One of the hardest things when it comes to dating is dealing with the fear of rejection. At times it can seem like everyone’s dating hang ups can be traced back to a fear of being rejected – from approach anxiety to Nice Guy behavior.
The problem is that letting that fear control you means that you will never succeed. No matter who you are, rejection is going to be a part of your dating life. Everybody – no matter how famous, how handsome, how rich or how socially gifted – gets shot down. What makes the difference between the socially successful and the people who trundle from rejection to rejection are that the successful ones don’t let rejection destroy them. And while it can be difficult to face your fears, part of what helps makes them less all-consuming is to understand them.
So let’s get down to the roots of the fear of rejection.
Why Rejection Hurts So Much
Part of the reason why we fear rejection is that, frankly, rejection hurts. That’s not hyperbole; rejection literally hurts us on a physical level. The stress of rejection – and the fear of the anticipation of the pain of being rejected – registers as actual pain. The shortness of breath, the sharp pains that come with rejection, are real. So much so, in fact, that painkillers can actually dull the pain of having been rejected by your crush.
But why, exactly, does even a mild rejection cause us so much stress? Well, for a couple of reasons.
On the base, primal level, rejection represents a threat to our existence. Humans are pack animals; our survival is predicated on our social relationships. We work together as a group because the group maximizes the ability of the individual to survive – from protection to simple sharing of food and resources.
As a result, we’re extremely conscious of signs that our relationship within the group is in danger; in the past, getting thrown out of the group was a de-facto death sentence. When you couple this with the inherent negativity bias that ensures we feel negative stimuli stronger and more profoundly than positive ones – we dedicate more of our emotional and mental bandwidth to the possibility of getting hurt. So much so that we start to fear it before we’ve done anything.
As over the top as this might sound, that fear of exile is manifests when we think of asking somebody out. Part of why approach anxiety is so insidious is because we worry that we’re going to screw up so badly that everyone will hear about it. Now we’re functionally exiled from society because people will have heard the legend of how badly we got shot down.
However, romantic rejection doesn’t just represent the threat of death, or even dying alone. When you’re approaching someone – whether they’re a friend or a stranger – you’re making yourself vulnerable. You’re exposing yourself to the judgement of someone whose opinion matters to you. If they shoot you down, it feels as though they’ve passed judgement on you and your worth. How does that not terrify you?
Well, funny you should mention that, common rhetorical device…
Rejection Doesn’t (Always) Have Anything To Do With You
One of the things that you need to realize is that as personal as it may feel, rejection often has absolutely nothing to do with you.
Now, to be fair: this is a truth that we can understand intellectually but often have a hard time processing emotionally. There’s a natural tendency to forget that while we’re the center of our own universe, we’re only tangental to someone else’s. Mainlining that 24-7 feed of our own thoughts, dreams, fears, anxieties, etc. makes it hard to forget that other people’s lives and decisions don’t revolve around us or anything that we’ve done. Just as we assume that everyone is cataloging our every move, we tend to assume we occupy far more of other people’s mindshare than we actually do.
While it’s true that one of the reasons why someone may reject us is due to some choice we made… more often than not, that never reaches into the top ten reasons why you got turned down.
When it comes to approaching strangers, it could be that she thinks you’re an idiot for having the temerity to think you’re worthy of her. But it’s even more likely that you’re just the 10th guy to try to talk to her and she’s exhausted by it. Or you look like her asshole ex. Or she’s just out looking to spend time with friends.
That message you sent on OKCupid is going unanswered because they had a fight with their boss and that’s put them in a pissy mood. The cutie on Tinder unmatched you because she’s decided to take a dating break. That conversation ended up fading away because they got caught up in life drama and a dating site got dropped to a much lower priority.
Then there are the reasons that are all about her preferences – things that you just can’t control for. There was something about you that made her realize you two wouldn’t be sexually compatible. It may be that she doesn’t care for guys with your accent. She had a bad experience with someone who shared your hobby. She wants someone who’s cool with tons and tons of lizards.
It could even be something as simple as that she liked you, but knew that she wasn’t in a place where she could date anyone right now. “Right guy, wrong time” has sunk more potential relationships than shitty pick-up lines.
None of these – even when she decided she wasn’t digging you – are about you. They’re about her – her life, her circumstances, her preferences in a date. You can’t plan for these or find a way to overcome them. All you can do is accept that rejection in this case meant that there was some reason you were incompatible and move on.
Ghosting and Other 21st Century Dating Risks
Of course, it’s hard to talk about rejection without talking about its mutant bastard cousin, ghosting. After all, not every rejection is going to involve being turned down the first time you talk to them. Sometimes it comes after a date, even a couple of dates. And the most insidious form of rejection is getting ghosted.
