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FEAR OF REJECTION:
A ONE-DAY CURE
By Harriet Lerner
Cured in a day? 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. I hadn’t seen Frank since he and his wife, Ann, terminated marital therapy with me many years earlier. They appeared to be doing well, but Frank told me that shortly after they moved to Tulsa, Ann ended their marriage. Frank was devastated at the time, but he reported that he was now doing fine—“except for one thing.”
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“Maybe I was traumatized by the divorce,” Frank replied, “but ever since Ann left me, I’ve been terrified of rejection.” He went on to explain 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. Now Frank wanted to pick my brain for one session about how he might solve this specific problem.
I knew that 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. Since I more typically work with people slowly and over time, I was uncertain how much help I could provide in a single session. But I had recently attended a workshop conducted by Cloe Madanes, a therapist acclaimed for her innovative strategies. I recalled one particular 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. At worst, it would do no harm.
Change: How Badly Do You Want It?
I was about to give Frank an extremely challenging assignment, so I wanted to know if his motor was running for change.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, how motivated are you to solve your problem?” I asked him. I explained that “1” meant that he’d like to ask Liz out, but, in truth, he didn’t have much energy to work on the problem. A “10” meant that he would do anything—dangle from the Golden Gate Bridge—if he knew it would accomplish his goal.
“I’m a 10,” Frank replied without hesitation.
“Good,” I responded, “because what I’m about to suggest won’t be easy. On the plus side, it requires only one day of work. If you carry out this assignment to the letter, it will cure your problem.”
“Shoot,” Frank said.
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. He was to station himself at the foot of a department store’s escalator. As women came down the escalator, he was to approach one and say these exact 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 rotate escalators, and 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. He also was spurred on by his confidence in me, and by my assurance that if he completed the assignment, he would be able to ask Liz for a date. It probably helped a bit that Kansas City was no longer his hometown.
“I can do anything for one day,” he said.
Rejection Boot Camp
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. He quickly accumulated three rejections which gave him a sense of optimism about completing the task. Then a woman accepted his offer for coffee, which took up thirty minutes of his time and made Frank realize that stacking up 75 rejections might take longer than he had initially imagined. He then collected five more rejections off the bat, but, 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. A good six inches taller than Frank, the woman wore an ultra-fashionable, silver minidress and was, Frank said, “steely looking and 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 could get up the nerve to 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, wonder edging his voice. “Calling Liz was a million times easier than asking that ice queen 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.
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.’”
By following my directive, Frank plunged into the very center of his fear. I didn’t advise him to slowly desensitize himself by moving toward the dreaded situation in carefully measured increments. Nor did I encourage him to undergo another round of therapy to explore the psychological underpinnings of his fear, such as low self-regard or unacknowledged rage at his ex-wife. Instead, 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.”
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.
Should You Stand at the Bottom of the Escalator?
While I’m not necessarily suggesting 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.
Would I give the “escalator assignment” to anybody who wanted to get past their fear of rejection?” Of course not. Frank specifically requested “a solution,” in contrast to most people I work with who also seek conversation and understanding. 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.
It also mattered that Frank is a sweet-looking, small-framed white guy. I would not have given the same assignment to an African American or Middle Eastern man, because it would set him up for a racist response in the predominantly white Kansas City Country Club Plaza. Also, Frank was a sensitive guy and I was confident that he would follow the directive in a way that would not offend the women he approached.
I relied on my clinical judgment and my intuition in trying out what was, for me, an unorthodox treatment approach. In other situations where we are afraid to act on our own behalf, our efforts to change have the best chance of succeeding if we proceed slowly and cautiously, with respect for how much anxiety we—or the other party—can manage.
But hey, a cure in a day? Some of us will take it.
When we take rejection as proof of our inadequacies it’s hard to allow ourselves to risk being truly seen again. How can we open ourselves to another person if we fear that he or she will discover what we’re trying desperately to hide—that we are stupid, boring, incompetent, needy, or in some way deeply inadequate? Obviously we won’t meet many people’s standards or win their affection, respect or approval. So what? The problem arises when shame kicks in and we aren’t able to view our flaws, limitations and vulnerabilities in a patient, self-loving way. The fear of rejection becomes understandably intense when it taps into our own belief that we are lesser than others—or lesser than the image we feel compelled to project.
Rejection is a fast route back to childhood shame. It’s not just that you went to a party and no one made an effort to talk to you. It’s that you’re essentially boring and undesirable and so it is and so it will always be. If you engage in this sort of global thinking you may avoid intimacy entirely by never truly allowing yourself to be seen, or known. Or you may defensively reject people or situations because you fear that once you’re seen for who you really are, you will be deemed unworthy and unlovable.
You may even believe that the person who does the rejecting is automatically superior to the person who is rejected. Relationships are not some sort of bizarre competition in which the person who gets out first, refuses to attach, or suffers less is proclaimed the winner. Rejection can reveal just as much and often more, about the insecurities and fears of the person doing the rejecting.
We might all wish to don armor (or at least a wet suit) to protect us from the feelings of shame, self-loathing, depression, anxiety, and rage that rejection can evoke. None of us is immune to the pain of rejection, but the more we grow in maturity and self-worth, the less likely we are to take it quite as personally. When we acknowledge that rejection is not an indictment of our being, but an experience we must all face again and again if we put ourselves out there, rejection becomes easier to bear The only sure way to avoid rejection is to sit mute in a corner and take no risks. If we choose to live courageously, we will experience rejection—and survive to show up for more.
© Harriet Lerner from The Dance of Fear. Excerpt with permission. All rights reserved.
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