What to do with the fear of rejection

Being rejected is incredibly painful and neurology demonstrates it. MRI studies demonstrate that the pain we experience during social ostracism, or one might say rejection, activates the same region of our brain as physical pain. That is, our brain processes social pain the same as physical pain.*

No one likes rejection.

In fact, repeated instances of rejection can be devastating to us humans. Depression, anxiety, rage, and other powerful negative emotions will often arise. Of course, without healthy coping mechanisms, humans will do whatever possible to end those powerful negative emotions. This is typically the cause of numerous addictive behaviors, whatever you choose to abuse: alcohol, food, sex, etc.. Most people are desperate to medicate and numb those terrible feelings.

No one likes rejection. Rejection leads to loneliness. And prolonged loneliness is incredibly painful and destructive to humans.

This is so very important to recognize in your life. Why? Because whether or not you are conscious of it, you will make decisions in life in order to avoid rejection. You will make decisions to avoid being lonely. (And of course, being alone doesn’t mean you feel lonely—ask any Intravert. Yet, being alone for prolonged periods does cause loneliness.)

Now, this is true of nearly any realm of life in which we have relationships: friendships, acquaintances, business colleagues, and of course, marriages.

I am amazed at how many persons I know who put up with an enormous amount of toxic nonsense and even abuse because of the profound need to feel connected. In order to escape rejection and loneliness, they put up with behaviors that no healthy, rational human would tolerate. And typically, they don't value the things they're putting up with either! They're just too afraid of rejection to change what they tolerate.

Fear of rejection is a powerful motivator.

How many couples have I met who are constantly locked in the same daggum patterns that cause pain, grief, and even deep wounds because of a fear of standing up for themselves and losing the relationship? How many individuals have I met who are constantly stuck in the same pattern at work because standing up for themselves might cause them to lose their jobs? How many individuals do I know who hold superficial relationships with so-called “friends” who are actually horrible friends, but do hold on out of fear of rejection? How many women, particularly, have I met who continue to stay attracted to the same type of immature, loser boy-men types who they think they can change and fix just because those kind of boy-men types accept them?

Too many to count. It's sad.

Fear of rejection is a powerful motivator.

What do you do out of that fear? What do you not do out of that fear?

  • Do you withhold how you really feel with your family member/friend/spouse because you’re afraid they’ll cut you off? Leave you?
  • What secret are you keeping from that person?
  • What habit do you have that you won’t tell the person about because of what s/he might do?
  • What decisions do make in life each day that keep you locked in your position in life because you’re afraid of being rejected?
  • What decisions are you making at your job out of fear of being rejected by your boss? By your peers? By your competitors?
  • Who do you keep employed even though they shouldn’t still be paid, but do so because you don’t want to lose their friendship?
  • What routines do you have in life that you wish were different, but fear of rejection by friends and lovers keep you locked in those patterns?

What should you do about this?

If you think the following suggestions will provide some quick-fix pill for what ails you, then you don’t understand how growth occurs. Really. Reading some quick thoughts on a blog doesn’t fix it. The growth occurs when you put into practice these suggestions.

First, take the time to write the decisions you’re making concerning what to do or not to do due to a deep-seated fear of being rejected and becoming lonely. Be gut-level honest. Thinking about it is not enough. Healing begins when you get your thoughts and feelings out of you. Journaling, at minimum, is wonderful at this. A trusted counselor or friend is even better. And when you journal, pray. I personally journal like I’m writing to God. Many, many breakthroughs have come to me by God during my journaling.

Second, fantasize for a bit. Look over your list of decisions you are making (those things you’re doing or not doing—both are decisions). And here’s the fantasy: assume you’d have tons of love and support in whatever you’d really like to do (that is healthy). What would you do? What would you really like to say that you’re not saying to that person? You guessed it: write it. Journal your answer. What healthy decision would you make if there were no real danger of being rejected at all?

Third, get really busy forming healthy relationships with people who are safe and give you unconditional love. You only want to be close to people who give you permission to have your own view. You have a true friend when you can share your feelings of disagreement, in gentleness, and not feel disconnected in the relationship at all. The relationship—the commitment to each other—is in no way at stake, no matter how much you have a different view.

