Humans are biologically wired to fear rejection. We need to belong to survive.

Because we face the possibility of being judged, isolated, cut off, or rejected, we grow anxious. Being rejected confirms our worst fear—that we’re worthless or unlovable.

We’re terrified of rejection.

With thoughts like that swirling in our minds, we grow so anxious, agitated, or depressed that we can’t act. If these feelings come too often and too strongly, social anxiety can keep us from fully living.

The following practical tips can help to address your fears.

1. Change What You’re Thinking

We all talk to ourselves. Interior monologue and stream of consciousness happen in real life, not just in books. Your social anxiety eats up thoughts like, “my speech is going to bomb,” or “I’m so nervous.”

Tune in to what you’re telling yourself in a social situation. Write these thoughts down. And then substitute them with more realistic thinking.

You’ve got a business lunch, and you think you won’t have anything to say. Instead, think: “I’m articulate, and I know my products. I’ll be able to talk about them. Things will probably go OK. And if they won’t be, it’s just lunch. It’s not the end of the world.”

Relabel your thoughts. Instead of “I’m anxious,” which only adds to your anxiety, try “I’m excited.” Changing the label encourages you to feel prepared and confident.

2. Know What You Want

Know what you want and why you want it. How will you benefit if you stop being terrified of rejection and learn to act differently? Thinking of these benefits motivates you to participate in the social situations you’ve been avoiding.

Instead of thinking about how things could go wrong, focus on what you want to happen and how you want to feel. Take some time to ponder. Do you want to feel confident walking into a room full of strangers? Calm and relaxed when you meet someone new? Assertive in a conversation?

Use your imagination to rehearse these feelings. Then imagine how you would act if you felt that way.

3. Get Some Perspective

When we’re terrified of rejection, we assume the worst. If you ask someone out, it’s no more rational to expect they’ll say, “No,” than to assume they’ll say, “Yes.” It could go either way.

Contrary to the catastrophes predicted by social anxiety, we usually cope better than we expect to. Sometimes we need to distrust our assumptions. You may be anxious starting a conversation, but chances are, once you’re into it, you’ll calm down. You may even get the impression that the person you’re talking to likes you.

Test your opinions and predictions. And question your assumptions.

4. Shift Your Focus

You’ve put yourself out there, and the anxiety symptoms hit. Your heart is racing. You’re beginning to shake. You hate yourself. You’ve failed. Now you feel even more anxious. Here’s what to do.

Don’t blame yourself. Instead, shift your focus. Interrupt your social anxiety by turning your attention to something outside yourself and your thoughts.

If you’re a presenter, move your attention from your shaking hands and pounding heart to the task you’re performing—stressing the critical points in your presentation, for example.

If you’re talking with someone, listen carefully to what they’re saying and imagine how they might be feeling. And if all else fails, focus on something neutral like the color of the carpet or the cool breeze of the air conditioner.

Anxiety wants you to turn your attention inward. To stay in control, focus your attention outward.

5. Practice, But Start Small

Because you’re terrified of rejection, it’s tough to put yourself into social situations. But avoiding contact with people because they might reject you gets you nowhere. You need practice to address your social anxiety.

It helps to start small and build from there.

Let’s say you’re invited to a party, but you’re afraid to go. Set up a hierarchy of your fears. Make a list, from the lowest level fear (thinking about going) to the highest (talking with a stranger in a crowded room). Move on through all the levels—arriving at the party, walking into a room full of people, noticing who’s there, joining a group, deciding to have a conversation with someone, and having the conversation. Practice in your imagination, starting with the lowest level item.

Build up your tolerance for discomfort. If the situation is important enough, it’s worth doing, even if you feel anxious. People may or may not notice your anxiety. The important thing is to feel better about yourself for having acted.

Summing Up

Learning not to be terrified of rejection is not easy. But these practical steps can help you.

  • Examine how you think about social situations. Substitute more realistic thoughts for negative ones and relabel anxiety-producing ideas.
  • Think about what you will gain if you get control of your social anxiety. Focus on how you want to feel, and rehearse, using your imagination.
  • Get a clearer perspective by questioning your assumptions and predictions.
  • Learn to shift your focus from your inward fears and thoughts to tasks, other people, and neutral objects.
  • Practice facing your fears. Start small.

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