2 Ways to Beat Your Fear of Rejection, Backed by Research

10 minute read
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

We all deal with fear of rejection. Jia Jiang did too. But he overcame it… thanks to a box of donuts.

He explains how this happened in his wonderful book, Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible Through 100 Days of Rejection.

His dream was to be an entrepreneur — and that means a lot of rejection. So how could he beat the fear?

By turning it into a game. For 100 days he made ridiculous requests of strangers, expecting to get rejected.

And get rejected he did. A lot. But he also got a number of unexpected “yes” responses as well:

  • Knocking on a stranger’s door, ball in hand, he asked “Can I play soccer in your backyard?” The response? “Come on in.”
  • He asked a policeman if he could drive his car. The answer? “Do it.”
  • And when he asked workers at Krispy Kreme if they’d make him donuts shaped like the Olympic Rings, they did. For free.
  • Here’s his TEDx talk.

    Pretty cool story, huh? I know; you’re not going to run around looking for rejection.

    But by studying Jia’s experiment and the science behind rejection, what can we learn to help us overcome our fears, cope with the inevitable “NO” responses and get what we want in life?

    A lot, actually. Let’s get to it.

    (Please don’t stop reading now. I’ll feel rejected.)


    Yes, Rejection Is *Very* Powerful

    So let’s say you tried to join the KKK. But they rejected you. Who cares, right? They’re a group of ignorant racists.

    Actually, the research says you might still feel bad:

    …ostracism by despised outgroup members was no less aversive than ostracism by rival outgroup or ingroup members.

    Crazy, huh? Rejection is so powerful it temporarily makes you stupid:

    Rejection can dramatically reduce a person’s IQ and their ability to reason analytically, while increasing their aggression, according to new research. “These are very big effects – the biggest I’ve got in 25 years of research,” says Baumeister. “This tells us a lot about human nature. People really seem designed to get along with others, and when you’re excluded, this has significant effects.”

    How can rejection be so powerful that you feel it even when you’re rejected by a group you don’t even like?

    Studies show your brain doesn’t distinguish between physical pain and emotional pain. To your mind, heartache and a heart attack aren’t all that different:

    In a new study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers have found that the same brain networks that are activated when you’re burned by hot coffee also light up when you think about a lover who has spurned you. In other words, the brain doesn’t appear to firmly distinguish between physical pain and intense emotional pain.

    In fact, taking Tylenol can ease social pain just like it does physical pain. To your brain, they’re the same.

    There’s a lot you can do to make people like you more. But you can never fully escape rejection. And the more you try to hide from it, the more you shrink your world, and the less chance you have of achieving your dreams.

    (To learn how to get people to like you, click here.)

    So how should you approach situations where you might be rejected? What will make you more likely to succeed and less likely to feel that terrible pain?

    Jia was on to something. And the answer is more fun than you think.


    Make It A Game

    Most of the platitudes people tell you about dealing with rejection aren’t helpful:

    “Ignore it. Why do you care what they think, anyway?”

    But feeling rejected is so emotional and fundamental, it’s very hard to dismiss it rationally.

    Or they tell you to “face your fears.” Research shows that works. But, hey, that’s scary.

    So what can you do? What Jia did. He made it a game.

    Reframing things playfully with humor is no small thing. It kills stress.

    Via Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool:

    In tense moments, explains the clinical psychologist Rod Martin… joking actually reformats your perception of a stressor. “Humor is about playing with ideas and concepts,” said Martin, who teaches at the University of Western Ontario. “So whenever we see something as funny; we’re looking at it from a different perspective. When people are trapped in a stressful situation and feeling overwhelmed, they’re stuck in one way of thinking: This is terrible. I’ve got to get out of here. But if you can take a humorous perspective, then by definition you’re looking at it differently — you’re breaking out of that rigid mind-set.”

    When I spoke to a Navy SEAL, an Army Ranger and a Special Forces instructor, they all said that seeing things as a game was key to getting through their arduous training.

    Joe Simpson shattered his leg while descending a mountain. He should have been a dead man. How did he keep going when anyone in their right mind would have just given up and died? He made it a game.

    Via Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why:

    Simpson was learning what it means to be playful in such circumstances: “A pattern of movements developed after my initial wobbly hops and I meticulously repeated the pattern. Each pattern made up one step across the slope and I began to feel detached from everything around me. I thought of nothing but the patterns.” His struggle had become a dance, and the dance freed him from the terror of what he had to do.

    Reframing stress as a challenge is one of the things Harvard researcher Shawn Achor said leads to success.

    And instead of seeing rejection as a form of social death, Jia saw it as a game he was playing. And it became fun.

    When he heard “no”, he didn’t feel like a loser. Eventually, he felt the way you might after losing at a video game: shrug and try again.

    But what was so inspiring were the times when people joined his game. The workers at Krispy Kreme had fun playing, too.

