How the Fear of Rejection Can Destroy Relationships

Image by Chirag Rathod

by Paul Garrigan

Hiding Mister Nice

A friend once told me I had this vibe about me that pushed other people away. I was hurt by this comment, and it bothered me for years afterwards. Why couldn’t other people just see I was a nice guy? Sure, I could be a bit arrogant, and I was cautious about those who felt like a threat to me (almost everyone), but surely those who knew me could see beyond that to the ‘real me’.

It seems so obvious now, but it took me a long time to understand that people judged me based on how I behaved rather than how I saw myself. If I acted cold and judgmental, it meant others would just assume that was who I was and they would probably not want to be around me too much. It was unreasonable to expect others to understand I was just protecting myself – it was unrealistic to just expect people to see beyond my defenses.

The Fear of Rejection

The feeling of rejection can be one of the most difficult things we have to deal with in life. The fear of it may be hardwired into our psyche over millennia because in the past rejection could easily mean death (e.g. it may have been almost impossible to survive if you were kicked out of your tribe).

One study at Columbia University used an MRI scan to see what changes occurred in the brain when people experienced rejection. The results showed the parts of the brain that lit up were the same as for physical pain. Rejection really does hurt us.

Handling Rejection Badly

The fear of rejection is likely within all of us and perhaps the main way we differ is how we handle it. Some of the strategies I used over the years included:

• Using alcohol to numb the pain of rejection
• Keeping people at a distance
• Never fully opening my heart to friends – always holding something back
• Arrogance
• Regularly changing social circles
• Reverse-snobbery (e.g. believing educated people had no common sense)
• Pre-emptive ending of relationships if I felt there was a risk of rejection
• Ignoring people if I suspected they might ‘look down’ on me
• Always ‘doing my own thing’ even when it meant being lonely
• Pretending I didn’t care what people thought even though I actually felt incredibly sensitive

These strategies may have seemed to work at the time, but it also meant damaging my relationships. It meant I didn’t develop long-lasting friendships, and I never felt fully comfortable around even those I considered friends. My reaction to the fear of rejection impoverished my life, and I could never find peace until I found better strategies for dealing with it.

How to Deal with the Pain of Rejection

The following two strategies allowed me to better deal with the fear of rejection

• Self-soothing the somatic feeling of rejection when it arises and not getting lost in the story of what has triggered it
• Realizing that it is far more important for me to like others than for them to like me

I will go into more detail about these strategies in the next post

Posted in Blog, compassion, meditation, metta, mindfulness.