How to Inoculate Yourself Against the Fear of Rejection

I recorded a podcast with Jennifer Tracy of the MILF podcast a few months back and something I said garnered a bit of inquiry from listeners. I mentioned that I had decided several years back to “inoculate myself against rejection.” In one of my many email attempts to become a guest on the MILF podcast, I had mentioned this to Jennifer as a way to poke fun at my constant harassment. People responded to that idea and asked a lot of questions that spurred me to want to write this post. So (technically) in a Padded Room first, this essay is a product of audience participation.

I had to inoculate myself against fear of rejection because that is what showed up for me in my life. But this concept of inoculation can be applied to any psychological process that works in your life as a source of self-limiting and sabotaging behavior. I want to offer you the opportunity to really think about the ways, both big and small, that you hold the hand that holds you down. Once you have identified the ways in which you limit your own growth, I want you to start to expose yourself, in doses, to that very agitating agent, whatever it may be. That’s the source code in the inoculation process – dosed exposure. Time under tension has always been the best method for increasing endurance or tolerance for something. This theory follows the same basic principles.

For me, most of this surfaced primarily in the realm of my work life and career satisfaction. Thus, most of what you are going to see is related to that area of my life. But this same model can be used for any of your inoculation patterns that emerge as salient to your growth, even if it’s not associated with your career.

I’ve said this elsewhere on The Padded Room, but for a lot of years, I lived hidden and obscured. In plain sight, of course. That’s always the best way to hide. Look natural. Appear normal, whatever the fuck that means anyway. But I did it. I excelled at it. I worked hard to make myself small. It was a lot of work to minimize my footprint, to diminish my power. It takes a lot of willpower to silence your own voice, to be your own warden, to lock your own cage each night.

I could tell you all the reasons why I lived like this. And there are plenty. I had reasons and excuses and axes to grind. I had legitimate sources of pain, abandonment, death, and all of it shaped me in ways both beautiful and brash. Crude and profound. But I assure you the specifics of my story are not really what matters and they are only told in order to bring flesh and contour to the concept I want you to begin to observe in your own interior world.

I’m not here to reassure you that everything is going to be okay or that fate has your back or that some higher power has a master plan. That might all be true, but that’s just not how I roll. I come from the assumption that life is going to kick my ass. It already has done its best to strip me bare, to take me down to my guts.

This feels truthful to me.

It feels like if we start there, we can actually have a mutually agreed upon reality. Life is not fair. It’s not kind. It doesn’t have your best interests in mind. You are going to mourn every person you value and love, if they don’t have to do it first. You are going to want to quit, to throw in the towel a million times between the dawn and dusk of your life. You will feel pain. You will fail at things you dreamed of achieving. You will hurt other people. People will hurt you. You will come nose to nose with all the harsh truths of being human. This is all part of the human condition.

So, the question becomes what do we do in the face of this harsh reality? Do we keep trying to bend reality to better fit our emotional narrative, whatever the tenor of that storyline might be for you. Or, do we begin to inoculate ourselves against the very things that scare us most, the things that haunt us when we are still, when the mind wanders freely?

For me, I had to tango with fear. Fear of failure. Fear of disappointing people. Fear of being cast out. Fear of rejection. And fear of judgement. It all mixed and swirled like watercolors and pooled in puddles of stagnation, avoidance, and isolation.

And all of fear’s partners in crime were there too. Self-doubt. Avoidance. Sabotage. Shame. These feelings are regular bedmates of risk and fear. This drumbeat kept me in a certain pace, a cadence. I was comfortable in this frequency. I had reached the goals I set for myself back when I was twenty-four years old and had steered this ship towards a degree in Psychology. To be perfectly honest, I had gotten really comfortable with succeeding. I started to value “success” over challenging myself. This was another way that fear of failure came cloaked in disguise.

What I observed was that I had evolved to be psychologically fragile in many ways. I was tough, don’t get me wrong. Strong-minded, and even determined. But I was also rigid and stiff. I increasingly required external conditions to be a certain way in order for me to feel comfortable, to be able to navigate life with a sense of confidence. And this fragility led me to narrow and shape-shift reality to better fit my emotional needs.

But through observation and the practice of stillness, I discovered that I needed to become emotionally flexible, psychologically agile, and increase my tolerance for uncertainty. I needed to become anti-fragile.

