Working as a communication skills trainer in Asia and Europe for the last 20 years, brought me into contact with many people who shared a common ‘worst fear’: public speaking. “Why public speaking?” I would enquire. The answer is always a fear of rejection. “Rejected for what?” I’d probe. The answers I’d hear were often a resounding fear of not being good enough, others’ judgement or for not delivering what the audience expects of them.
In my role as a coach and counsellor specialising in wellness and confidence, I hear people of all ages totally controlled by this fear of rejection. Be it from their partner, spouse, parents, children, friends or often boss and colleagues at work, there seems to be a common thread around this fear.
I myself lived half of my life totally in fear of being rejected by others. I was blind to the tragic fact that the more I was trying to avoid rejection, in all the forms it might have shown up for me, the more I was recreating it in my life. The cycle would repeat itself and worsen each time.
The most painful rejection I ever experienced was not too many years ago. It was a sudden rejection from my husband of 26 years. Since then, I have been more firm than ever before about wanting to understand what lies beneath this innate human fear of rejection and find some secret key to face it and possibly even resolve it.
To tell you the truth, I started investigating the roots and consequences of this fear of rejection when I’d first begun my journey of self-awareness and transformation from the inside out. I was eager to understand why the same fear had been relentlessly chasing me (or often two steps ahead of me) since I was a child.
Social, familial, professional rejection is something many are unknowingly committed to avoiding. It’s a survival mechanism that thousands of years ago meant we wouldn’t be the ones left behind, and it perseveres in us today. Few things feel as painful as being rejected and just to add fuel to the fire, we’re genetically pre-disposed to avoid rejection where possible. Yes, it’s a fact. Rejection hurts. Humans are also designed to avoid pain at all costs.
So one can only imagine the kinds of powers at play within us when we are faced with rejection and pain. The survival mode kicks in and our subconscious does whatever is in its power to escape the possibility of pain and rejection at all costs. The most effective way to avoid pain? Remove all possible risk from your environment… i.e. do not speak in public.
Studies have found that social rejection and its consequent feelings can actually light up the part of our brain that is associated with physical pain. It is proven (Science Magazine, researches from Purdue University & University of California, 2003) that being turned down by someone or socially shunned, activates the same region in our brains -the dorsal anterior cingulate and the anterior insula- that are associated with experiencing physical pain.
But pain is not the only negative consequence of rejection; it can also lead us to feel more insecure in ourselves, our decisions and our willingness to be explicitly authentic to ourselves. Rejection, especially when experienced repetitively over time, can lead to aggression – we become angry at ourselves and others.
For example, it can become tempting to avoid a spouse who rejected us. Perhaps because it’s making us feel so insecure that we run away, or we act out in vindictive aggression. We can start to let our reaction to pain influence our decisions such as avoiding searching for jobs because we’ve been burned by a bad interview. Often even if we do jump back and choose not to let the rejection affect us, our attitude can be slightly jaded or disheartened. Somewhere deep inside us we have a new voice constantly reminding us of the possibility that the rejection could happen again.’
We are constantly being told that confidence is the key. We’re bombarded with messages on instagram and wellness blogs about how confidence is the tool for handling rejection and our fear of it.
So everyone is looking to build confidence in whatever way they can. It must be easy to just become confident, that’s the way it seems after all. But we often overlook the reality that developing confidence is not like taking a pill, it is not a quick fix by any means.
Confidence finds its roots in self-esteem (see more in past blog) and that’s where we need to begin our search in order to understand our major fear of rejection.
image by Elijah Hiett
Let’s start with one important step…
It all starts from within. I know it’s intimidating and daunting to experience stillness but in exploring the silence within whilst simply being instead of looking for an answer, you’ll find the answer usually finds its way to you. Everything that happens in our lives is an opportunity to explore and learn something deeper about ourselves.
Many look for the root of their rejection from the outside. They are afraid of their audience, their mother, their father, a friend, spouse, child, boss or colleague and sometimes someone they haven’t even met before. But are we really looking at the right direction?
No, because it all starts from within. We have been conditioned from birth to look outside of ourselves for the cause of our fears. As children, our parents and teachers and mentors became the sources for our wellbeing or lack thereof. Often, we’d learn from their example that to find the key of our feelings of rejection and avoid it at all costs, we need to look outside of ourselves to the people that are rejecting or could reject us.
We point the finger outwards because we’ve learned to do so through our conditioning. As I say in my book, Stella’s Mum Gets Her Groove Back: as children we do not have a choice, we are all victims. However, as we grow and mature into adults, do we want to continue to be victims and point the blame outwards? Do we want to blame our fears of rejection on others? It’s certainly much easier. It allows us to avoid the scariest thing of all, to turn the finger towards us. By avoiding, we remain irresponsible. We remain in an adolescent state and get in the way of our maturing.
For me, living fully means living life from a space of authentic love and responsibility for oneself. Becoming responsible means stopping the ‘blame game’ and turning the focus of our attention to the inside. That’s where we can find the true answer to becoming confident and finally healing our fear of rejection.
We’ve discovered all the land on the planet. Expeditions as we knew them are no longer a part of human existence, there are no new territories to explore. The 21st century explorer though, has expanses to find within himself. The new expeditions happen within.
When I stop looking and blaming my external experiences as the sources of my fear of rejection, is when things really start shifting.
For example, we could start asking ourselves, What is behind my fear of being rejected?
