Dealing with fear of rejection

Fear of rejection (whether real or perceived) is dangerous because it can prevent you from taking action.

This article explores ways you can be rejected, how that feels, and what you can do about it.

Setting the context

We risk being rejected on many occasions. Sometimes the rejection is real and sometimes it’s in our heads – we might distort a situation and tell ourselves a story that is not a true reflection of reality.

In the work context, someone else could get a job you’ve applied for, or you could find yourself on the redundancy list during a restructure. You might propose a project or business idea that’s turned down, or colleagues ignore you or dismiss your contributions in meetings.

You might experience rejection due to your beliefs or culture, or that culture might reject you because you don’t behave in the way you’re expected to.

Of course you might also be rejected by your family members, friends, workmates, spouse or partner.

Rejection is just part of life and hard to avoid.  However, it’s rarely as bad as it appears at the time, and often opens up an opportunity later on – so gaining some perspective and taking a longer-term view can help ease the immediate painful feelings.


Feelings that arise from rejection

Your response to being rejected will vary depending on your self-esteem, state of mind and outlook on life.

It might make you feel unloved, unattractive, unheard, misunderstood, incapable or vulnerable.

Or – if you have a healthy and positive perspective – you could see rejection as a lucky escape. If you don’t win the job or relationship you’re after, you would decide it wasn’t right for you and that you’ll find a better match in future. Or you might decide that the timing was out and things will align better another time.

You could see it as a learning opportunity. For example, if your project pitch failed, think about how to present a better pitch, who you need to influence, and what you’d do differently next time.

When a person says or does something that makes you feel rejected, tell yourself it’s not just about you; it’s at least as much about them. Maybe something in their life or personality caused their response, or it’s the topic that triggered their behaviour. Don’t take it all on yourself.

Even rejection feels OK when you have a philosophical outlook, so it’s wise to reframe any instinctive regret into a more healthy viewpoint.

This links to my article about resilience.

If you hear a voice within you say “you cannot paint”, then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.
Attributed to Vincent Van Gogh

Overcoming your natural fear

If you are fearful of being rejected, you might give up even trying. In that case, you’d live a smaller life and will never reach your potential. These are the people that stay in unhealthy relationships or dead-end jobs. They keep quiet in meetings and don’t take any risks.

Here’s someone who turned that experience around. His story was recommended to me by a client during a team meeting where I was helping the leaders of a 50-person department to inspire their team members to think about themes including innovation and personal development.

In this 15-minute TEDx talk, Jia Jiang shares what he learned from 100 days of rejection.

Don’t be afraid of rejection. The worst thing anyone can say is no. If you never ask, the answer is already no.

Useful questions to ask yourself

Here are some questions to think about, challenge yourself, and help you come up with a plan for handling rejection more effectively.

What’s the worst that could happen?

Name your biggest fear and consider what options you have for facing it. This stops it feeling quite so scary and makes it worth taking the risk. Moving on in your life is a bigger prize than hiding.

What do you REALLY want?

Describe what you ideally want from your career, job and relationships. Be as detailed as you can and build a clear picture that is compelling and inspirational. This helps pull you towards your goal rather than a fear that pushes you away.

What’s your plan to achieve this?

Build an action plan that includes what you will do and by when. Include daily baby steps to get you started and bigger actions to get the bigger shifts. Identify milestones and what you will do to celebrate when you get there – and make sure you do! Tell other people about your plan and ask them to check how you’re doing; this will encourage/nudge you forward.

What’s stopping you?

Decide how you will address the blockers that prevent you from moving forward. Challenge these blockers – are they real or a state of mind?

Who can help you?

List the people you need to support you, and what help you would like them to provide, whether it’s practical actions, emotional support, or a gentle nudge from time to time to ensure you stick to your plan.

You’ll find some more useful questions in my article about coaching.

What you can do as a leader

As a leader, you need to create an environment where people are not afraid of rejection and feel safe to take risks. For example, here are some principles that apply to team-building meetings:

  • Build trust: Trust is essential between you and your team members, and between team members themselves. When you create a safe space, people can show vulnerability and admit what they are afraid of or worried about. This means they are more likely to take risks and try new things. This links to my recent article on teams.
  • In advance: I always get input from team members in advance, to understand what they want from the meeting. I use their input to inform the objectives and design of the agenda.
  • Consider how you set up the room: Where possible, set the chairs in a circle and remove the tables, as these can create a barrier.
  • Check in with people at the start: Ask how people are feeling, their expectations of the meeting and whether they have anything on their mind.
  • Give an overview: At the beginning, give an overview of what people wanted to achieve from the meeting (see ‘In advance’, above). This helps create transparency and trust. Team members will see you’ve taken their input seriously, are recognising what was said, and feel more engaged in the meeting because they’ve played a part in shaping it. It’s a seemingly small activity that helps build trust, shows that everyone is treated equally, and that every contribution is valid.
  • Build connections: Agree what your team members have in common, such as your shared overall objective. This helps start any meeting in a positive way, even if you’re having a potentially contentious discussion.
  • Encourage everyone to speak up, no matter what: Call out the ‘elephant in the room’ and deal with it calmly. Thank anyone who says something awkward, to show your appreciation that mentioning the difficult topic has created transparency and opened up an important discussion. In his model of 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni encourages the leader to “mine for conflict” – that is to create an environment where conflict is raised, so that it can be addressed. This in turn leads to joint ownership of issues and the performance of the team, as the issues are in the open and not hidden.
  • Role model your vulnerability: it’s OK to say things like: “This is a tricky problem and I’m not sure how to deal with it,” or “This dynamic isn’t working for me,” or “This topic is a bit of a hot potato.” When you call out your fears, it creates a climate that enables other people to take your lead and do the same.


Next month

How to create your company vision.