On Healing 1/23/2006: Paralyzed by one’s fear of rejection

Dear Dr. Gottlieb:
Your last column about desire was interesting. But what happens when there is a conflict between desire and fear of taking a risk? I think a lot of people live with unfulfilled desires, perhaps unnecessarily, simply because they are afraid. For instance, fear of rejection might prevent someone from asking for a date. The desire to be true to oneself might be stifled by the fear of society’s disapproval.

I used to have a tremendous fear of what others might think of me. It caused much needless emotional pain. As the years pass, I find I care less about others’ opinion of me. The less I care about what others think, the happier I become.

Can you address the issue of fear of disapproval? I would like to know your take on just how much we should worry about what others think of us.
–Ruth

Dear Ruth:
The overarching desire for any living being is to avoid suffering and pursue happiness or security. So when someone doesn’t do something because of anxiety, he is really making a decision to avoid suffering.

I see this kind of behavior in my office every day. People who take drugs, or starve themselves, or worry incessantly, are really making a misguided effort to diminish their anxiety and feel more secure. People with agoraphobia, who are afraid to leave home or travel for fear of panic attacks, are a good example of how paying homage to anxiety is an attempt to pursue security. It rarely works, but our instinct is to do whatever we can to avoid anxiety.

Your example about fear of being judged is quite similar to the anxiety I just described. The greater desire is to pursue safety rather than risk exposure. Not only is this social anxiety understandable, some of it is necessary. We are social animals, and need to be part of a community where we feel safe and accepted. Because we need acceptance, we tend to adapt to the community’s beliefs and values. In balance, this is fine. But people who are on the narcissistic end of the continuum don’t much care about community values, and think the community should adapt to them. On the other hand, people who feel more anxious and insecure are more likely to sacrifice their individuality for fear of being rejected.

So what can be done for people whose anxiety is interfering with their lives? The answer might seem counterintuitive. When we feel anxious, the instinct is to honor the anxiety and avoid those people or situations that make us anxious.

However, research published in a December issue of the Journal of Neuroscience showed that a trust-building hormone called oxytocin actually calms anxiety. This is consistent with many cognitive behavioral treatments for anxiety disorders. Rather than honoring fear, they help their patients face their fear. When that’s done repeatedly, people build trust in themselves. So when one feels anxious, rather than shutting down, the healthy approach is to open up, which will build trust in oneself in the larger community.

Finally, you make an important point in describing how this fear of rejection diminishes over time. One’s vigilant attention to external feedback is about the ego. If you listen to the language that surrounds this concern, it’s filled with personal pronouns: “What do they think of me?” “I might not be good enough.” “Do they like my new outfit or will they be impressed with my recent achievement?”

Over time, with some wisdom and growth, we become less self-focused. As a wise man once told me: “I think we are born square and die round.” As the waters of life wash over us, we lose the rough edges and become more comfortable inside our skin.

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