This suggestion is so very powerful because it will give you the relationship “nutrients” that you need, especially when you have to make decisions in some other relationships that might end when you stand up for your own views/feelings. This is like a safety net. Imagine your life like a river with several tributaries filling it in from various angles and with varying depth and magnitude. Most people only have one or two tributaries filling their river with water…and those two are probably weak, somewhat toxic tributaries (really, how many healthy, wonderful relationships do you have?). And with a deep-seated, visceral understanding of this fact, people carry a profound fear of rejection (“If those tributaries cut me off, no matter how toxic, then I’ll have no one!”). You need to have several, healthy, full tributaries feeding into you each week. And trust me: when you do, it will become increasingly easy to make the decisions you’re afraid to make.

Fourth, make up your mind that you will no longer make decisions based on the fear of rejection. Make up your mind. Really…you must decide that you will not spend the rest of your life in a self-constructed prison of intimidation and fear. The person you’re afraid of losing holds all the power over you. S/he is your warden. S/he is your god. And that’s scary. What a sad, sad way to live. So…make up your mind. Decide to do whatever it takes for the rest of your life to make decisions that help you grow alongside healthy people.

Fifth, once you’ve received some support from healthy, trusted friends, begin making decisions and having conversations that face your fears. Your counselor and/or friends might help you role-play what you’ll say. And here’s a tip: when you have that conversation with the person that you’ve been avoiding, tell the person what your fear is. Be vulnerable. Admit that you’ve not been forthcoming and why. “I’ve been meaning to tell you how I feel but I’ve been so afraid that you’d reject me. Will you reject me if I open up to you about how I feel?” Most people will receive that. If they don’t, then you certainly know that they are not safe. Begin to limit your exposure to such people rapidly.

I’ll stop there. This will get you started.

Nothing you do will make you start to like being rejected. It will always make you anxious to some degree. So be it. This is why we have healthy relationships with people who are safe. But again, no matter what, it means that you don’t make decisions based on the fear of being rejected. There are people who will like you. There are people who will accept you. God designed us for relationships and He will provide them for you if you look in the right places. If you keep changing to fit the other person's desires, then you don't really exist at all. And that's terrible! God designed you to be you, not for you to be someone else.

Don’t give up. It's time to be set free from the prison of fear and "what ifs" that plague you. Rejection is bad. But living a life of fear of that rejection, while making decisions that you don't truly value, is worse.

*If you’re philosophically-savvy: This is not to suggest that pain sensations are the same as the subjective experience of pain.

How do you define your marriage?

Definitions matter.

A definition of a word gives it limits. It tells us what a word or expression can mean. This means that no other meaning is right.

In that way, definitions are like molds. If I cram a clump of clay into a mold, whatever doesn’t fit is cut off. Why? Because the mold gives parameters or limits to the clay. And the clay will always make whatever the mold is. If the mold is a toy train, then the clay will mold into that shape.

Humans always define themselves. And definitions are powerful. They tell us what we “mean” in life or what our purpose is. They are also like molds. We always live to the potential of how we define ourselves or what mold we put ourselves in. Always. What you believe about yourself is enormously influential in how you see yourself, how you think, what you expect, what you put up with, and how you behave.

Here’s a test. Finish this sentence as honestly and quickly as you can: “I will always be…”

(E.g., stressed out; sad; hopeful; plagued with boundary problems; the “good boy”; the slut; the cheerleader; the best friend; the supporting actor; the loser; the coach; the successful leader, etc.).

That’s your mold. That’s your definition of yourself. It can be a long or short; destructive or healthy; Christian or un-Christian.

Marriages also have definitions or molds. A healthy marriage exists when both persons hold a healthy definition/model for marriage. “My marriage is…” or “My marriage will always be…” or “My marriage is supposed to be this way because my marriage is…” Your definition/model of your marriage is the conceptual framework of your marriage. It’s how you label your marriage and what you expect from your marriage. Whatever it is, I guarantee that you are living out how you define your marriage because we always live according to how we define our marriages. Like the clump of clay, we will be shaped according to our self-imposed mold.

