Are you afraid of being rejected? Do you shy away from other people because you fear rejection? Do you avoid getting close to people because you fear that they will reject you?
If so, cognitive therapy has a potential solution. It’s called exposure therapy.
It’s not about discovering the meaning of your fear. It’s not about a story you are telling yourself to explain the fear.
You can discover why you fear rejection and still not know how to strike up a conversation with someone you see in the park. You can articulate the rejection narrative you are telling yourself, the one where you deserve to be rejected because you have done bad things or thought bad thoughts. You will still not know how to engage in human contact.
As I have been at pains to point out, raising your consciousness or gaining more understanding about a problem will not solve the problem. If you try to transform your mind by finding a new meaning, the exercise will have no direct effect on your bad habit.
NPR reports on a Canadian man named Jason Comely who was suffering from a fear of rejection. In order to avoid the trauma of rejection he was limiting his social life. So much so that he decided to do something about it.
His effort was not as momentous as Bill Wilson’s creation of Alcoholics Anonymous, but it is worth noting that someone who was suffering from a psychological problem was able to concoct a treatment without consulting with a therapist.
Had he consulted with a cognitive therapist he would have learned that the technique he developed is called exposure therapy.
I am intrigued that Comely decided to deal with his fear of rejection by inventing a game. In my view, as I have mentioned in my book The Last Psychoanalyst, it is more constructive to see life as a game than to see it as a drama or a narrative.
Comely’s game was simple: instead of avoiding encounters that could lead to rejection, he would seek them out.
Without knowing it, Jason had used a standard tool of psychotherapy called exposure therapy. You force yourself to be exposed to exactly the thing you fear, and eventually you recognize that the thing you fear isn't hurting you. You become desensitized. It's used in treating phobias like fear of flying.
Jason kept on seeking out rejection. And as he did, he found that people were actually more receptive to him, and he was more receptive to people, too. "I was able to approach people, because what are you gonna do, reject me? Great!"
Why would people be more receptive to someone who is playing a rejection game? Perhaps because the more Comely was willing to open himself to other people the more other people were open to him.
Offering an open hand of friendship is surely a better tactic than avoiding human interaction. The more you see value in your gesture and do not believe that its value lies in the way people react, the more they will react positively.
Then, the enterprising Comely had the idea to turn his rejection game into a real game, something he could sell.
In NPR’s words:
That was when Jason got another idea.
He wrote down all of his real-life rejection attempts, things like, "Ask for a ride from stranger, even if you don't need one." "Before purchasing something, ask for a discount." "Ask a stranger for a breath mint."
He had them printed on a deck of cards and started selling them online.
Slowly, the Rejection Therapy game became kind of a small cult phenomenon, with people playing all over the world.
Comely’s technique seems to resemble the techniques taught by pickup artists. They are not.
That most fears aren't real in the way you think they are. They're just a story you tell yourself, and you can choose to stop repeating it. Choose to stop listening.
"Don't even bother trying to be cool," Jason says. "Just get out there and get rejected, and sometimes it's going to get dirty. But that's OK, 'cause you're going to feel great after, you're going to feel like, 'Wow. I disobeyed fear.' "
The point is, Comely's game teaches you to face and even to disobey your fears.
Another example of the same technique comes to us from a therapist, Dr. Joy Bliss (of Maggie’s Farm.)
She shows how the technique works in clinical practice:
I once helped a very shy young fellow deal with his fear by commanding him to introduce himself to a pretty girl on a daily basis - including in NYC markets. He complied, and in a very few instances they liked the cut of his jib and his apparent confidence and phoned him. Cured by Reality Therapy!
Will rejection or reality therapy always work? Probably not. There is no such thing as a psychological treatment that works all the time. And yet, it is surely the most constructive approach we know of. This assumes that a patient suffering from this anxiety is willing to follow the instructions offered by a therapist. And it assumes that a therapist will, like Dr. Bliss, succeed in persuading her patient to try to learn how to play the rejection game.