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How to Get Over the Fear of Rejection

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Rejection hurts. It’s painful. So it’s no wonder so many people are afraid of rejection. But how can you get over the fear of rejection?

Let me tell you a story about one time I was rejected. It seems small, but it really hurt.

While doing my fieldwork for my Master’s degree, I traveled through France quite extensively on my own. I was studying Breton music and I bounced around from city to city in the Western Peninsula attending events called fest noz.

At the train station in Rennes, I walked up to the counter to purchase my ticket. I made my request in French, but the clerk replied to me in English. I felt my eyes narrow in determination, and I pushed, continuing to use French. She was just as persistent. It continued this way for the entire transaction.

I walked away with a bad feeling, she had completely rejected my efforts to speak French and it was a huge blow to my confidence. Especially since I was trying to do my fieldwork in the language. What if I wasn’t really understanding? What if I was doing a good job at my research? What if my French wasn’t as good as I thought it was?

It was an enormous blow to my confidence.

After experiencing rejection, it can be a huge undertaking to build yourself up again enough to put yourself out there.

Most advice articles will tell you, “hey, just pick yourself up and try again.” But that’s not really all that helpful.

Rejection can hurt and it isn’t always as easy as just dusting yourself off.

Why Rejection Hurts: The Spotlight Effect

Tell me if this experience sounds familiar. You’re walking down the street and someone up ahead of you waves. You squint and think, “do I know that person?” They smile, so you smile back, nod your head and wave. As you get closer, they walk past you and hug the person who was walking right behind you. Your face burns with embarrassment and you look around to make sure no one noticed your error.

You worry that everyone around you was watching your embarrassing encounter.

The same was probably true of my experience in Rennes. Perhaps there was nothing wrong with my French. Maybe the clerk just wanted to test out her English. I was making the situation about me when there was a really good chance that it wasn’t.

This is called the “Spotlight Effect” and it’s our tendency to think that more people notice us or things about us than they really do.

The same is true of the mistakes we make in our target languages. We think that native speakers are paying more attention to us and our errors than they really are when in fact, they’re more concerned with their own mistakes in their target language.

Why does this happen?

It happens because we experience everything from our own perspective. That means we have a tendency to believe other people are focused on the same things that we are – our awkward wave moment, or our mistakes when we speak – when they’re actually focused on other things.

This is, in part, what makes rejection so hard. Because of the “spotlight effect” you feel like the rejection is about you. It’s personal. But really, there are so many more things that play into the decision on the other person’s end and it’s not about you, it’s about them.

Knowing this, however, doesn’t always take away the sting of rejection or the embarrassment you may feel. It’s impossible to avoid rejection altogether. It’s something we’re forced to face pretty regularly. Rather than going into situations where you feel afraid of rejection, I want to help you build habits that will empower you. I know that you can handle them, and I’ll show you several ways to become more confident in your ability to handle rejection in this post.

How to Deal with Embarrassment

Many people equate rejection with embarrassment. You want to feel accepted and a part of things, but feel crushed when a rejection makes you feel otherwise. If this is you, then you equate rejection with social shaming. Of course it hurts!

When you’re embarrassed by a rejection, it stays with you. Such rejections leave big wounds that fester for years, or even decades. No wonder people feel stuck with their fear of rejection.

I’m sure you can think back a few months or years and call up an experience where you were embarrassed by a rejection.

The thing is, that embarrassed feeling is you focusing on the negative of the experience.

Instead, focus on the positive. How did you move forward after that particular rejection?

If you’re like me, you probably vowed to never to that again. But what exactly is that? In the moment, it’s easy to exaggerate things and think that means the situation as a whole.

But once a few days have passed, you’re able to pinpoint the specific thing or moment where things turned south. It’s that thing you don’t want to do again.

So you move forward, aiming to do better next time. Turn that into a positive. Instead of thinking it as a personal rejection, think of it as information. A tool you can use to improve.

Think of Rejection as a Learning Experience

Here’s how you can take the idea of focusing on the positive one step further: see your rejection as an opportunity to grow.

Rejections give you the chance to become a better language learner, a better speaker of your target language, and in some cases, a better person. You just need to look for where the lesson is.

I’ll share an example. When I first started doing language exchanges in Chinese, I was only a few weeks into studying. Most of the phrases I had picked up were from a series I watched on CNTV because I had yet to purchase a coursebook.

In a recent episode, I had learned a phrase that roughly approximated to “see you later” or “goodbye”, and I was excited to use it. Towards the end of the conversation, my moment came and I blurted it out proudly only to have my exchange partner start giggling.

“雅娜,” she said, calling me by my Chinese name. “Only shopkeepers say that to someone leaving their store!”

My use of the new phrase was rejected.

Admittedly, I was red from the neck up. Here I was, thinking I had done my homework, armed with all sorts of useful phrases.

They were useful, but for the wrong context.

I could have been discouraged by the laughter or the rejection, thinking my studying was all for naught.

But then in that very moment I realized something. She had just taught me something very important. I not only learned the correct phrase for saying farewell, but I also learned that Chinese greetings and farewells could be very situational. It made me look closely at the things I picked up later on down the road. I became a more observational learner and it made my Chinese all the stronger for it.

