Hello Rosie, thank you for reaching out, I will do my best to answer your question with as much useful and insightful information as I can. Fearing rejection is one of our deepest human fears. Biologically wired with a longing to belong, we fear being seen critically. We’re anxious about the prospect of being cut off, demeaned, or isolated. We fear being alone. We dread change. The depth and flavor of fear vary for each individual, although there are common elements at play. If we’re willing to look, what is our actual felt experience of rejection? What are we really afraid of? On a cognitive level, we may be afraid that rejection confirms our worst fear, perhaps that we’re unlovable, that we’re destined to be alone, or that we have little worth or value. When these fear-based thoughts keep spinning in our minds, we may become agitated, anxious, or depressed. Cognitively-based therapies can help us identify our catastrophic thoughts, question them, and replace them with more healthy, realistic thinking. For example, if a relationship fails, this doesn’t mean that we are a failure.
A big part of our fear of rejection may be our fear of experiencing hurt and pain. Our aversion to unpleasant experiences prompts behaviors that don’t serve us. We withdraw from people rather than risk reaching out. We hold back from expressing our authentic feelings. We abandon others before they have a chance to reject us. Being human, we long to be accepted and wanted. It hurts to be rejected and to experience loss. If our worst fear materializes, if our catastrophic fantasy becomes a reality and we’re rejected, our organism has a way of healing if we can trust our natural healing process. It’s called grieving. Life has a way of humbling us and reminding us that we are part of the human condition. If we can notice our self-criticisms and tendency to sink into the shame of being a failure and accept our pain just as it is, we move toward healing. Our suffering is intensified when not only do we feel hurt or grieve, but we think something’s wrong with us for feeling this. If we risk opening our hearts to someone who rejects us, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. We can allow ourselves to feel sorrow, loss, fear, loneliness, anger, or whatever feelings arise that are part of our grieving. Just as we grieve and gradually heal when someone close to us dies (often with the support of friends), we can heal when faced with rejection. We can also learn from our experience, which allows us to move forward in a more empowered way.
I hope I’m not making this sound easy, or that we can heal on our own without support. I’ve often been in the room with clients who have experienced a devastating loss when their hopes and expectations were rudely dashed, especially when old traumas were being reactivated. We may benefit by processing our feelings with a caring, empathic therapist, as well as availing ourselves of trusted friends who know how to listen rather than dispense unwanted advice. The term personal growth is often used loosely, but perhaps one meaning is to cultivate inner resilience by acknowledging and even welcoming whatever we’re experiencing. It takes courage and creativity to bring a gentle awareness to what we may like to push away. As we become more confident that we can be with whatever experience arises as a result of connecting with people, we can initiate, deepen, and enjoy relationships in a more relaxed and fulfilling way. As we become less afraid of what we’re experiencing inside, that is, less afraid of ourselves, we become less intimidated by rejection and more empowered to love and be loved.
Rejection is a bitter pill to swallow. And most of us have had a good dose of it. Whether we didn’t get a job we applied for, weren’t admitted to our top choice college, didn’t make it to the team we tried out for, or didn’t score a second date with the person we were sure was going to become our soulmate, many of us have experienced rejection first hand. Hearing “no, not interested” doesn’t feel good. Regardless of how hard you want to look at the bright side of it, rejection doesn’t build character. It breaks hearts, brings tears, and it raises fears. And that fear can stick and become a hard-to-remove stain.
Fear of rejection, or rejection sensitivity, as it is often referred to in the psychology literature, can become an obstacle to success and happiness. Research shows that fear of rejection can harm emotional well-being, interpersonal relationships, and psychological functioning. It affects the way we feel about ourselves, the decisions that we make, and the goals we choose to pursue. Fear of rejection can make us think small and act even smaller. All fears are evoked when after we appraise a stimulus, we find it dangerous and potentially harmful. Fear is the internal alarm system that we are equipped with and which exists to warn us against threats to our survival. In the past, survival meant staying alive. It meant not getting killed by a predator, a disease, a rival, or a natural disaster. And threats included anything that could cause death or serious harm.
But in a relatively safe, socially complex, and intellectually demanding world, the meaning of both survival and threat has changed significantly. For most people in the developed world, it is no longer our biological survival that we are preoccupied with daily. Our worries extend beyond just staying alive. We still care about our physical health, but we also care about our mental, emotional, financial, relationship, or spiritual health and we want to protect them from any threats. And when any of these are threatened, fear arises.
So what is it that fear of rejection protects us from? The commonality may be pain. We are generally hardwired to avoid pain, whether it is physical or emotional. Pain is associated with harm, invasion, and potential damage. Pain is a signal that we should avoid, correct, or withdraw from a situation. It is easy to imagine how this plays out with physical pain. If your coffee is so hot that it burns your tongue, you wait until it cools down. And the beautiful thing about our brains is that they register those painful events, so we can avoid them in the future, and prevent harm. We learn what’s causing us pain and we take steps to protect ourselves from it. The same is true about emotional pain. We, consciously or unconsciously, avoid entering situations or creating circumstances that could get our feelings hurt. The brain centers that register the magnitude of pain and the subjective experience of pain are closely connected. This doesn’t mean that the cure for fear of rejection is taking painkillers. It means that emotional pain is a natural response to rejection. This may also explain why we tend to avoid situations in which we expect to be rejected. Consciously or unconsciously, we stay away from people, places, and events that we have associated with rejection either through experience or based on expectation. And that fear and the subsequent avoidant behavior can have a serious impact on the goals we seek to accomplish and the life we aim to build.
To handle the fear of rejection, the first thing one can do is to identify the fearful stimulus. That is, become aware of the situations or circumstances that we are actively avoiding because we worry that they will lead to rejection. What ideas are we not sharing because we worry that others won’t embrace them? What requests are we not making because we worry they will be denied? What steps are we not taking toward a goal because we worry that we will be exposed and vulnerable? What “no’s” are we afraid to hear? Second, turn avoidance into action. If a goal still seems important and meaningful, take steps toward achieving it, even if that increases the risk of rejection. Avoiding is safer and less painful. Without an “ask,” there is no rejection. But without it, there is no acceptance either. Third, remind ourselves that the pain caused by rejection is a normal feeling and that it will pass, just like any other painful sensation or feeling. We can’t fully control whether our ideas, our proposals, our applications, or our pitches will be rejected because rejection is in the hands of others. But we can control the intensity of our emotions and we can train ourselves to become emotionally stronger. Being a good emotion regulator is one of the cornerstones of emotional intelligence.
And finally, reframe rejection as an opportunity to improve our approaches and tactics. There are many reasons why we did not get a “yes” this time. The timing might not have been right, we may not be a good fit, we may not have been thorough enough in our preparation, we may not have presented the best sample of our work, and the people who rejected us may have their own needs, biases, or limitations. The list of situational factors is endless. It is easy to personalize rejection and think of it as a reflection of who we are and what we are capable of, as opposed to what we did and how can we do it better next time. Changing what we do is easier than changing who we are. And people will evaluate us by what we do.
All in all, rejection doesn’t feel good. But letting the fear of rejection dictate what we accomplish in our lives can make us feel even worse in the future. I hope that this answered your question adequately and that it provided you with useful information. I hope that you have a great day, and please do not hesitate to reach out again if you need further assistance in the future.