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What Is the Fear of Rejection?

Exploring the Dangers of the Fear of Rejection

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Updated June 04, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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The fear of rejection is a powerful fear that often has a far-reaching impact into our lives. Most people experience some nerves when placing themselves in situations that could lead to rejection, but for some people, the fear becomes crippling. An untreated fear of rejection tends to worsen over time, gradually taking over virtually every part of a sufferer’s life.

Impacts of the Fear of Rejection

Although not every person experiences every impact, the fear of rejection tends to affect our ability to succeed across a wide range of personal and professional situations. These are some of the most common.

  • Job Interviews: Have you ever felt warm and uncomfortable while waiting to be called for an interview? Sweaty palms, labored breathing, an increased heart rate and trouble speaking are common symptoms of the fear of rejection. They are also potential reasons for an employer to reject a candidate. Confidence and an air of authority are critical in many positions, and those suffering from this fear often come across as weak and insecure. If you have a fear of rejection, you may also have trouble negotiating a work contract, leaving valuable pay and benefits on the table.

  • Business Dealings: In many positions, the need to impress does not end once you have the job. Entertaining clients, negotiating deals, selling products and attracting investors are key components of many jobs. Even something as simple as answering the telephone can be terrifying for those suffering from a fear of rejection, and picking up the phone to call someone else may be impossible.

  • Dating: First dates, and especially blind dates, are scary for anyone, but those with a fear of rejection may quickly become overwhelmed. Rather than focusing on getting to know the other person and deciding whether you would like a second date, you might spend all of your time worrying whether that person likes you. Trouble speaking, obsessive worrying about your own appearance, an inability to eat and a visibly nervous demeanor are common.

  • Marriage: Married life consists of an unending series of negotiations and compromises. No matter how compatible you may be, it is impossible for two people to agree on everything. Those with a fear of rejection often have difficulty expressing their own needs and standing their ground. You might also develop feelings of jealousy or distrust in your partner as your fear of rejection turns into a fear of being abandoned. This is sometimes expressed in such unhealthy behaviors as checking your partner’s phone messages or social networking accounts.

  • Meeting New People: Humans are social creatures, and we are expected to follow basic social niceties in public. Most of the time, idle chatter in the grocery line or at a festival lasts only a few moments. Occasionally, however, short conversations lead to lifelong friendships. If you have a fear of rejection, you may feel unable to chat with strangers or even friends of friends. The tendency to keep to yourself could potentially prevent you from making lasting connections with others.

  • Peer Pressure: The need to belong is a basic human condition. In high school, we tend to self-select as jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, geeks, goths, preppies, or any number of other small groups. As adults, we tend to organize by shared interests, relationship status, and other commonalities. While dressing, speaking and behaving as a group member is not unhealthy, peer pressure sometimes goes too far. If your fear of rejection leads you to do things that are illegal, immoral or simply distasteful to you, then peer pressure might be a problem in your life.

Common Behaviors in Those With a Fear of Rejection

  • Phoniness: Many people who are afraid of rejection develop a carefully monitored and scripted way of life. Fearing that you will be rejected if you show your true self to the world, you may live life behind a mask. This can make you seem phony and inauthentic to others, and may cause a rigid unwillingness to embrace life’s challenges.

  • People-Pleasing: Although it is natural to want to take care of those that we love, those who fear rejection often go too far. You might find it impossible to say no, even when saying yes causes major inconveniences or hardships in your own life. You may take on too much, increasing your own risk for burnout. At the extreme, people-pleasing sometimes turns into enabling the bad behaviors of others. Worried that you will lose the other person, you might make excuses or even assist the person in behaviors you know are wrong.

  • Unassertiveness: People with a fear of rejection often go out of their way to avoid confrontations. You might refuse to ask for what you want or even to speak up for what you need. A common tendency is to try to simply shut down your own needs or pretend that they don’t matter.

  • Passive-Aggressiveness: Uncomfortable showing off their true selves but unable to entirely shut out their own needs, many people who fear rejection end up behaving in passive-aggressive ways. You might procrastinate, "forget" to keep promises, complain, and work inefficiently on the projects that you take on.

In addition, the fear of rejection often stops us from going after our dreams. Putting yourself out there is frightening for anyone, but if you have the fear of rejection, you may feel paralyzed. Hanging onto the status quo feels safe, even if you are not happy with your current situation. Whether you want to travel the world, write the Great American novel or ask the girl that sits next to you for a date, the fear of rejection may stop you from reaching your full potential.

Reactions of Others

The fear of rejection leads to behaviors that make us appear insecure, ineffectual and overwhelmed. You might sweat, shake, fidget, avoid eye contact, and even lose the ability to effectively communicate. While individuals react to these behaviors in very different ways, these are some of the reactions you might see.

  • Rejection: Ironically, the fear of rejection often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is well-known in pop psychology that confidence enhances attractiveness. A 2009 study at the University of Florida actually shows that confidence is nearly as important as intelligence in determining our income level! As a general rule, the lack of self-confidence that is inherent in a fear of rejection makes us more likely to be rejected.

  • Manipulation: Some people prey on the insecurities of others. Those who suffer from a fear of rejection may be at greater risk of being manipulated for someone else’s personal gain. Expert manipulators generally come across as charming, suave and genuinely caring -- they know what buttons to push to make others trust them. They also know how to keep someone with a fear of rejection feeling slightly "on edge," as if the manipulator might leave at any time. Almost invariably, the manipulator does end up leaving once she has gotten what she wants out of the other person.

  • Frustration: Most people in the world are decent, honest and forthright. Rather than manipulating someone with a fear of rejection, they will try to help. Look for signs that your friends and family are trying to encourage your assertiveness, asking you to be more open with them, or probing your true feelings. Many times, however, people who fear rejection see these attempts to help as signs of a possible future rejection. This often leads friends and family to "walk on eggshells," fearful of making your fears worse. Over time, they may become frustrated and angry, either confronting you about your behavior or beginning to distance themselves from you.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Judge, Timothy A., Hurst, Charlice and Simon, Lauren S. "Does It Pay to Be Smart, Attractive, or Confident (or All Three)? Relationships Among General Mental Ability, Physical Attractiveness, Core Self-Evaluations, and Income." Journal of Applied Psychology. 2009. 94:3. pp. 742-755. Retrieved May 28, 2012 from http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/apl943742.pdf

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