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The So-Called Fear of Rejection

It has to do with something else.

“Why don’t you go for it?”

“Because I’m scared of rejection.”

We’ve probably all heard or said this phrase countless times. However, despite the “fear of rejection” appearing so frequently, this phrase rarely seems questioned. One reason is that it’s a truism. Who can argue that humans suffer emotionally when being rejected or excluded? But is it only the fear of rejection impacting our decisions? Could there be other, deeper reasons for avoiding chances and opportunities? Many of us are risk-averse or set low levels of aspiration to try and keep things safe and predictable, we avoid possibility and sticking out. In taking a risk, whether it be applying to school, asking a person for a date, going for the promotion, speaking up to assert oneself, or even learning something new; all of these behaviors can lead to feelings of exposure and vulnerability and hence may be avoided.

Looked at from this lens, fears of success may be a more powerful motivator than fears of rejection. You might feel incredulous at this last line; that what people really fear isn’t rejection, but success. How can that be?

While there’s certainly truth in the notion that all of us fear rejection to some degree, many people mislead themselves on the other potential reasons for forgoing possibility. The opposite of rejection is acceptance of course, but specifically acceptance and approval. Why would someone be afraid of acceptance and approval? Isn’t that what all of us strongly desire? Why would we turn away from the very thing that we say we desire? These are powerful questions. Here are some composite examples from my clinical practice:

Example 1

John, age 25, has dreamed of living on the West Coast, but because of his parents' unease about him being so far away, he ended up staying local for college. He often wonders if his life would look much different if he listened to his gut and gone to California for college. Recently, he learned that a well-respected company in California is advertising for a position that he thinks he’d be perfect for. Should he apply? If he applies and is accepted, it means potentially disappointing his parents by moving far away. Can he tolerate the guilt they might throw at him? And what about moving to a new place where he isn’t established? It’s going to mean leaving his comfort zone, attempting to establish new friends and a new routine, and likely tolerating anxiety and loneliness until he does. Maybe staying home is preferred, after all, it’s safer and less disruptive for him and the people around him.

Example 2

Chris has had a crush on Fran for a couple of years and recently learned through a mutual friend, that Fran would be open to a romantic overture from Chris. Now Chris is anxious. What if Fran shoots him down? He’s heard she’d even be willing. What is he worried about? Actually, Fran saying “yes” to him would increase his anxiety even more. Again rejection might not be the problem. If she says ‘yes,’ then Chris will have to navigate conversations and reveal himself emotionally—which means the potential for exposure, embarrassment, and shame. If that goes well, then he’ll have to navigate the sexual arena, which opens him up to even more vulnerabilities. If all that goes well, maybe he’ll have to navigate introducing her to his parents, and his friends, and what about her parents and her friends? Seeking new directions of growth can open us to new vulnerabilities, new responsibilities, and contingencies.

The philosopher Kierkegaard is quoted: “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” I think this is what he was driving at.

I like the way psychologist Abraham Maslow put it: “We fear our highest possibility (as well as our lowest ones). We enjoy and even thrill by the godlike possibilities we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe, and fear before these very same possibilities.” He called this tendency toward evasion of one’s freedom the “Jonah Syndrome,” and described it this way: “For some people, this evasion of one’s own growth, setting low levels of aspiration, the fear of doing what one is capable of doing, voluntary self-crippling, pseudo-stupidity, mock-humility are in fact defenses against grandiosity.”

Playing it safe in the world by avoiding risk and possibility, protects one against an accusation of arrogance or pomposity, as well as defending against exposure, more responsibility, and contingency. It’s one thing to apply for the promotion, for example. It’s another thing to perform in that new role with higher responsibilities and expectations. Maslow goes on to explain that this kind of abdication of our highest potential serves as a protection for our self-esteem; we don’t feel exposed, vulnerable, and isolated.

I hope I’ve made a convincing case then that the so-called fear of rejection is more likely a fear of success; as success opens us up to even more vulnerability, responsibility, and exposure than maintaining the status quo. Avoiding possibility because of a professed ‘fear of rejection’ then, is more than likely a defensive rationalization in the service of the status quo. Understanding our fear of success more clearly may allow us to do something about it. The more we know about our fears and anxieties the more success we might have in finding creative solutions for these conflicts. However, if we are in denial of our true motives and fears, we are much less likely to overcome them.

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