This all happened because a phrase I tried to use was rejected as inappropriate for the context, and it has helped me reframe how I think about rejection and making mistakes.

How can you reframe how you think about mistakes?

There’s a strategy that fiction writers use to help them progress their stories. It’s called “Yes, but… No, and…”

In fiction writing, it’s used to make the conditions worse for the protagonist, but instead, you’ll use it to make them better for you.

Here’s a few examples:

  1. You used the wrong phrase to say farewell in Chinese. Yes, but it provided you with the opportunity to learn the correct one and become a more aware learner.
  2. You sent a language exchange request to someone who didn’t answer. No, they didn’t and that’s okay because you sent three others and all of those learners replied.
  3. You tried to order in Italian at a local restaurant, but the waiter just replied in English. Yes, but they understood you and you got to practice speaking.

When you shift your attention away from the negative and focus on the positive, those rejections suddenly don’t seem so bad. Why not try the “Yes, but… No, and…” exercise the next time you’re feeling down about a rejection?

How to Deal with Fear: Plan for the “No”

Rejection feels especially bad when it’s the opposite of what you expected to happen.

Of course it’s disappointing when things don’t turn out the way you expect. So, change your expectations. Being a pessimist can be helpful here. If you go in expecting a no, you’ll get to be pleasantly surprised when you get a yes.

This is a really powerful skill to have. When you’re reached a position when you expect to be rejected, and yet you still go ahead and try anyway, then nothing can stop you. And that’s not just in language learning, but in the whole of life.

And there’s a simple technique you can use to develop this skill…

The “Meaningless No” Strategy

How can you develop a thicker skin? Go out and get rejected.

Start with low stakes, so you have less emotional investment. Instead of asking for things you actually want, instead, ask for things that you don’t really need or want.

Later, start to ask for things that are a little outrageous just so you can get comfortable with hearing “no”.

This is what I call the Meaningless No Strategy. Because even if people say “no” to your requests, you’ve not lost anything. You don’t experience the frustration of not getting what you want.

And if people surprise you with a “yes” (and this will happen more often than you expect), you’ll still be developing the ability to make the ask.

Need some inspiration? Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Can I borrow $100?
  • Could we take a selfie? (to a total stranger)
  • Could I have a bit of your bagel/sandwich/chips/etc.? (to a stranger or a friend who doesn’t share their food)
  • Do you mind if I borrow your phone?

Give Yourself Perspective

In the context of language learning, really think about the worst that could happen if your efforts are rejected. What will your life look like after that rejection?

Your family will still love you. Your ability in your target language is still the same (and it will only get better). The sky isn’t falling. Your friends still enjoy spending time with you.

The only thing that might be a little different is how confident you feel in your language. And even that will build back up.

After you face rejection, take a moment to focus on what’s still the same in your life. Everything will still be okay. And you never know what new opportunities will come your way because of the rejection.

When you take time time to get perspective, you’ll find that you significantly reduce your fear of rejection.

No Pain, No Gain: Embrace the Burn and Answer Back

Rejection can be a terrible feeling when you focus on the negative or take it personally. It’s easy to overanalyze a rejection, to think that it’s all about something you’re doing wrong or that you’re falling short of something. It grows from this nervousness about making a mistake or looking foolish, to a terrible fear.

And because it’s terrifying, you try to avoid the pain altogether. But remember: What you flee from chases you.

So, rather than trying to escape the pain, sit with it. Listen to what’s going on in your mind. And once you’ve listened, start to answer back.

Start a counter argument with yourself. Let your kind self speak to your more negative self.

Yes, this internal discussion can be difficult and painful to watch. And it can even feel a bit silly. But you’ll get much further than by avoiding it altogether.

Here’s how this works. When you notice yourself thinking things like: “I suck at speaking in my language” reply with: “I can get better at speaking my language and I just took a huge step towards doing that by speaking today.”

When you notice: “I’ll never be able to pronounce the words right.” Think: “It’s probably time that I sit down and focus on my pronunciation.”

When you notice: “I just don’t have time to learn a language and that’s why they switched over to English. I don’t have enough practice.” Respond with: “How can I add just 30 more seconds of language study to my schedule per day?”

Beyond the Fear of Rejection: You Can Be Rejected and Be Okay With It

Rejection stirs up emotions. It’s okay to feel embarrassed or sad or ashamed. Allow yourself that moment and then decide to keep moving. Don’t avoid working on your language because of the negative feelings you felt after a rejection. Instead, look for the positive – the opportunity to learn – and use it.

I had a mentor in the music industry that told me there are three things that are guaranteed to drive you forward if you approach them with the right mindset. They are fear, embarrassment, and frustration. Rejection can cause you to feel all three. Depending on how you look at them, they can either be a reason to quit or huge drivers to get better so that you don’t have to feel those negative emotions.

It’s time to make a decision: Which will rejection be for you?

author headshot

Shannon Kennedy

Language Encourager, Fluent in Months

Shannon is Head Coach for the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge. She is currently based in Southern California where she performs as a professional musician. Her passions are cooking, reading, traveling and sharing her adventures in language learning.

Speaks: English, French, Mandarin, Russian, Croatian, Japanese

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