The fear of rejection is one of our deepest human fears. Biologically wired with a longing to belong, we fear being seen in a critical way. 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 varies 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, or that we’re destined to be alone, or that we have little worth or value. When these fear-based thoughts keep spinning in our mind, 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.
From an experiential or existential viewpoint (such as Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing), working with our fear of rejection or actual rejection involves opening to our felt experience. If we can have a more friendly, accepting relationship with the feelings that arise within us as a result of being rejected, then we can heal more readily and move on with our lives.
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’re 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, but we think something’s wrong with us for feeling it.
If we risk opening our heart 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. 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.