Really think about it:

  • How do you define your marriage? What is your marriage “supposed” to be? What is your mold? (e.g., “…always be hard work”; “…always be unfulfilling”; “…always be growing and fulfilling”; etc.)
  • Where did you get your model/definition for marriage? (e.g., Parents? Grandparents? Movies? T.V. shows? Books? Some cultural archetype? Elsewhere?) So many couples are simply repeating a model they experienced or rebelling against a model they experienced.
  • Do you like or want that definition/mold that you have? Who says it’s right? Why or why not? If not, what will your new definition be?

The good news is, God wants to define your marriage in healthy, thriving terms. Take the time. Answer these questions with your spouse. Write your answers together and be absolutely sure that you define your marriage as you want to and not based on someone else’s definition or model for you. That’s what healthy marriages do.

What will you do to embrace your new definition/model?

What exactly is healthy communication within marriage?

I can think of only a few instances in fifteen years of working with couples that communication was not a key reason why the relationship was breaking down. Communication can break down in numerous ways.

  • Most couples don’t spend the necessary time that is required to foster healthy communication: no eye-to-eye, body-to-body focus, with intent listening.
  • Most couples have at least one person who thinks the other spouse can and should be able to “read my mind.”
  • Most couples have at least one person who thinks the other spouse can and should be able to “pick up on my body signals.”
  • Many new couples, especially, don’t bond completely because one spouse still communicates more with her/his parents or siblings or old friends than her/his spouse.
  • Most couples only talk about (a) superficial things (like the weather, movies, etc.), (b) tasks (like getting the oil changed, picking up the kids from practice, etc.) or (c) problems.

Moreover, there are some typical communication patterns that can ruin a marriage. They are like default settings on a computer. Here are the top three most common dysfunctional communication patterns I’ve encountered:

  • Critical Parent to Rebellious Child – “It’s my role to correct him”/ “It’s my role to rebel and do what I want.” This is typically manifested in a nagging wife (either explicitly by yelling, or passively by guilt messages and manipulation) and a passive aggressive husband.
  • Adult to Child – “Let me fix it”/ “I wish he’d just listen to me.” This is typically manifested in a Spock-life husband who can’t wait to fix his wife’s problem and a hurt/stressed wife who needs emotional validation and encouragement. Then, when the wife doesn’t heed his advice, the husband becomes childish (“Fine! I’m just trying to help!”), while the wife becomes frustrated (“Why won’t he just be there with me and listen!”)
  • Silence – This is when the couple just doesn’t talk much at all about their internal worlds. Sure, they can talk about superficial things or tasks to complete, but talk very little about their internal worlds. Silence kills a marriage. You can’t be bonded with someone who doesn’t share in your internal world.

Healthy communication occurs when your spouse fully understands and validates how you feel about events in your life and when you fully understand and validate how your spouse feels about events. So, there are three key components:

  1. Sharing feelings about events
  2. Feeling understood (“S/he gets it! S/he’s with me!”)
  3. Feeling validated/affirmed (“Your feelings matter to me”; “I’m sorry”; “I’m proud of you”) This is where Gary Chapman’s “Love Languages” are so important.

To say it once more: healthy communication is not just “spewing on a person” and hoping the person gets it. It’s not just about talking about events. Acquaintances talk about events. Co-workers talk about events. Friends and lovers talk about how you felt about that event. It’s about processing the meaning of events. That’s the internal world of feelings and attitudes. Healthy communication between spouses only occurs when each person is certain that you both feel understood and validated about how you feel about events in your lives. This is the only way to create lasting bonding between couples.

What should you talk about? At minimum, anything that affects the marriage. Here is a small sample:

  • All financial decisions (e.g., where the money is, how much there is, etc.). And never forget: money doesn’t cause divorce. The improper communication and resultant stress money can bring causes divorce.
  • All issues involving your job/career. Know what your spouse does. Talk about work stress, changes, etc.
  • Your particular roles in the marriage (e.g., Who will work? Why? Who does the dishes? Etc.)
  • Your sex life
  • Your Christian life (e.g., what God is doing in your life; prayer life; doubts/struggles/victories)
  • Your wounds (e.g., anything whatsoever that surfaces over time about which you need support and encouragement)

How is your communication? If it can be better, then get to work. It always starts with you, not your spouse. Take courage and begin being vulnerable. Listen well. Be safe. Validate. And when you see that you're part of the problem, own it and change.