Want to quit getting angry when others refuse you? Take the challenge for rejection therapy.
It’s simple to become numb to rejection; all you have to do is be rejected every day.
Sun, July 24, 2022, 11 a.m. BST
In 2012, Jia Jiang, 30, approached a stranger and asked for a $100 loan. “No,” replied the perplexed man sitting in a hotel lobby. He was curious as to why he was being asked, but Jiang didn’t explain; he simply said thanks and walked away. This was Jiang’s first day of rejection therapy, a concept developed by Canadian entrepreneur Jason Comely in which people were challenged to approach strangers with strange requests in order to build resilience against rejection.
Jiang’s fear of rejection stemmed from a childhood experience of being shunned at school. A teacher had asked students to come up with compliments for one another, but when Jiang’s turn came, they all fell silent. It harmed his self-esteem for decades. He was a senior marketing manager by his 30s, but his dream of developing mobile apps was stymied by the fear of his pitches being rejected.
When Jiang looked for help online, all he found was phony inspirational advice. He then came across Comely’s website, rejectiontherapy.com. Comely explained on his website that he wanted to “break the tyranny of social anxiety” by creating a “real-life game” with only one rule: “You must be rejected by another person at least once, every single day.” He devised 30 daily challenges in which the goal was to be rejected. Players had to ask a stranger for a ride or a discount when purchasing something. They’d succeed by being denied, and hopefully overcome the agony of failure by confronting it head on.
Jiang was so taken with the concept that he took it 70 steps further, creating 100 challenges for himself. “When I first started, my goal was to say, ‘OK, I’ll get rejected and learn from it to become tougher,’” he says. He asked simple but awkward questions, such as requesting a free night’s stay at a hotel or requesting a selfie with a stranger.
Jiang now works full-time to help others overcome the same fears he did. When I call him on Zoom, he is sitting in front of a green screen in his California home, which he uses as a backdrop when coaching clients from all over the world. “A lot of us are held back by our fear of rejection,” he says. “It’s just something we want to avoid in our DNA.” Jiang is now calm, confident, and charismatic, a far cry from the awkward presence he displayed in his first YouTube video a decade ago.
But why do we have such a strong fear of social rejection? Naomi Eisenberger, a social psychologist at UCLA, collaborated on the study with her colleague Matthew Lieberman. “We started with a very simple question: what happens in the brain when people feel socially excluded?” she says. “We put people in the fMRI scanner and had them play a game where they were excluded.” Cyberball was a virtual game in which subjects tossed a ball back and forth with two other participants. Except the other players weren’t real people; they were avatars programmed to stop throwing the ball to the subject at a specific point in the game.
Eisenberger was able to track what happened in the brain when subjects were included and then excluded from a social activity, and she made an interesting discovery as a result. The brain regions activated when a person felt excluded were the same regions that were activated during physical pain. “From this early study, we thought, ‘OK, maybe there’s a reason people talk about being rejected as being hurt.’” Maybe there’s a reason we use physical-pain words to describe these social pain experiences.”
According to Eisenberger, this borrowing of the pain system is most likely the result of our reliance on caregivers during our infancy stage. “We are born immature as a mammalian species.” “We need to stay close to a caregiver so that we can get the proper food, protection, and warmth,” she explains. “If staying close to a caregiver is so important, it might be really adaptive to feel bothered, pained, and distressed if we’re separated.”
This protective system may have evolved over time and now kicks in whenever we believe our relationships with friends, family, or social groups are under threat. “There was something kind of beautiful about it,” Eisenberger says of the find. “It demonstrates how important our social connections are; that we’re using what I consider to be a very primitive system, this pain system, to stay connected to others.”
When I tell clinical psychologist Michael Stein about this rejection-therapy challenge, he says it’s “fantastic.” It’s exactly what I’d recommend to people who suffer from social anxiety.” For more than 14 years, Stein has specialized in treating anxiety disorders with exposure therapy in his private practice, Anxiety Solutions, in Denver, Colorado. He claims it is one of the most research-backed treatments available and employs a number of techniques to actively confront anxiety.
“Short-term avoidance of anxiety leads to long-term maintenance of anxiety,” Stein tells me. “Anything you do when you feel anxious to try to make yourself feel better might work in the moment, but it actually guarantees more anxiety the next time you’re in a similar situation.” Exposure therapy does the exact opposite: it forces you to endure the uncomfortable feeling. But the goal isn’t necessarily to feel less anxious – instead you’re learning to tolerate the emotion, at least to begin with.
Stein’s advice is to target the type of rejection you’re most worried about and practise exposure at a pace you can handle. When things get difficult, remind yourself of the benefits which outweigh the anxiety.
On day three, Jiang went into a Krispy Kreme and requested an Olympic-ring-shaped doughnut. He was expecting a quick no, but this time was different. Jackie, the cashier, paused in confusion before beginning to sketch a design. She finished the request in fifteen minutes and gave them to Jiang for free. Jiang posted the interaction online, and it was featured on Reddit’s front page, garnering millions of views. “That’s what got me all the attention and press,” he says. “Later, I wrote a book, gave a TED Talk, and now I do a lot of speaking – but all of that key knowledge came from those 100 days.”
Over three months Jiang played football in a stranger’s back garden, got Santa to sit on his lap and ticked off a lifelong ambition: teaching a class at a college campus. This was when he fully discovered the benefits of risking rejection. “When I finished teaching that class I walked out crying,” he says during his Ted Talk. “I saw I could fulfil my life’s dream just by simply asking.”
By day 30 Jiang had raised his resilience to rejection and gained confidence in himself and faith in others, as many said yes to his strange requests. “We often expect the worst,” he says. “In reality almost everyone is nicer and less confrontational than we think.” Jiang used this newfound self-esteem to become the entrepreneur he had always wanted to be. In 2016 Comely called him up and they made a joint decision that the SocialRejection domain should switch hands to him.
Comely tells me, “Jiang was the obvious successor.” “He expressed an interest in purchasing Rejection Therapy years ago, so I guess it was time.” But I cried the day I sold it.” Comely returned to school and now works with the homeless, whereas Jiang began his business offering rejection therapy consultations and launched his mobile app in 2018. The TikTok hashtag #RejectionTherapy has received over 23 million views.
What is Jiang’s advice to others? Rejection is unavoidable, so don’t try to avoid it or take it personally. “We believe that every rejection is an indictment of who we are, and every acceptance is a confirmation of our worth,” he says. “No, it isn’t. It’s only my opinion.”
A decade on, Jiang still puts himself in the occasional vulnerable position to keep his tolerance high. He’s aware his resilience to rejection doesn’t come naturally, but he believes it’s worth pursuing. “I found this thing to be more like an exercise,” he says. “You’ve got to keep doing it to be able to maintain that muscle.”