Some of us engage in people-pleasing because we desperately want other people’s approval, validation, and liking. But sometimes, people-pleasing can come from a slightly different place. “Rejection sensitivity” is what it sounds like—the heightened and unreasonable fear of someone rejecting you. More commonly, though, the real problem is all the stuff we do to avoid that perceived potential for rejection. One big way we can attempt to avoid the horror of being rejected is to engage in people-pleasing.
Many people-pleasers feel awful at the prospect that they should be less kind, less generous, or less forgiving. But consider this: Is your motivation really compassion and kindness? Or is it sometimes an attempt, conscious or unconscious, to try to control people? If you view things this way, then you quickly realize that letting go of rejection, fears, and people-pleasing behaviors is precisely what will allow you to be more generous—or, more genuinely generous!erate anxiety. A study in the:
What this suggests is that saying yes to requests is a way to reduce inner stress and uneasiness (some might call it guilt!). The authors had actually uncovered the physiological basis for that feeling of “I just can’t say no!” The fear of rejection causes us distress, but by saying yes, we quell that anxiety. So, being generous and giving is not really about the other person at all—it’s about regulating ourselves.
Of course, this doesn’t always work out so well because by saying yes, we open ourselves to being taken advantage of, to agreeing to things that actually violate our own boundaries, and to making our own feelings of calm dependent on us being generous and useful to others. So, what happens when we really do need to say no?
Fearing rejection, we may fail to set limits and boundaries, and we seem to get stuck in one-sided relationships with people who take and take. But once we’re in these situations, we may feel even less able to say no—in other words, the anxiety about being rejected actually increases. For example, you’ve agreed to look after your friend’s dog even though you really don’t have the time. You said yes just to keep the peace and avoid awkwardness . . .
But now he’s asked you to look after the dog again. And he keeps asking. The pressure to say yes is even greater now (you’ve set a precedent, haven’t you?), so you keep saying yes. Before you know it, you’re trapped in a sickening and reinforcing cycle of guilt and obligation. Perhaps in all this, your own dog sits at home, missing out on her walks while you’re away, which makes you feel awful. You give and give and give, and yet you have low self-worth, you’re stressed, and you’re resentful. In comparison, the prospect of being rejected by your friend if you had said no suddenly doesn’t seem so bad!
Rejection sensitivity is more common than you’d think . . . and the irony is that it often has the opposite of the intended effect. For example:
• You’re terrified of being rejected in a big job interview, but this makes you behave in meek, unconfident ways during that interview, causing the interviewers to pass you over for someone with more faith in themselves.
• Meeting new people, your desperate need to impress causes you to hog the conversation and be boastful. They’re not impressed.
• In dating, your fear of rejection may lead you to waste time with people you don’t actually like. By doing whatever you can to avoid them rejecting you, you miss out on a crucial detail: you’re not keen on them yourself!
How to Break the Fear of Rejection Cycle
Rejection is a normal part of life. The weird things we do to avoid rejection, however, can be far from normal!
In their bid to be accepted by others, people-pleasers can be timid, neurotic, and inauthentic. Worse still, others may perceive them as false, passive aggressive, or even manipulative, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy where people actually may feel pushed to reject them.
The good news is that this is all fixable. No, we cannot avoid rejection, and there is no way to magically make everyone accept and embrace us. But we can make sure that we don’t let the sting of rejection spiral out of control and hurt more than it needs to.
Travis Corigan created the Rejection Inoculation Program, and his strategy is not to twist you out of shape so nobody ever rejects you again. Rather, it’s to make sure that the next time you are rejected (and it will happen), you are resilient against it, and though it may hurt, it doesn’t shake your self-worth to its core.
Corigan’s technique is a form of what psychologists call exposure therapy. You repeatedly expose yourself to the feared stimulus, but in a safe environment that you control. Why go through all this torture? Because you are undoing a core belief at the root of people-pleasing behavior: I cannot survive rejection. I must avoid it at all costs.
The thing is, this belief is actually not true. You can survive it, and the only way to prove this to yourself is to willingly experience rejection and notice how you feel. Corigan’s program has three easy steps:
1. Set yourself a quota
2. Set a time domain
3. Make attempts to hit that quota
What’s a quota? It’s simply the number of times you are rejected. Yup—you are deliberately seeking out rejection. Merely framing rejection as something that you ask for and are in control of takes some of its power away. See the whole exercise as a game or challenge, and not some life-or-death agony.
“By turning the thing you most want to avoid into the key performance indicator (KPI) that you should optimize is a righteous trick for your brain. You utilize one part of your motivation centers to break this log jam between two competing motivations you have: the life you want for yourself and your primate programming that being rejected from the tribe means death,” says Corigan.
The approach may sound terrifying, but it’s a brilliant way to completely turn your mindset upside down. If you run screaming from rejection, you may think it’s a triumph when you don’t have to experience it. On the other hand, never experiencing it allows you to fear it all the more. Rejection becomes a big, terrifying black hole in your psyche, and when you eventually do encounter it (because, again, you will!), you are unprepared and in the worst possible position to cope with it.
When you “inoculate yourself” against rejection and actually rehearse the process, you realize something. Rejection is not that big a deal. That queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach, that awful hot feeling on your face, and that sinking sense of dread and self-loathing . . . it’s all transient. Who cares? Open your eyes and look around—you’re still alive, you’re still a worthy human being, and the world didn’t end. And what’s more, there may be a new stirring inside you, something a little like confidence.
