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How to Help Your Client Overcome Fear of Rejection

7 tips to help your clients gain relationship confidence

Extreme fear of rejection has us seeing rebuffs, rejections, and rebuttals in every word, gesture, silence, and message from those we care about.

“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

We all know it, right?

The knot in your stomach, the racing thoughts, the desperate need for approval, to be accepted, appreciated, liked, and loved, and the fear that it’s not going to happen, that we’ll be unwanted, cast out, banished, neglected.

The fear of rejection can stalk our minds like some mythical monster terrorizing our dreams and casting a shadow across our every thought.

Some of the more simplistic self-help gurus peddle the idea that we shouldn’t need validation from others. That we should “love ourselves” to the point of being entirely immune to other people’s acceptance of us or otherwise.

Caring less about what others think of us is a wonderful capacity to develop. And yet we’re all enmeshed within living, breathing social groups which do and perhaps should matter to us, at least to a point.

To not care at all how others view us is perhaps a tad unrealistic and may even be counterproductive.

Feeling accepted, finding your ‘tribe’, understanding and feeling understood are all parts of what it means to be human. Some important facets of healthy self-esteem are predicated upon feeling you have contributed not just in your own eyes but in the eyes of others. Following on from this sense of contribution to the lives of others, we feel we are valued by a wider group.

That’s all well and good.

But some clients develop a morbid fear, a phobia if you like, of being rejected. Such fears can wreck their relationships. Why?

Because emotions don’t just stop at feelings. Strong feelings drive us to act, and those actions can, in turn, really mess up our relationships.

Ella’s messed-up love life

As with any fear, in which sharks are seen in every shade of the sea and a lion in every leaf of the forest, extreme fear of rejection has us seeing rebuffs, rejections, and rebuttals in every word, gesture, silence, and message from those we care about.

This can make for extremely clingy, insecure, and jealous behaviour. Such was the case for a recent client, Ella.

She told me how she “wrecked wonderful relationships” with her constant neediness and emotional insecurity. She would come to see rejection in every interaction, every ambiguous word or look from her partner. But she felt her fear of rejection was wider than that and impacted her friendships too.

“It drives me and my partner insane,” she told me bitterly. She was terrified of rejection but also worried the behaviour produced by that fear would drive other people away.

A terrible prophecy

Ella had realized that this most terrible of fears, that of rejection, was often a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Fear of rejection makes me act so clingy and annoying that in the end I do get rejected because of the way I’m acting!”

In the past Ella had ended relationships first because she was so certain she was about to be rejected herself. In this way at least she retained a sense of control. But what she really wanted, of course, were fulfilling relationships! Her morbid fear of rejection, not just romantically but in all social groups, had made her feel lonely and hopeless.

These tips to help your clients overcome fear of rejection mirror the story of Ella, who went from fear to fulfilment.

So let’s dive in. Here are seven tips to help you help your clients overcome a morbid fear of rejection to live a fuller and happier life.

Tip one: Discover what is driving the fear

Many of us have feared being rejected at some point. It might be that low self-esteem, feelings of not being good enough, have heightened sensitivity to any perceived rejection.

I asked Ella, “What exactly do you fear?”

She thought for some time. “I guess being unloved. Being unwanted.”

“And why is that so terrible?”

“Well, because I don’t want to be alone!”

We went from there to understanding that Ella tended to generalize negatives. She went from the thought “This person/group doesn’t want me!”to “No one wants me!” and then further generalized to “No one will ever want me!”

She actually laughed when I likened this generalization to a magic trick in which she conjured one thing into everything!

So we were getting close to the crux of the fear.

I asked her to hone in on that feeling of fear and close her eyes and tell me what image came to mind.

After a time she told me that she saw herself like an abandoned child in an isolated house – all alone, totally helpless and hopeless, with absolutely no one!

“Pretty bleak,” I said. “How realistic is that?”

She thought for a while. “Not very! My parents are really supportive and my sister and best friend are always there for me.”

Unrealistic fears need to be unmasked. Seen for what they are – in her case, an overgeneralization to the point of unreality.

