Coping with the Fear of Rejection

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The fear of rejection is very real and it’s no wonder why. Rejection hurts. Plain and simple. And it doesn’t matter if it happens at home, at work, or in other social settings. Rejection is painful, and so we avoid it at all costs. After all, who wants to get hurt? But rejection is inevitable, so it’s a good idea to learn how to overcome the fear of rejection and learn to cope with it when it does happen.

The fear of rejection is millions of years old

We all want to belong. But this isn’t anything new. In an article published by the American Psychological Association, entitled, The pain of social rejection, author Kirsten Weir explains, “As clever as human beings are, we rely on social groups for survival. We evolved to live in cooperative societies, and for most of human history, we depended on those groups for our lives. Like hunger or thirst, our need for acceptance emerged as a mechanism for survival.”

Belonging was essential for survival. That means rejection essentially meant death. But a lot has changed over the course of millions of years. So, you might think our need for belonging isn’t as important anymore.

That’s not the case though. While it’s true that we can all live pretty independent lives and survive on our own now, that doesn’t erase millions of years of evolution. We still want to belong, and rejection prevents this from happening. In short, we still need our tribe no matter what form it takes.

In a way, our fear of rejection had an important role to play: it helped to keep us alive. But that only explains why it is part of the human experience – it doesn’t really explain why it hurts so much, does it?

Why does rejection hurt so much?

Rejection hits us on an emotional and psychological level. Or, does it? Recent research has found that the pain of being rejected actually activates the same brain areas that physical pain does.

Kipling Williams, a professor at the Department of Psychological Sciences at Purdue University, researched social rejection in an article called Ostracism. In his study, participants played a game of cyber frisbee with other volunteers as their brains were being scanned. After all three participants played frisbee together, two players eventually started to play by themselves and exclude one player.

Williams and his team observed something fascinating in the brains of people who were excluded and rejected. They saw that the dorsal anterior cingulate, along with the anterior insula became more active.

Why is this important? Because these are the same two brain regions that get activated when you experience physical pain. In short, emotional pain registers in the brain the same way physical pain does.

And this can help to explain why rejection hurts so much, and why we try to avoid it. After all, through trial and error, we learn what causes physical injury – like touching a hot pan, or mishandling a sharp knife – and we avoid these actions as best we can.

So, it’s understandable that as we experience rejection, we start to avoid behaviors that might invite more rejection. But this is a problem. That’s because these same behaviors are exactly what keeps us from living a wholehearted and authentic life.

How do we try to avoid rejection?

To keep rejection from happening again, we develop unhealthy behavior patterns and mindsets. For example, if you were rejected by a lover, you may become pessimistic about ever finding love again. Or, if you do find yourself in a good relationship, you sabotage it because you’re afraid of being rejected by your new partner.

If your experience of rejection started much earlier in life – from a parent, for example – you may have false beliefs about yourself. You might think you’re unworthy of love and attention, or that you don’t deserve friends. And thoughts like this prevent you from attracting love and attention to yourself. This, in turn, creates even more rejection.

Another common rejection scenario is when you share your thoughts or opinions only to get mocked or excluded. If that’s the case, you might hide the true you in order to fit in.

As you can see, if we desperately try to avoid rejection, we actually create more rejection and less belonging.

So, we have to learn to be ourselves, knowing full well that it could end in rejection. But how can you do that?

How to overcome the fear of rejection

As long as people have preferences, people will welcome what they prefer and reject what they don’t. And the truth is, sometimes that means you and me will get rejected. So, how can we continue, full steam ahead, even with the risk of rejection? Here are two tips to cope with our innate fear of rejection.

  1. You don’t have to take rejection personally

In his inspiring book, The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz, lays out four principles to live by. His second principle is this: Don’t take anything personally.

What does Ruiz mean by this? He teaches that every action that’s directed towards you actually has very little to do with you. In fact, usually, it has nothing to do with you. Instead, it has everything to do with the other person. It has to do with their thoughts, belief system, emotional baggage, personal history and so much more.

And when you apply Ruiz’s principle to rejection, it can transform the entire experience. The truth is, when people reject us, we interpret it as a reflection of our value and our worth.

Rejection doesn’t just mean exclusion. Instead, it means:

  • I’m not lovable
  • I’m not good enough
  • I’m not worthy
  • I’m a loser

But if you don’t take rejection personally, you can see that you were excluded, and continue to believe that you’re lovable, worthy, good enough and anything but a loser.

  1. Rejection might be doing you a favor

This might seem crazy but bear with me. We often think we know what we want and what’s best for us. But that’s not always the case. Instead, and as Gabrielle Bernstein says, “The universe your back.”

But how can rejection be the universe’s way of taking care of you? After all, rejection is painful and makes you feel isolated and alone.

But does it have to?

It’s true: you do get rejected by a group or an individual. But chances are you wouldn’t have been very happy in that group or with that individual anyway.

Therefore, while rejection means you don’t fit into that specific scenario, that doesn’t mean you’re never going to fit anywhere.

Instead, rejection keeps you out of places or situations where you won’t thrive. And it helps you to keep looking for your perfect fit.

Here’s an analogy that might help. There are so many beautiful flowers in our world. And some thrive in the sun; others bloom best in the shade. There are some flowers that need sunny seaside climates, while others can survive the cool temperatures of the snowy Alps.

But you would probably never say that the seaside flower is worthless because it can’t survive in the Alps, or vice versa. So, why should you say that about yourself?

Just because you didn’t “make it” with one crowd or another, doesn’t mean you’re not a beautiful person. It just means, you tried to plant yourself in the wrong garden.

There’s this common saying: Bloom where you’re planted. But let’s take it one step further and infuse it with some powerful intention. Instead, of just blooming where you happen to end up, why not plant yourself where you know you will bloom best?

The payoff for accepting rejection

Even if you don’t take rejection personally, it can still hurt. And even if you compare yourself to a beautiful flower who simply tried to plant herself in the wrong garden, rejection hurts yet again.

So, have you really gained anything? The answer is a resounding yes. There is a payoff when you accept that rejection can and will happen. And here it is:

When you stop running away from rejection, you also stop running away from love, intimacy, and connection. But if you keep trying to avoid rejection, you avoid connecting with others and opening yourself up to love.

In short, we have to be vulnerable. And while that does make it possible for rejection to occur, it also makes it possible for so many other beautiful human connections to occur.

As a research professor and bestselling author, Brené Brown found, the people who allow themselves to be vulnerable also believe “that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful.”

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