In my case, I started a blog. That was the first step I took. It allowed me to start to flex a new and different muscle of self-expression. While that was enough of a risk to challenge me, it wasn’t overly threatening. For many years, I posted essays and got only a couple hundred sets of eyes on any one blog. But I was doing something tangible and intentional towards this broader goal of exposing the underbelly of my comfort zone. Once that started to feel more and more tolerable, I then decided to submit my essays to other blogs. This opened me up to actual rejection, which I got in droves and still get continually. This additional rejection provided an ever-increasing dose to my exposure levels. Then I started to reach out to various podcasts to appear as a guest. While being a guest doesn’t cause me much stress or fear, reaching out to people and making the request is one of my least favorite things to do. It doesn’t come naturally to me. And I loathe feeling like I’m bothering someone or being a pain in the ass, which stands in direct opposition to the fact that I really want to participate and believe I have something to contribute of value in this sphere.

I set up daily, weekly, and monthly goals for each of the aforementioned steps. This isn’t anything terribly complicated. Just some kind of agenda towards a specific goal. Because I increased my inoculation dose in increments, by the time I got to this step in the process, I had already built up some resistance to the inevitable experience of rejection (which is relentless and continues to be a blow to the ego even all these years later).

If you overdose yourself early on in the process, it is likely you will quit. I see this all the time in my private practice. People who have lived a lifetime starting grand ideas and never seeing any of them to fruition. Often at the core of this dynamic is someone who over-exposes or takes on way more than they can handle and they end up sabotaging their own progress because of poor planning. Conversely, if you are not challenging yourself enough, you will feel bored and lose interest in your goal. Observe if these patterns orbit in your life. They are hidden sources of sabotage that need to be addressed in order for you to truly make headway in this area. Inoculating yourself against the core dynamics that hold you back in your life is a form of self-regulation and it requires observation, strategic planning, and a tactical approach.

The game-changing results come from simply resisting the urge to quit, which you should expect to wrestle with if you really want to change and grow. Truth be told, it’s just an urge – the urge to quit. Every victorious person, every great athlete, all the bold innovators, every hero have all grappled with the urge to quit. When we don’t give in to this urge, we develop the capacity to be emotionally and psychologically agile under the ever-changing sand beneath our feet. This is the birthplace of grit and resiliency.

I know now how much people love a good list, so consider this my gift.

Ponder these steps as you observe this notion of inoculation in your life:

Observe what holds you back in life.

And here’s a starting point, it’s never-and I mean never– someone else’s fault. You’ve got to own your shit in order to get a shoulder length ahead of it. It does not serve you to continue to live unconsciously and look externally for solutions to what is ultimately an inside job.

To that end, create stillness to foster this muscle of observation.

Twenty minutes a day. Stop coming up with reasons why you can’t do this and start to use that energy of resistance towards the muscle of observation. Why do you resist this step? What are you avoiding? I want you to really snuggle in once it gets uncomfortable. Stretch and luxuriate in that discomfort; this is where all the good stuff happens. These feelings control you far more than anything you are aware of. Observe. Observe. Observe.

Be specific.

Really name what holds you back, like I did with fear. Notice that I went even further to truly identify the particular emotional sources of fear (fear of failure, etc.). Your brain can’t start to plot an inoculation plan if it doesn’t know specifically what it is exposing itself to.

Then create daily, weekly and monthly inoculation tasks that will dose you in increments.

You want to be challenged enough to cause discomfort but not so much that you are overwhelmed and want to quit. Over exposure is just another source of sabotage as it compels you to quit before you can actually help yourself. Remember, this is an inside job. You hold the hand that holds you down.

Repeat steps 1-4 over and over again especially when it sucks.

And let me be clear, in case I have been vague up to this point, this will be difficult and cumbersome. If avoiding discomfort becomes your true north, you will never evolve out of your current emotional patterns.

Contact me or someone similarly trained in this field if you want one-on-one partnership.


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Further Reading...

I hope you will reconsider your relationship with fear and let it, once again, takes it’s place among the pantheon of other feelings we experience that participate in transformin

Chatting with Megan Gipson, LCSW of The Family Brain Podcast where we discussed neurobiology, brain development, birth order, positive psychology, and many other topics.

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