Ghosting – when someone just quits responding, without explanation – is a modern version of an age-old dating experience. People who just quit returning your calls has always been a part of dating; however, it never used to be quite as commonplace as it is now. In some ways, ghosting and various quasi-rejections are an outgrowth of modern dating. As beneficial as an abundance mentality can be, there are people who take it to extremes. After all, if one person isn’t 101% your type, then why not just ditch them and find someone you like better? And if it’s only been a couple of dates… well, hey, it’s not like you married them, right?
The problem is that ghosting adds the pain of being rejected to the anxiety that comes with ambiguity. It’s hard enough to know somebody isn’t interested in you. But when they suddenly go radio silent? Then you are in an awkward position. Did they reject you, or is there a legitimate reason why they’ve quit talking to you? Are they just busy? Did you say something wrong? It gets worse because now you don’t know the best way to respond. At least when someone says “Let’s just be friends” you have an idea of how to proceed. Radio silence, on the other hand, leaves you at sea.
Perversely enough, the same technological developments that make it easier to reach someone, make getting ghosted worse. There’re few things that kick your soul in the nuts like a read receipt from someone who you’ll never hear back from.
Unfortunately, as bad as ghosting can be, it’s become part of the dating scene. While you can try to avoid the circumstances that can lead to getting the fade, even best practices can’t control for someone else’s shitty behavior. And it is shitty behavior. It’s selfish and inconsiderate and – as with other forms of rejection – has nothing to do with you. All that you can do is take their bad behavior as a sign of a bullet being dodged, thank whatever gods you believe in and move on.
(Side note: There is one notable exception to the universal rudeness of ghosting. Some women will ghost rather than be straightforward because some guys react badly to being rejected.)
Taking The Sting Out Of Rejection
So with all of this in mind, how do we make rejection less terrifying?
To start with: you don’t want to invest so much importance in any one person. Part of why we let our fear of rejection take over is that we put so much weight on the opinion of a relative stranger. When one person – someone who we may well have just met – has the power to utterly shatter our ego, getting their approval becomes all-important. If they don’t like us, for some random reason? Then we get our hearts torn out and stomped on.
When that person’s approval can hinge on liking our taste in music… that’s a hell of a gamble.
Having a strong sense of internal validation helps keep any one stranger’s opinion from becoming your alpha and omega. So, too, does maintaining an abundance mentality. She’s not the only person who could ever love you1, she’s just one person who you like. There will be others – others who are just as amazing as she is, if not more so.
It’s also important to not hesitate. Part of what makes rejection loom larger and larger in our minds is when we give it time to grow. The more we wait for the “perfect moment” to ask someone out, the more we let our jerk-brains invent new horrors to inflict on us. We end up imagining increasingly baroque scenarios that our brains accept as reality. That terror cuts us off at the knees and leaves us unwilling to move forward.
Just as importantly, though, is that we have to accept that rejection happens. The more we try to avoid it, the more we reinforce our fear of it. Waiting for a “perfect” moment is just an excuse to avoid getting shot down; there is no perfect moment. There is no way to ask somebody out that guarantees that you won’t be turned down. All you can do is get comfortable with taking chances and understanding that getting turned down doesn’t mean anything more significant than she just doesn’t want to date you. Learn from it if you can, but recognize that sometimes there’s nothing to learn.
Sometimes a person wouldn’t be into you if you were stripped naked and covered in cheese.
But there’s one more thing to consider.
Her Rejecting You Tells You One Thing About Her. Your Reaction Tells Her Everything About You
One of the reasons we tend to fear rejection is that we worry that it’s going to make things awkward. There’s a certain instinct to believe that once we’ve been rejected by someone, that’s it. We’re done. There’s no coming back from it, no saving face and no point in continuing any sort of relationship. This especially makes asking out someone in our social circle problematic; getting turned down might mean losing that entire group.
It doesn’t. Not really. But it certainly feels that way sometimes.
The truth is, learning to handle rejection isn’t just a critical part of dating; it’s part of your emotional intelligence. This is why it’s important to learn to handle rejection with grace and dignity; your response to being rejected tells people volumes of information about you. One of the fears, for example, of asking out a friend is the worry that it will ruin the friendship. You worry that they’re going to pull away; they worry that saying “thank you, but no” is going to raise the curtain on a years-long drama festival. But when that person knows that you can face being turned down and still be the same cool person you’ve always been? Then there’s no real risk to be had.
On the other hand a person who takes rejection as a personal affront, or who can never completely accept “no” as an answer is telling people that they were right to reject him in the first place. Flying off the handle – or treat a “no” as the start of a negotiation – is as strong a tell of someone’s true personality as one might desire.
Once you know that rejection won’t destroy you, you’re in a place of power. You demonstrate to others that you’re emotionally mature. You have confidence and self-assurance. People will notice that.
And just as importantly, that confidence and dignity will come through in how you act around the people you do like. Once you won’t let your fear of rejection rule you, you’re able to be smoother and more relaxed when you do flirt with the people you like.
It’s a paradox, but it’s true. The better you get at handling rejection?
The less you’ll ever have to face it.
- especially since she clearly doesn’t [↩]