The Dance of Connection

Rescuing women and men from the quicksand of difficult relationships.

The Fear of Rejection: A One Day Cure! (Part I)

Cured in a day? It happened like this.

Cured in a day? As I describe in The Dance of Fear, It happened like this:

I was surprised to get a call from Frank, a former therapy client who now lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His work was bringing him back to Kansas for a two-day seminar, and he wanted to know if I would meet with him.

He explained that he hadn't dated since his marriage ended two years earlier. He was drawn to a woman at work named Liz, but the mere thought of asking her out paralyzed him.

Frank was a roll-up-your-sleeves, fix-it sort of guy, so it didn't surprise me that he hoped for a quick solution, which is not how I typically work. But I had recently attended a workshop conducted by Cloe Madanes, a psychotherapist acclaimed for her innovative transformational strategies. I recalled one intervention that Madanes had described for a man whose problem was quite similar to Frank's. I had a strong intuition that this directive would be perfect.

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Frank had defined his problem as a fear of rejection. "The real problem," I told him, "is that you don't have enough experience with rejection." To solve his problem, Frank needed to accumulate rejections. His assignment, if he chose to accept it, was to rack up 75 rejections in one day.

He was to proceed as follows: The day before his seminar in Kansas City, he was to go to the Plaza, a major shopping mall and tourist magnet. Starting at Latte Land, a popular coffee shop with a relaxed, informal atmosphere, he was to approach several women (one at a time, of course), and say: Hi. My name is Frank. I hope you don't think I'm rude, but I'm wondering if you would like to have coffee with me.

After getting his feet wet, he was to walk down the street to Barnes & Noble and station himself at the foot of the store's escalator. As women came down the escalator, he was to repeat his lines: Hi. My name is Frank. I hope you don't think I'm rude, but I'm wondering if you would like to have coffee with me.

He was not to veer from this script. He was to keep an accurate record of his accumulated rejections and stop only when he reached 75. Obviously, I said, he should exercise good judgment and discretion so that he wouldn't be reported to the store management for harassment. He could move to the bottom of an escalator in a different store, if necessary. I asked him to call me after he returned to Tulsa to report the results.

Frank was intrigued by the idea that he needed to pile up rejections to make up for his lack of experience. The directive struck him as both daunting and absurd, but his motivation was sky-high. It probably helped a bit that Kansas City was no longer his hometown.

"I can do anything for one day," he said.

When Frank called me a few weeks after returning to Tulsa, he was full of good cheer. "I failed," he blithely told me.

At first, he had followed my instructions to the letter. At Latte Land he accumulated three rejections. Then a woman accepted his offer, which made Frank realize that stacking up 75 rejections might take longer than he had initially imagined. At Barnes & Noble, he collected five more rejections off the bat. Then, once again, he ran into the problem of several women saying "yes." Rising to the challenge, Frank became more strategic about scoping out women who would be highly likely to reject him-those wearing wedding rings or herding small cranky children, for example.

It wasn't long before Frank's motivation dropped sharply-"from a 10 to a 2," he admitted. As his will faltered and his irritation rose, he suddenly spotted a stunningly gorgeous woman stepping onto the escalator. She was a good six inches taller than Frank, ultra-fashionable, and, in Franks words, "ice cold in her demeanor." Here was the last woman in the world he would ever approach or be interested in-and he was quite certain that the feeling was mutual. "I didn't think I approach her," Frank said. "But I decided to give myself 15 bonus points if I did."

As she glided down the moving staircase toward him, Frank felt increasingly ridiculous. He recognized that even with the bonus points he was planning to grant himself, he would still need to collect more than 30 more rejections. The very thought made him tired. Then, a light bulb went off in his head. With a loud sigh of relief, he moved to a more secluded part of the store, took out his cell phone, and called Liz.

When he got her answering machine, he didn't miss a beat. "Hi, this is Frank from work," he said. "I hope you don't think I'm rude, but I'm wondering if we could have coffee together when I get back to Tulsa."

"It was so easy," Frank told me. "Calling Liz was a million times easier than asking that woman for coffee and completing the assignment. The only reason I was standing there to begin with, feeling like a total idiot, was to ask Liz out." Frank reported that he spent the rest of his afternoon sightseeing, shopping, and thoroughly enjoying himself. "But I'll never step into another Barnes & Noble for as long as I live," he vowed. (Chalk one up for the independent bookstores, I thought to myself.)

As for Liz? It turned out that she was already involved with someone and declined the coffee date. But several days later, Frank approached a woman he sometimes chatted with in his neighborhood-"a dog person like me"-and asked her out. She accepted, and they've been dating ever since.

"And you know what?" Frank told me with a laugh. "I did not say, ‘Hi. My name is Frank. I hope you don't think I'm rude, but I'm wondering if you would like to have coffee with me.'"

Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is best known for her work on marriage and family relationships and the psychology of women. Her book The Dance of Anger has recently been reissued.

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