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Facing fear of rejection (May 2024 Newsletter)

Dear friends, 

The last newsletter I sent has been over three years ago. Not much of a newsletter really. Maybe a snail-letter…but that may constitute an insult even to snails (sorry snails!!). 

I have indeed re-committed myself to writing this letter again (I guess ‘re-committing’ coupled with ‘again’ is a bit of a tautology - but hey - after a three year-hiatus doubling up may not be such a bad thing). Plus, who would want to blame a non-native for their wobbly English (I’d like to see you write a newsletter in German…). 

My intention in these writings is to put into words my thoughts on zen, spiritual practice (in its widest sense) and leadership in a way that is (hopefully) useful to you. It certainly is for me. After all, writing has always been a way of clarifying the thinking of my restless mind which likes to think in loops, pretzels and Spaghetti No. 8s. 

If you are getting this newsletter but didn’t sign up for it, it means I added you because I thought this topic would be of interest to you. If that was a vast error in judgment on my end, please do forgive me. You can unsubscribe below or simply ping me an email. And if you think someone else in your network might be interested, feel free to forward of course. 

So without further due - what better subject for a revived newsletter than the topic of ‘fear of rejection’: It has been a very old, loyal (though not dear) friend of mine. It likes to invite itself over in most if not all social situations, and definitely does join me at any party, networking event, conference, etc. And it usually likes to bring its most ardent supporter ‘feeling-of-unworthiness’ with it. 

When the three of us would show up at a party, it would usually look something like this: We’d enter the room (still feeling reasonably confident - one of us at least), but upon seeing a bunch of strangers standing together in little groups, all the self-confidence would suddenly be gone and ‘fear-of-rejection’ would whispers something like this into my ear: “Oh man! I wouldn’t walk up to any of these people - they’d sure think you’re intruding”. ‘Fear-of-rejection’ is also always convinced that all these strangers know each other well (are best friends in fact!), and because I have learned to listen to ‘fear-of-rejection’ over decades, I’d do the safe thing and just get a drink and stand lonely at the bar. From here I’d try to look busy but ‘fear-of-rejection’ now usually would say something like “Oh boy! I think by now everyone has realized that you don’t know anyone here”. And now ‘feeling-of-unworthiness’, sensing its moment, would casually throw in something like:  “I wonder if they are all thinking  that there must be something wrong with you for standing here all by yourself?”. In some odd combination of anxiety and narcissistic distortion I’d now be convinced that everyone in this room is thinking about me, and the reasons for me standing here all by myself…. The three of us don’t tend to stay long.

Last year I wrote an article in Tricycle Magazine (Tricycle is a Buddhist Magazine and my favorite magazine in the world - so I can’t recommend subscribing enough!) about this (you can find the article here and a pdf version on my website), and I was surprised about the reception. It made the list of top 23 articles of 2023, and many friends and colleagues reached out letting me know that they had felt very similar in social situations. First I was surprised that these people could have similar feelings (all of them struck me as charismatic, interesting and a delight to talk to), and then I was surprised at how surprised these people were that I was having those feelings myself (if you can still follow). It became clear to me how lonely we usually are with our fears of rejection. As if the fear alone was proof that we were in fact reject-worthy. 

One of the antidotes to this is simply sharing: Talking more openly about the social anxieties we carry in a radically open way.  But - now to the useful part of this newsletter (hey, it only took me around 700 words to get there!): There are a few other practices I found very useful and would like to share with you.

Pay close attention to what is: In Zen there is a saying that goes “Breath sweeps mind”. Our mind produces an endless stream of (often unwanted) thoughts, including the ones I have around fear of rejection. There is a certain logic to these thoughts for sure: They want to protect us from the possibility of painful feelings such as rejection, failure or disappointment. But the problem - when we listen to them - is that they limit us to the very narrow circle of our ‘comfort zone’. This is true for fear of rejection as much as for public speaking anxiety, fear of failure or any form of perfectionism. 

Unfortunately, we notice in those moments that our mind is only partially under our control. We cannot will our negative thoughts to go away. In fact, many of those can seem to almost compulsively push themselves into the center of our attention (some of those fearful thoughts have a particular preference to show up at around 3.30am - but that is a topic for a different newsletter).

So back to the Zen saying: What we can do is focus our attention on the breath. You can try it now: Simply see where you breath is at this moment and try to give it your fullest attention. In…. out… It may only last for a few seconds, but while your attention is with your breath it cannot simultaneously be with your thoughts. Every time we find ourselves in compulsive fearful thoughts, we can choose to (at least temporarily) pay attention to our breath. Sometimes this can feel like a tug-of-war, but every time we do this, we become a little freer of the attachment to our compulsive thoughts. 

Allow, Accept, Don’t Entertain: The famous 20th century Zen master Shunryu Suzuki used to say: “We allow our thoughts in. We just don’t serve them tea.” In the past when fear-of-rejection reared its head I would try to ignore it or ‘muscle-it-away’. In fact I even felt shame for having that fear in the first place. These days I make every effort to welcome fear-of-rejection with great compassion. When we carry this fear, we usually have experienced events (usually early in our upbringing) that helped shape and craft such fears and beliefs. I can welcome it gently, realizing that - just as all fears - it showed up to protect me. It doesn’t want to harm me, and it doesn’t mean that I am not 100% love-worthy. It simply means past hurt has manifested in the form of this fear. I can allow it and then accept it. Note that accepting does not mean that I cherish its presence. It simply means I get in line with reality - namely that it is here. It doesn’t mean that I need to give it further energy either. In fact, next time fear-of-rejection shows up for you, try this: Silently say to it “I see you. You are here to protect me. Thank you for your offer to help. But I am OK. I am safe” (by the way - if you think silently talking to yourself is strange, i have news for you: you do it all the time. Most of the time you’re just not intentional about it). 

Focus on the other: One of my favorite quotes is by the 8th century Buddhist monk Shantideva: "All the happiness there is in this world comes from thinking about others, and all the suffering comes from preoccupation with yourself". Have you ever noticed that in our moments of social anxiety our mind is usually completely preoccupied with thinking about ourselves. This is how we create our suffering, by focusing on the delusion of our separate sense of self. 

Albert Einstein wrote in a letter (this is one of my other favorite quotes)  “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. ” This may be tough to swallow for many of us. And in my experience it usually takes some time in meditation to have a felt sense of what he means, but whether we buy it or not: Our focus on ourselves is usually not helping us very much (seems like an irony doesn’t it)? If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to try this: Next time you are caught in your own anxieties, ask yourself, who around you is in need of help, encouragement, positive reinforcement? How can you be of service to them? This has been transformational for me when my mind tries to do its fear-of-rejection pretzel-thing. Especially after I have realized how common it is. Instead of buying into my own negative thoughts, I can now ask myself: who in this room might be feeling what I might be feeling? And I can walk over, not with the intention to make myself feel better, but with the intention to help them feel better. And guess what, through the magic of what it means to be human, we can lift both of us out of our self-and-mind created misery in that moment. 

I truly hope this was useful. Feel free to ping me a note with any thoughts you have. Would love to learn about your experience. Or simply hear how you are doing. 

And a warning: I initially wanted to put myself all the way out there and commit to a newsletter every month for the rest of the year! But then I remembered an old McKinsey-days mantra (or should I call it trauma?) to “under-promise and over-deliver”. Hence I only promise the next newsletter no later than three years from now! And who knows…. It might even come sooner.

Be well, be gentle and kind,


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