them is because of some flaw of your own. This is absolutely not true the vast majority of the time. But if you believe it’s true, it will surely increase your fear of rejection.
- Even if and when someone rejects you for yourself, try to see it as a compatibility issue, rather than a condemnation of yourself. “She didn’t like your sense of humor”? That says little or nothing about the quality of your sense of humor, and everything about her own tastes in humor, and how incompatible her tastes are with yours. If you see it as a condemnation of you, your fear of rejection will blossom like a weed in your heart.
- There are over seven billion humans on this planet, and perhaps a few million more politicians, too. That’s a lot people, human and otherwise, and with that many people, there is no real reason you can’t find at least a few — say a million or more — who genuinely like you or even love you as a person. But how to filter out the ones who do from the ones who don’t? Try looking at rejection as a filter that is actually helping you to do that very thing. This might not decrease the pain of being rejected all that much (there is science to suggest it won’t), but it can in my experience at least decease the fear of being rejected — if you take it to heart.
- Now, if you take none of my advice save for one thing, then take this: Never, ever universalize rejection. If someone tells you they’re dumping you because you’re “too kind”, never conclude that means everyone, most people, or even a significant fraction of the world’s seven billions will think you are “too kind”. Never! Such thinking is totally barking up the wrong tree, hounding down the wrong trail, sniffing the wrong crotch, humping the wrong leg. Get my drift? And worse, it will increase your fear of rejection nearly astronomically.
There ain’t no good guy.
There ain’t no bad guy.
There’s just you and me,
And we just disagree.
— Dave Mason, We Just disagree
Nine times out of ten, Mason is right.
I’m turning the conversation over to you now. This is your BIG opportunity to cheerfully tell me how wrong I am! Please feel free to share your thoughts, feelings, opinions, and stories in the comments section!