Rejections hurts—literally. Research shows an overlap in how our brains respond to rejection and physical pain. Why? Humans have a fundamental need to belong. “We have evolved to be part of a group, part of a tribe,” says psychologist Ben Michaelis, PhD, creator of One Minute Diagnosis, which aims destigmatize mental illness. “Without our tribes we can’t survive. When we experience rejection, it taps into our ancient fears of being left out or rejected from our tribes, which, once upon a time, actually did mean death.”
But most of the rejection we face on a daily basis is not life or death. This outdated fear keeps us firmly planted in our comfort zone—which, in turn, prevents us from taking risks and stifles growth. To truly thrive, it’s crucial to embrace fear and rejection-proof yourself. Just ask Jia Jiang.
When Jia Jiang turned 30, he felt personally and professionally stuck. He longed to make a radical change. Yet every time he felt the urge to speak up or try something new, he smacked up against his biggest fear: rejection.
In his now-famous TEDx talk, “What I Learned from 100 Days of Rejection,” Jiang recounts overcoming this barrier to success by purposefully seeking out opportunities to be rejected. He started by asking a stranger for $100…and was promptly turned down. Jiang didn’t let that stop him, making untraditional requests—get a “burger refill,” be a Starbucks greeter, plant a flower in someone’s yard—every day for 100 days.
The more risks he took, the easier it got. While he was surprised by how often people said yes, Jiang explains that he felt more confident with each ask regardless of the response—because rejection itself lost its sting.
Do you have to start asking strangers for money or inquiring about burger refills to be rejection-proof? Nope. But you can try these 4 ways to say no to rejection:
1. Separate fear of rejection from rejection itself. It’s hard to hear “no,” especially when the stakes are high and you’re emotionally involved with the outcome (like applying for a job or asking someone out on a date), but the fear is worse.
Why? Because every time you step out of your comfort zone, rejection is not a guaranteed conclusion. When fear drives your decision making, it will consistently keep you from doing what you want to do. Challenge that fear with a mantra, such as “Rejection does not define me,” or “I am more afraid of not trying than I am of failing.”
2. Keep your radar in check. Jiang realized that what he was ultimately afraid of was feeling judged—and so a crucial part of the process was to engage with each person he talked to, even if their initial response was to reject him. What he found was that regardless of the request, they most often wanted to know why. Why did he want that $100, or to get a haircut from a pet groomer, or to take a nap in a mattress store? When he stayed long enough to get to “why,” he sometimes got a “yes.”
The fear of being judged by others comes down to your embarrassment radar. The key is to stop your radar (“I’ve lost standing in someone’s eyes.”) from getting in the way of your goals. When you go looking for something, you often find it—meaning you end up feeling judged more than warranted and more afraid to take risks. Next time you feel your embarrassment radar pinging, stop for a moment and check if it’s accurate (“Will this person really think of less of me if I ask for/do this?”). Nine times out of ten, it won’t be.
3. Practice with low-stakes requests. You won’t wake up one day and declare, “I will no longer fear rejection!” That’s not how you defuse your fears or build your resilience. Remember, Jiang started by asking for $100 he didn’t need! It was only by making small requests that could get rejected (and sometimes did) that Jiang’s resilience got stronger and he was less intimidated by the prospect of a no.
So start small. Rather than starting with the most outrageous request you can think up, make a practice of asking for small things that you might not get. And remember that “no” doesn’t have to mean flat-out rejection; it might just means “not right now.”
4. Get perspective. “No matter who you are, rejection will cause a pang of negative emotions,” says Michaelis. “After you have a chance to digest your feelings, think about what you have learned from being rejected. Most of the time there is some lesson in there for you. It could mean that you need to think differently, or pivot or make a personal change, but no matter what, there is a lesson in rejection: you just have to find it.”
With practice, you can start to see yourself as someone who isn’t derailed by occasional rejection—and the world as something that’s constantly in flux and full of possibility.
Terri Trespicio is a New York–based lifestyle writer. For nearly a decade, she served as a senior editor and radio host at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Her work has appeared in Jezebel, XOJane, Marie Claire, Prevention, MindBodyGreen, and DailyWorth. Find her on Twitter @TerriT