Find a moment to sit in silence, stillness and simplicity within yourself and ask this question. Do not judge or control, but allow the stillness to take over and surrender. The answer may find its way to you.
You might find that the root fear is a fear of being judged. Judged as not ‘good enough’, not ‘pretty enough’, not young, kind, funny, clever, rich, strong enough. Knowing what the root of your fear will be the first step to healing and overcoming your fear.
If you have a coach or a counsellor, you can carefully unpack and look deeper to find even more. The roots can vary from each person. In my own fear and those of my clients’, I’ve come across the fear of not deserving better, not feeling worthy or feelings of inadequacy.
All of these ‘roots’ seem to suggest that judgement is the real issue behind our fear of rejection. We are straight to assume and expect external judgement. Our deepest fear of rejection is rooted, in its varying forms, as our primal fear of being judged.
So where does this discovery lead us? What are we truly afraid of if we are afraid of being judged? Why can we not for the life of ourselves overcome this fear of rejection? Because deep down, if we are judged or rejected for who we truly are, then where else is there to go?
The key here is to understand that we are afraid for being seen for who we have been conditioned to believe we are: unworthy, undeserving, sinners, inadequate, to blame. The consequence of this is a continuous, self-sabotaging cycle of guilt and shame. Therefore, more fear of rejection, more hurt, more pain, more loss of trust for others and the world. We believe that sooner or later, others will see us for who we are and reject us, hurt us. So the solution comes back to escape. Full fledge flight mode. Avoid at all costs. And once again, overlook the real solution within ourselves and our self-esteem. We stay blind to the fact that with no self-esteem we cannot develop the authentic self-confidence we keep being told to connect with. And then the cycle continues.
The real issue, as we’ve seen, does not come at us from the outside. Yes we are afraid of others’ judgement, others’ rejection, but they are not the issues that drive our toxic guilt and shame cycles. The fuel comes from the inside.
We cannot see or feel how we keep recreating the loop ourselves. We grow up and add evermore layers of toxic shame and guilt so that the truth becomes even harder to find amongst the debris.
It is what is imprinted in our conscious and often subconscious mind that makes us so fearful of rejection. As we continue to judge ourselves, we continue to reject ourselves and project this judgement and rejection outwards, assuming that others will do the same.
We need to start our recovery process from the inside in order to finally live a life of authentic love and responsibility, that is to say a life of trust, coherence, patience, emotional balance, self-awareness, positive attitude and courage. Or in short, a life of true confidence.
It all starts from our lack of self-esteem. With the help of someone who can offer objective, outside support and guidance, such as a coach or counsellor, we can dig deep and work with our issue at the source.
Everyone has their own journey and their own steps to overcoming their fears. I can only humbly share and suggest the choice I took in working with my own fear and self-esteem. Listening to others is important and I found having an objective guide was a necessary part in my personal journey. Nevertheless, as I mention in my second book which will soon be published, in this world where everyone believes they know better, it’s always most fruitful to let go of the outside and look inwards. Our true self, whom you can visit in a space of stillness, silence and curiosity, has the wisdom to guide us to what is the right next step for us.
In saying that, I can offer some advice from what I have learnt over my own personal journey and as a coach/counsellor guiding others on theirs. Here are some prompts that might connect with you.
If I am afraid of or suffer rejection, I may lack confidence.
If I lack confidence, I lack self-esteem.
If I lack self-esteem, I can choose to remain in denial and not take action, at risk of matters continuing or getting worse.
Toxic guilt and shame may well take over and continue to guide and rule my life, choices, actions and inactions.
Toxic guilt and shame are the opposite of courage and will lead to further self-judgement and self-sabotage. They are not the emotions that a confident person chooses to give power to.
The first step is to recognise what is going on within you and how its impacting your life and your self. Letting go of denial by assuming accountability and responsibility (see past blog) can help greatly with this step. When in doubt, look within.
When I become aware that I am not confident / am suffering from a fear of judgement and rejection, what is the next step?
To surrender and embrace all that is. When we resist what is a fact or a reality, we give in to a further layer of toxic guilt and shame. We remain stuck in the same space, whilst augmenting the guilt and shame. As we grow up, through adulthood and middle age without confronting this cycle, we end up believing we are confident and happy people when inside we’re struggling with self-loath, not self-love. And we continue to escape and avoid rejection from others because we have yet to overcome our own self-rejection. By avoiding, we recreate.
Build awareness by finding the means that works for you. Conscious self-study is helpful when what you learn through books and talks is practiced. Become aware of the inner workings of yourself and work with a coach or counsellor to help you through this step if you feel intuitively it’s how you will work best.
Once we’ve recognised and become accountable and aware of our own self-judgement and rejection, then true responsibility becomes the next step.
Many people choose to remain stuck in the awareness step but this is often more risky that not starting this work at all. Awareness can bring toxic guilt and shame to the surface and end up giving us more fuel to self-loath and drive to run away. With no further action and responsibility take, awareness remains a void in which to judge and criticise ourselves even more. What we have gained becomes something without roots that will soon disappear from our consciousness if not practiced and worked through daily. We start from zero.
This is why many people who ‘work on themselves’ can keep living with not much change at all.
Recognition, awareness and responsibility. When these three inner choices are clearly made and acted upon, they will move us forward. They will catalyse transformative action such as:
All that you put into this will contribute in building your self-esteem step by step and therefore the authentic confidence necessary to face the world and overcome your fears of rejection and judgement once and for all.
Remember, it’s a journey not a quick fix!
header image by Nathan McBride