Let’s look at an example of the inoculation program in the context of being overly generous and not saying no.
Katie is the biggest martyr you’ll ever meet. She’s a teacher’s assistant who regularly buys things for her students from her own pocket and stays late after school to help struggling kids. She volunteers for more organizations and charities than she can count. She tirelessly dedicates most of her weekends to organizing community events and babysitting her nieces and nephews, or helping her elderly mother with errands.
She does all this because she’s a good, kind person. She also does it because she’s terrified that if she says no, all these people will angrily abandon her. As you can imagine, Katie has extremely low self-worth that is entirely conditional on how much she does for others. She’s frequently exhausted and stressed out, but at least all this work proves her value and prevents others from rejecting her, right?
She tried out a version of Corigan’s program, and it looked like this:
Quota: start by politely saying no to a request I don’t have time for, and not budging no matter how guilty I feel or am made to feel
Do this at least once a week to start, just to test it out. Increase frequency later on.
Katie comes down with the flu. The school has let her take some time off, but Katie’s mother sees this as an opportunity to ask Katie to come over to her house and help her clean out her basement, “Since you’re free.” Katie takes a deep breath, and says, “I’m feeling pretty exhausted, Mom. I think it’s a no from me.” Then she waits. She doesn’t apologize, she doesn’t beg forgiveness, and she doesn’t immediately leap in with an alternative suggestion to soften her no.
Are you wondering what happens next? Well, the truth is that Katie’s mother’s response is not all that relevant. Katie has already decided that she will say no and stick to it no matter what response she gets. That’s because she is acting for herself and not for some desired response from others. She is untangling herself from people-pleasing and reconnecting with the idea of pleasing herself.
In a later chapter, we’ll look more closely at boundary setting and how to say no assertively yet with kindness. But for now, like Katie, the idea is simply to become proactive and deliberately seek rejection on your own terms. Katie’s mother doesn’t in fact disown her, even if she’s a little surprised. The next week, Katie says no when the school demands she organizes the bake sale. She notices that the more she says no, the easier it becomes because of three important insights:
1. The rejection she assumed was coming didn’t in fact come, and
2. If it did come, it wasn’t as bad as she predicted it would be, and
3. If it was that bad, she realized that she was more than able to cope with it!
Over the course of a few months, Katie challenges the core belief that I cannot survive rejection. I must avoid it at all costs. She replaces it with new ones. Rejection is not the end of the world. I am a good person even if I say no, and even if someone rejects me for it. I can cope with people being unhappy with me.
How you set your quota, what your quota is, and what time frame you choose is up to you. You could decide you want to make one cold call a day at work and count the times people turn down your pitch. You could aim to talk to a new person every three days. You could commit to reaching out to romantic interests, or take the risk of inviting relatively new friends to meet up and get to know each other better. The big difference is that you are not running away from rejection but encountering it in a controlled, deliberate fashion.
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you try Corigan’s approach:
Think of someone you love, and now imagine them experiencing the pain of rejection.
Do you feel like laughing and jeering at them, or think that they’re losers? Do you feel like saying, “Don’t be such a baby,” or, “Maybe they’re right to reject you”?
Chances are, you just feel kind, tender compassion. You want to hug them and say, “Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter. I still think you’re awesome!”
Try to see if you can have that very same reaction to yourself when you experience rejection. Acknowledge that it hurts. Not just for you but for every human being. It’s okay to feel bad about it. At the same time, you accept both yourself and the emotions you’re feeling. Rejection is hard enough without feeling bad about feeling bad!
Challenge Your Narratives
Let’s say you never ask anyone out because you’re afraid of them rejecting you. The story you tell yourself is, “If I ask people out, they’ll be offended and annoyed, and they may even be rude or insulting to me.” So you don’t ask anyone out, but this means that you never get to test the truth of this narrative.
If you deliberately seek out rejection, though, you discover that this story is pretty inaccurate. People may well reject you, but instead their response is to be flattered and surprised and to kindly and politely say no, letting you know they still appreciate the effort. Unless you test out your narrative, though, you never give yourself the chance to correct it.
You think you are sparing yourself some pain by clinging to the old narrative. But what about the pain of forever believing such a story? What about the low self-esteem it brings, the distrust of others, the pessimism? What about all the opportunities that you miss because you believe that story?
Focus on Process and Not Outcome
Who is in control of your world?
What determines your state of mind?
For people-pleasers, their sense of worth always seems to rest outside of themselves. They give that power to others. If they think you’re good, then you’re good. If they think you’re bad, then that’s what you are.
Furthermore, a people-pleaser always cares about the outcome. Will they approve? What will they say? What should you do to ensure the “right” outcome?
But this “external locus of control” and a focus on outcome saps the joy out of life and makes you feel powerless. To counter it, focus instead on the process, not on the outcome. For example, with Corigan’s exercise, you make progress every time you act to fill your quota. That is something you are in control of. Your quota is not to elicit any particular response from anyone else—it’s only about you and your actions.
Give yourself credit for trying, and forget about what other people think of those attempts or what comes of them. The process of challenging limiting beliefs, of facing your fear—this is where the value lies no matter what the result is!