By Jill Woolworth, LMFT
Fear of rejection. Not fear of death or spiders or heights. We understand those fears; they make sense. Fear of rejection is invisible. It is the unseen engine that blows up relationships. We were designed for loving, interdependent community. Jesus prayed “that they all might be one as we are one.” (John 17:22) We need this from cradle to grave, yet we all have experienced rejection. It may have been in the form of abandonment, abuse, criticism or judgment. People told us directly or by their actions that we don’t measure up, that we are too much or not good enough, not lovable.
It hurts and we bury the hurt under a mountain of anger/acting out or behind a thick wall of withdrawal/resistance. We often learn from a parent how to blast someone else or how to hide. It’s easier to label someone “stubborn, uncaring, a jerk, or a control freak” than to look for the underlying fear.
If we don’t know how to deal with this fear, how can we resolve it? The beginning might be to consider the possibility that “ugly, awful, bad” behavior is rooted in the other’s fear of further rejection and triggered by an (often unconscious) reminder of it. The behavior wesee may be heinous, even illegal, but the real enemy is often not the individual per se, but the fear of rejection holding the other captive, invisibly fueling his or her behavior.
When we uncover this fear in the particular way each person experiences it, relationships can heal. There are very few real monsters out there. They’re usually people afraid of further rejection who either “power up” or “back away”– the peacock or the turtle. Each of us self protects with one or the other and 80 % of us marry someone with the opposite mode of self protecting.
I think of awful behavior as a costume. Sometimes we give the costume a name. I’ve met a hedgehog married to a dragon, a turtle married to a stone, a gorilla married to a judge, the Wizard of Oz and the cowardly lion. If we create a safe place to talk about it, scared people sometimes can put their costumes aside, reveal their hurting hearts and be comforted.
Hiding in costumes isn’t just for couples. It’s a teen mouthing off (or silent), afraid she won’t measure up to her parents’ expectations/ have a boyfriend/get into college, an employee who fudges the numbers because he’s worried about getting laid off, a divorcee who drinks too much to assuage her loneliness and an cranky patient in a nursing home who feels abandoned.
Fear of rejection is universal. We all want to be included, invited, hired, accepted, called, chosen. We spend enormous amounts of time, money and energy to enhance our appearance and performance personally and professionally in order to avoid rejection. Our resumes and Facebook pages are polished. So are our childrens.
Perhaps the next time someone you love is behaving badly, you might have the courage and humility to “see” the fear of rejection beneath the behavior and respond from a different place. It might even be yourself.