The Fear of Rejection Has Been Keeping Us Down Since Grade School, but There Are Ways to Cope

Photo: Getty Images/Josep M Rovirosa
I can't say for sure when a classic fear of rejection starts blossoming, but my first guess is during recess. So many of us start as itty-bitty extroverts who can ask "Will you be my friend?" with unfaltering bravado, knowing that the answer will be a default yes. Then one day, some 9-year-old shithead in a popcorn shirt tells you that you can't be Baby Spice, or worse yet, you can't play Spice Girls at all. All of a sudden, we realize that not everyone is going to like us, and that terror of being rejected leaves us swinging solo on the swing sets.

I've been ruminating on rejection recently (clearly) because as a newly minted staffer at Well+Good, the last thing I want is for my new co-workers to not like me—in fact, that situation low-key petrifies me. My editor will probably eye roll at that because everyone has been very welcoming and awesome, but recess anxieties are so hard to shake, you know? [Editor's note: Everyone at Well+Good loves you, Mary Grace!]

We'd like to think we get more confident upon reaching adulthood, but by that point, we're well aware that the scope of rejection extends beyond friendship. That's why so many of us are terrified of being spurned by anyone and everyone, whether it's an HR rep, a Bumble match, or the 550-some odd Instagram followers who aren't double-tapping on that newest post even though that outfit is SO CUTE, wtf.

"We are terrified of being rejected on a very primitive level.… As soon as we feel unsafe, whatever the cause, we go into an instinctive fear response." —clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD

So here's the million-dollar question: Why do we get like this, and how do we stop? First things first, don't feel badly about harboring this fear—it's basically part of our genetic makeup. "We are terrified of being rejected on a very primitive level," clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, and author of Joy From Fear, tells me, thus disproving my hypothesis that the whole thing originated from a Patient Zero grade-school bully.

Rather, she says, there's a psychological reason that explains why we're so scared of being rebuffed. "The reptilian brain—the very core of how we operate—tells us that ‘if we are rejected, we are not safe.’ As soon as we feel unsafe, whatever the cause, we go into an instinctive fear response. Of course, this primitive type of fear is not mediated by the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that 'reasons'), making the fear even more real and alive within the psyche," she says.

So even if people are telling you repeatedly that you are VERY FUNNY, Mary Grace, and there is NOTHING to worry about and NOBODY will laugh hysterically in your face if you ask them to get coffee with you, the assurance and reality of the situation doesn't really...matter to the brain. It's an irrational fear that makes us feel literally threatened. That's definitely not great, but the good news is that awareness is the first step in learning how to overcome a fear of rejection.

Fear of rejection can hold us back—here's how to overcome it
Photo: Getty Images/William Perugini

Spotting the symptoms of an overwhelming fear of rejection

Maybe you're at the point where you don't feel paralyzed by your fear of rejection. You dismiss it as being "a little insecure" or simply as introverted. But have you ever fake-texted on your phone during a happy hour or networking event because you'd rather feign an old social connection than attempt to foster a new one? No? Just me? Wow, okay. Well anyway, Dr. Manly says the following seven situations are hallmark indicators of behaviors pointing to an active fear of rejection:

  1. "Holding back" or compartmentalizing your true feelings for fear of being rejected
  2. Trying too hard to please others to avoid being rejected
  3. Trying to be someone you are not in order to be accepted
  4. Not speaking your truth for fear of being rejected
  5. Lying about facets of your life in order to be accepted
  6. Feeling anxious or nervous as a result of fearing rejection
  7. Striving to be like others who seem to be “ideal” and therefore “rejection-proof”

Cool, good to know. So how can I overcome these symptoms?

"Once we begin to process our emotions with awareness, we can face the fear and often ascertain that it’s an irrational fear," Dr. Manly says. "Yet, this is a skill that is learned, and one that many people have never been taught or even heard of in life." Well, thankfully, she has four tips up her sleeve so you, too, can learn the skill and put it to use.

  1. Slow down to really listen to your fear rather than running from it. Denying the fear is by no means beneficial.
  2. Without judgment, simply acknowledge your feelings. Even if your mood is super-negative, Dr. Manly stresses that it's important to recognize.
  3. Once you feel calmer, allow yourself to process your thoughts and fears: "Sometimes this is best done with a friend or therapist after a bit of self-work," she says.
  4. Learn to listen to yourself fully by heeding the messages of your fears and ascertaining the truth within the fear: This often-complex step requires you to learn the difference between a fear that's tricking you into taking up a destructive, self-doubting mind-set versus one that's alerting you to a real danger.

Putting the skill to work in common situations that stoke a fear of rejection

1. Fear of romantic rejection: The goal is always to sort through our fears, analyze their origins, and figure out whether or not they're valid. For example, "if you have a partner who is truly faithful, yet you have fears of being rejected or betrayed despite your partner’s faithful behavior, this is an irrational fear that’s trying to harm you," Dr. Manly says. "If you have a fear of your partner rejecting you because of current and prior harmful, rejecting behaviors—that’s a fear to listen to."

2. Fear of professional rejection: Oh, I know this tune! It goes a little something like, "I'm not qualified to apply to this job or that job or that one over there, la, la, la." Fun. In a scenario like this, slow down and listen to your fear instead of running from it. Don't lie to yourself about why you're not applying to a dream job, shrugging it off because you only hit 10 of the 11 qualifications. Instead, recognize that you're afraid and then submit the damn application anyway. It may not work out if you try, but it definitely won't out if you don't try. So you tell me, which situation offers better odds?

3. Fear of social rejection: This can breed anxiety that may stop you from putting yourself out there to meet new people and strike new connections. First impressions and newness are scary, and it's okay to feel this way. But while the realization that not every single person will like you no matter what is also scary, it's also a very freeing sentiment to embrace. Because fact remains that it's totally okay that not everyone will like you. The people who do are the ones who matter, and they will find you—so long as your fears don't hold you back.

Okay, rock star, now that we've tackled that, let's help you become your most authentic self. And once you've nailed that, check out some introvert-approved tips on meeting new people.

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