When Frank reported his crippling fear of rejection, I sent him off to accumulate rejections at record-breaking speed. Why was this assignment successful?
When Frank's problem was reframed as "a lack of experience with rejection," failure became impossible. Every rejection constituted a resounding success, while each acceptance ("Sure, I'd love to have coffee with you") obstructed progress.
Moreover, merely starting the assignment required Frank to ask a woman on a date, which he initially claimed he could not do. Also, his assigned task was so thoroughly staged-he had to stand in a certain place and repeat certain lines-that he had no room to become anxious about his approach or berate himself for saying something "uncool."
Most importantly, the assignment put Frank squarely in charge of his own symptom. Rather than being a passive victim of his greatest fear-rejection--he became actively engaged in making rejection happen. And Frank took the directive seriously because he respected and trusted my judgment. Though he stood alone at the bottom of the escalator, he knew I was in his corner.
Would I give the same directive to anybody who wanted to get past their fear of rejection?"
Obviously not. But I know Frank well from my previous work with him in marital therapy. I firmly believed that Frank did, indeed, need more experience with rejection, and that attempting to carry out the assignment would, at the very least, provide us both with useful information. I was also confident that he would follow the directive in a way that would not offend the women he approached or get himself arrested for harrassment. I relied on my clinical judgment and my intuition in suggesting what was, for me, an unorthodox treatment approach.
While I'm not recommending that you plant yourself at the bottom of the nearest escalator to conquer your own anxieties, Frank's story holds some important lessons:
• Action is powerful. Sometimes you can move past a fear quickly, if you are willing to act. When you avoid what you fear, your anxieties are apt to worsen over time.
• Succeed by failing. If you fear rejection you may, indeed, need to accumulate more experience getting snubbed. This applies not just to asking someone for a date, but also making sales calls, trying to get an article published, or approaching new people at a party.
• Risk feeling ridiculous. Most people feel deeply ashamed at the very idea of appearing foolish, and shy away from taking healthy risks in order to avoid that possibility. Frank learned that feeling ridiculous-over and over-was tedious and uncomfortable, but not the primal threat to his dignity that he had imagined.
• Invite fear in. When you anticipate a guest coming to visit, you are more prepared for whatever happens. Almost all treatments and strategies that help people with fear, involve inviting fear in.
• Motivation matters. If you're not at least a 6 or 7 on that 1-to-10 motivation scale, you may need to be in more pain about the status quo before you are willing to act. At the very least, you need to deeply feel the negative consequences of not acting.
For most things, significant change occurs slowly, often at glacial speed. It's the direction of change and not the speed that matters. But hey, a cure in a day? Some of us will take it.