    (For more tips from a Navy SEAL on how to deal with the toughest challenges, click here.)

    Okay, so you know how to look at situations where rejection is a possibility. But how do you cope with rejection when it happens? It starts with TV and teddy bears…

    5 Horrible Habits You Need to Stop Right Now

    Do Not Email First Thing in the Morning or Last Thing at Night “The former scrambles your priorities and all your plans for the day and the latter just gives you insomnia,” says Ferriss, who insists “email can wait until 10am” or after you check off at least one substantive to-do list item.Chris Pecoraro—Getty Images
    Do Not Agree to Meetings or Calls With No Clear Agenda or End Time “If the desired outcome is defined clearly… and there’s an agenda listing topics–questions to cover–no meeting or call should last more than 30 minutes,” claims Ferriss, so “request them in advance so you can ‘best prepare and make good use of our time together.'”Sam Edwards—Getty Images/Caiaimage
    Do Not Check Email Constantly Batch it and check it only periodically at set times (Ferriss goes for twice a day). Your inbox is analogous to a cocaine pellet dispenser, says Ferriss. Don’t be an addict. Tools like strategic use of the auto responder and Boomerang can help.Jetta Productions—Getty Images
    Do Not Carry a Digital Leash 24/7 At least one day a week leave you smartphone somewhere where you can’t get easy access to it. If you’re gasping, you’re probably the type of person that most needs to do kick this particular habit.by nacoki ( MEDIA ARC )—Getty Images/Flickr RF
    Do Not Let People Ramble Sounds harsh, but it’s necessary, Ferriss believes. “Small talk takes up big time,” he says, so when people start to tell you about their weekends, cut them off politely with something like “I’m in the middle of something, but what’s up?” But be aware, not everyone agrees with this one (and certainly not in every situation), and you may want to pay particularly close attention to norms around chit chat when traveling internationally.Reza Estakhrian—Getty Images


    Take Comfort In Friends

    When you look at lots of scientific research, you find some crazy stuff. And exploring rejection, well, that’s what happened to me.

    What helps you deal with rejection? Um… thinking about your favorite TV shows:

    Study 3 demonstrated that thinking about favored (but not non-favored) television programs buffers against drops in self-esteem and mood and against increases in feelings of rejection commonly elicited by threats to close relationships.

    What else? Hugging a teddy bear:

    Overall, the findings suggest that touching a teddy bear mitigates the negative effects of social exclusion to increase prosocial behavior.

    Crazy, right? But before you lose your faith in science, let’s look at the broader pattern and see where it points…

  • Being in a happy marriage reduces the pain of chronic illness.
  • In fact, mere photos of loved ones actually reduce pain.
  • The answer seems to be relationships. Family, friends — even teddy bears — relieve pain. And as we saw, the brain doesn’t distinguish between the physical and emotional types. So rejection fits in here, too.

    I know what you’re thinking: what does my favorite TV show have to do with relationships?

    TV is a “social surrogate” — your favorite TV shows give you the same feeling of belonging that relationships do:

    These results yield provocative preliminary evidence for the Social Surrogacy Hypothesis. Thinking about valued television programs appears to yield the experience of belongingness.

    It’s hard to underestimate the importance of relationships. When you look at the research, what yes/no question can likely predict whether you will be alive and happy at age 80?

    “Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to?”

    University of Pennsylvania happiness expert Martin Seligman explains:

    Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to? If your answer is yes, you will likely live longer than someone whose answer is no. For George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who discovered this fact, the master strength is the capacity to be loved. Conversely, as the social neuroscientist John Cacioppo has argued, loneliness is such a disabling condition that it compels the belief that the pursuit of relationships is a rock-bottom fundamental to human well-being.

    And Jia had that too. He didn’t start his rejection-conquering journey on his own. His incredibly supportive wife told him to quit his job and pursue his passion. (And she was pregnant with their first child when she suggested it.)

    When you face rejection — or any pain for that matter — the answer is to turn to those who do accept you and love you. They are the closest thing to a cure.

    (For more on the science of how to make great friendships, click here.)

    So we know how to approach possible rejection and how to deal with it when it happens. Let’s round this up and learn what steps to take next.


    Sum Up

    Jia and the research have two big insights:

  • Treat situations where we might be rejected as a game. It’s not life-or-death. Reframe stress as a challenge.
  • The cure for rejection is those who love us. You need acceptance. When you don’t get it, it hurts. So turn to where you know you will find it: the people who already love you.
  • By making rejection a game, you can try new things without fear. You can strive without worry.

    And what you’ll find is what Jia found: people are often more receptive than you think. Research shows we underestimate how much others are willing to help us.

    Studies demonstrate that the old saying is accurate: you regret most the things you did not do.

    With loved ones around us, rejection doesn’t hurt for very long. Regret, on the other hand, can last a lifetime.

    So make it a game. How else can you end up a winner?

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    This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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