This line of thought served as a reframe for Ella.

When we begin to suspect that the assumptions powering our fears are, in some ways, unfounded, the fear becomes less sustainable.

Unrealistic fears need to be unmasked. When we begin to suspect that the assumptions powering our fears are, in some ways, unfounded, the fear becomes less sustainable. Click to Tweet

Next I wanted to know about any inner dialogue Ella might have around fear of rejection.

Tip two: Uncover and challenge the inner dialogue

“If this fear were a voice, Ella, what would it be saying and what would it sound like?”

She looked pensive. At last she said, “It says to me, ‘Why would anyone want you? You’re no good! You’re boring! Pathetic! Unlovable!'”

“Wow! Would you talk to your best friend like that?”

Again Ella laughed in surprise. “Of course not! Never!”

“Well, what would you say to her if she believed she was unlovable or about to be rejected and was prone to all kinds of negative assumptions?”

Notice how I indirectly reframed Ella’s scary thoughts as beliefs and assumptions.

Again Ella thought. “I’d be encouraging. Point out times where people have accepted her and enjoyed her company. I’d list her good qualities. I’d be gentle and say that not everyone can be liked by everyone anyway… and that sometimes people reject others because of deficits in themselves, not the person they seem to be rejecting!”

Ella seemed to have surprised herself with this rebuttal to her own inner dialogue, which of course was much easier to do when framed as helping her friend.

We took this dealing with negative inner dialogue further.

Tip three: Teach self-kindness

Externalizing a self-sabotaging emotional pattern, be it anger, jealousy, depression, or addiction, is a vital part of any therapist’s skill set.

Ella showed maladaptive perfectionist tendencies. Perfectionists tend to beat themselves up if they don’t, in their own narrow and self-lacerating terms, achieve ‘perfection’. Such people may feel that unless they present as ‘perfect’ they must surely be rejected by others who, they blindly assume, must be as tyrannically intolerant of them as they are of themselves.

I asked (and therefore suggested) to Ella at one point:

“Is it possible that some people could be liked and loved by others not for their perfections but for their imperfections? That a wonderfully sweeping tolerance may be at the heart of love?”

Ella looked stunned at this and almost teared up. Changing the subject quickly – as I wanted this idea to settle undisturbed into her unconscious mind – I added:

“What would that nasty inner dialogue sound like if it actually had a voice?”

“Hmm… it would be whiny and sort of nasal.”

It was time for some hypnosis.

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Hypnotic therapy

I encouraged Ella during relaxed hypnosis to practise turning down the volume of that intolerant little voice.

As she breathed calmly, she practised being free of that “dumb little voice”, as she started calling it, and inwardly experienced being more relaxed around other people, no longer scared that saying or doing “the wrong thing” would mean eternal social or romantic excommunication.

I also set Ella a wee behavioural task.

The task

I asked Ella to be on the lookout for negative self-talk, and every time she felt she’d screwed up in relation to other people and started to hear that voice, to take a few moments to imagine she was talking to her best friend, whom she really cared about.

She was to record this encouraging monologue and send it to me. At first I got dozens of these mini recordings, but before long they lessened dramatically. I wondered whether this was because she was no longer carrying out the task, but she told me that that nasty little voice just wasn’t there anymore – indeed, it had lessened even after the very first session.

Of course, fear of rejection may have arisen during past conditioning, and sometimes we may look to undo that conditioning specifically.

Tip four: Work on past conditioning

While it’s important to focus on the present and future, understanding the roots of the fear can be enlightening. Help your clients explore where their fear of rejection originated.

Maybe it stems from childhood experiences or a past relationship. Some fear of rejection may have arisen through being genuinely rejected, perhaps by a parent or a past lover – an overgeneralization of the principle of ‘once bitten, twice shy’.

By revisiting those moments calmly with their current knowledge and wisdom, they can reassure their younger selves that everything will be okay – the Helping Hand technique.

