I work primarily with female professionals who want to make changes in their careers and I see the fear of rejection holding them back in primarily two different ways.
First, they are afraid of being rejected by some external gatekeeper, such as if they apply for a new job, submit a manuscript for publication, solicit business from potential clients, or put themselves out there in the world in some new way.
Second, they are often afraid that if they make a big change in their careers, they will be rejected by people currently in their lives. They are afraid of being judged or criticized for wanting something different than they currently have and they are afraid that if they fail in some way, they imagine that all of those people will criticize them or reject them.
Because they are human, their brains are really great at catastrophizing, so this fear can be hugely blown out of proportion and they start to believe that “everyone” in their lives will reject them, which feels like death to the primitive brain.
The Root Cause
What’s really going on in our minds when we’re feeling afraid of rejection?
We know that fear of rejection, like any fear, is an emotion, and that all emotions are caused by our thoughts. The fear of rejection is always caused by a negative thought that you already have about yourself. And you might have been thinking that thought, and others like it, so consistently that those thoughts have turned into a belief that you have about yourself, because a belief is just a thought that you keep on thinking. (Often our beliefs are buried deep in our subconscious, so you might not even be aware that this is going on.)
So, when you consider the prospect of putting yourself out there into the world but you keep thinking this negative thought about yourself, it creates the emotion that we call “fear of rejection,” and it almost always leads to hiding or inaction. The fear acts like a protective mechanism, so that you don’t have to actually be rejected. You end up rejecting yourself ahead of time because you’re afraid that someone’s else rejection of you will provide evidence to confirm that negative thought or belief that you already have about yourself.
Case In Point
For example, a client that I’ll call Sarah is a high-achieving executive and she has 25 years of experience in her field. Sarah wanted to branch out and work in a different field, but she wasn’t taking any action. She felt completely stuck. When Sarah came to me for coaching, it became clear that she was afraid of being rejected and the root cause of that fear was her underlying belief that she was simply not capable of working in the new field, despite the fact that her skill set would have easily transferred to that field.
If she were to search for a position in the new field and get rejected, she would see that as “proof” that she didn’t have what it takes. It makes total sense that if you think that getting rejected means that you’re not capable of doing what you want to do, then of course you’re not going to want to go out and be rejected.
Ironically, by thinking that she was not capable, and feeling afraid of rejection, and not taking action toward her goals, and she was actually creating more evidence to support the belief that she didn’t have what it takes to accomplish her goal, making it harder to start taking action.
Once we identified the thought that was holding Sarah back and she became conscious of it, we could work with it.
Who Would You Be Without That Thought?
This question comes from The Work of Bryon Katie and is an excellent tool to imagine the possibility of existing without the thought that is creating so much pain. When I asked Sarah to imagine who she would be without that thought, she said she would be more creative about looking for opportunities and braver about pursuing those opportunities, with a willingness to ask more questions and explore.
Find Evidence To Support The Opposite Thought
Then I asked her to come up with evidence to support the opposite thought, that she was actually capable of taking on an executive position in the new field. She immediately came up with a list of all the skills and qualifications that she already had that would make her capable of doing the job she wanted to do.
How To Think About “Rejection”
We also talked about other ways that she could think about the possibility of applying for a job and not getting it.
- She could realize that the “rejection” gives us more information about the person or company doing the rejecting than it does about the person being rejected.
- She could choose to think that going out and applying for jobs and interviewing and getting rejected by some companies could be a tremendous learning opportunity, so that she could find out more about what companies are looking for and how to better market her skills.
- She could also choose to think about getting rejected as being a good thing because it would mean that she is putting herself out there and taking action.
How Committed Are You?
I asked her what she was willing to do to find her ideal job. We agreed that if she went on 50 job interviews in the new field, she would likely find a job. Would she be willing to do that, if that’s what it took to find the job? She decided that she was willing to do that. And if she got rejected along the way, she would not make those rejections mean that she’s not capable – instead she would only make it mean that she hadn’t found the right job yet.
How Do You Want To Feel?
Finally, I asked her how she wanted to feel when job searching and she said “relaxed.” So we brainstormed some thoughts that would help her feel relaxed and came up with the thought that “I am open to exploring the possibilities that are out there.” And when she practiced this thought, she indeed felt relaxed, and she immediately came up with a list of creative strategies for tapping into her network and finding a position that she wanted and her mind started generating tons of ideas about how to craft her resume to reflect her experience and skills: it was like the floodgates opened once she became aware of that one negative thought holding her back.
I want to offer that you can always choose what you want to make rejection mean.
You can make it mean that you’re getting yourself out there and are getting one step closer to your goals.
You can make it mean that you’re learning and growing and gathering information about what works and what doesn’t work.
And you can make it mean that, because you are learning, you are also becoming the person that is capable of achieving what you want to achieve.
It’s a beautiful thing.
Go forth, bloom, and grow.