How do you get past the fear of rejection?

relationships-logoRELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#8 in a series)
To access previous posts in the series, use the “Relationship Questions” link under “Categories” and the “Older Posts” button.

How do you get past the fear of being rejected? How do you get close to someone when you’ve been hurt and don’t want to go through that again?

In 1911, a Swiss psychiatrist tried a little experiment with a patient who was suffering from a memory disorder. He shook her hand every morning when he greeted her, and every morning, she promptly forgot the experience. One time, he decided to hide a pin between his fingers. When they shook hands, she got a painful jab and quickly withdrew. The following morning, when he extended his hand to her, she was reluctant. Even thought she could not consciously remember their meeting the day before, she had an unconscious memory of the pain and responded in a self-protective way.

And by the way, that little experiment wouldn’t make it past the research ethics review boards today.

But I tell the story to make a point: the memory of pain can serve a positive purpose. If we’ve been hurt and rejected in the past, our emotional memory becomes sensitized to anything that reminds us of the injury and sets off a warning alarm. Most of the time, the alarm isn’t necessary, and we may curse the way it interferes with our relationships. But sometimes, the alarm is justified — and then we’re glad to have such a security system in place.

There is no simple “getting past” the fear of rejection once we’ve experienced enough of it. What it will take, in the long run, is being in a reliable relationship with an understanding and trustworthy person. That doesn’t mean that we need to find someone who will never set off the alarm. What it does mean, however, is that when our alarms go off, the other person can respond soothingly with compassion and patience, helping us know that the alarm isn’t necessary. Over time, the memories become less sensitive, until our confidence in today’s relationship becomes stronger than our fearful remembrance of yesterday’s.

So let me reframe the question: how do you keep your fear of rejection from sabotaging the relationship you have now, so you have a shot at discovering one that is trustworthy? The answer isn’t easy. But the key is in knowing how your alarm system is wired, so you can distinguish better between what’s coming from you, and what’s coming from the other person.

When we feel hurt, our typical tendency will be to lay all the blame on the other person. But that may not be fair, and people don’t respond well to being unfairly blamed. The health of the relationship will depend on both parties being able to accept responsibility for the part of the problem that actually belongs to them, and for that to happen, some self-awareness is needed.

Self-awareness also makes mutual awareness possible. We can’t have compassion for each other’s vulnerabilities until we know what they are. Little by little, we take the risk of letting the other know what makes us tick, and we see how they respond. If they consistently (though not perfectly) respond with acceptance, we’ll be better able to forgive the inevitable moments of non-acceptance, and to develop trust.

If you have suffered traumatic levels of abuse and rejection, I strongly recommend finding a therapist who can help you negotiate the minefield of how this affects your current relationships. People who haven’t been traumatized find it hard to imagine the hair-trigger emotional sensitivity and irrational behavior that may result. You need the support of someone who understands the intensity of the difficulties without being scared off by them, as some of your well-meaning friends might.

The fear of rejection is a survival mechanism that is meant to serve us well. Depending on how badly we’ve been hurt, it may not be possible to get past it all. But we can learn, a little at a time, to keep it from ruining the relationships that we need to have in order to regain a sense of trust.

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