Or perhaps the Rewind technique for trauma may be useful, or any other skill you possess for disentangling faulty pattern matches. Regardless of how you choose to do it, working on past conditioning can help your client relax more in their relationships.

The next tip may be something many practitioners don’t even consider when working with those who are terrified of rejection.

Tip five: Are there any reasons your client may be rejected?

It may be tempting to assume that other people aren’t rejecting your client and it’s all due to chronic oversensitivity. But maybe there are reasons others find them hard to be with.

Sure, their very insecurity might make them chronically needy, constantly seeking reassurance, which can in itself evaporate intimacy as loved ones start to feel exhausted and exasperated from all the reassurance seeking.

But there may be other reasons why your client finds it hard to relate to others or be accepted.

One client, Jeremy, needed to learn social skills, including how to listen and how to empathize. Another needed to learn anger management skills, to be more tolerant of others and therefore less threatening!

It’s not that clients should be encouraged to negate who they are entirely just for the sake of ‘fitting in’, but certainly, sometimes, it may be necessary to help our clients develop relationship and communication skills.

Next up, we may need to help our clients develop more… self-doubt. Yes, really!

Tip six: Help them distrust their own opinions (sometimes)

Confidence doesn’t mean being 100% sure of everything all the time.

In fact, part of building confidence is being comfortable with uncertainty. Ella was often saying that people “must” hate her. Or that her boyfriend was “bound to find someone better!” and so on. There were all these certainties. Certainties produced not from external evidence but from her own imaginings.

There is often, paradoxically, a confident trust in low self-esteemers’ opinions that they are no good and in their pessimistic assertions that everything will be terrible. This is not a kind of self-assuredness that is useful!

Help your clients question their assumptions and be open to different possibilities. Encourage them to doubt that they “just know” what others are thinking or what will happen. Embracing the unknown allows for flexibility and the ability to adapt to different outcomes. And hey, it also makes life a lot more enjoyable!

I did this with Ella through Socratic questioning and externalizing that self-defeating inner dialogue as a whiny little character who didn’t know the half of what was and wasn’t true.

Finally, help your clients devise a survival plan.

Tip seven: Build confidence that they’ll be okay, no matter what

Chronic fear of rejection can be almost akin to a fear of death itself for some clients.

In days gone by, being ejected from the safety of a tribe or the security of a partnership may have literally meant starvation or a loss of protection from wild animals. And even now, lonely people are more likely to suffer illness and die prematurely, so there is something behind the fear.1

Fear of rejection often triggers a sense of impending doom, making some clients believe or at least feel it’s the end of the world.

The feeling is: Rejection equals death!

Calmly explore with your clients the worst-case scenario, something they may not have even been able to think about, and then explore how they would cope and eventually thrive even if that scenario (of being ‘rejected’) came true.

Remind them of their resilience and ability to handle challenging situations. Knowing they’ll be okay no matter what gives them a tremendous boost of confidence and helps them silence that faulty rejection detector. After all, when we envisage managing fine even if we are rejected, the threat of rejection loses its power.

I did this with Ella and she went from assuming that it would be “the end of the world” if she and her partner split to feeling that, while it would be painful, over time she’d come to terms with it and pretty soon be able to thrive again. This was a massive shift in her perception and feelings. She now had the confidence to feel that if ‘the worst’ did happen, it wouldn’t actually be the worst – and so she could relax more in her relationship.

Ella was interested in spiritual ideas. I suggested to her that if a step towards spiritual growth is to tame desire and conquer fear, then overcoming a terror of rejection might be part of that journey.

She nodded her agreement.

Ultimately, Ella grew beyond that old fear of rejection, and is now happy to enjoy her present and let the future “do whatever it likes”.

Changing Minds Gently and Artfully

No matter what your client has come in for, there is one therapeutic technique that will always help them. Reframing is the single technique that applies in every therapeutic situation, and it is almost infinitely perfectible. Depending on your client, their mood in the session, their history and their tendencies, your approach to reframes needs to change. You can learn all about the art of reframing with the man who wrote the book on it – Mark Tyrrell. Read more about the Conversational Reframing course here.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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