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If we want to be successful, we also have to risk rejection — but that can be more than a little bit frightening. How can you overcome your fear of social rejection?

I walked right into their trap, and I don't even know why. I knew I wouldn't get anything much out of it, and I knew what would follow — but I did it anyway. I accepted a free moisturizer sample from a notoriously aggressive company peddling Dead Sea cosmetics. (Bad idea. There is plenty of research to demonstrate the fact that people are more likely to buy something if they get free stuff first. [1])

As the young, handsome, and (I have to say it) surprisingly clear-skinned salesman spread the "snake oil" out on my face, he knew it was open season and his dance to catch the prey — me — began. "I know this is expensive," he began, "but this jar will last you for 18 months; you only need this much every day." "Look at your skin!," he continued. Then, sensing that I was rather ambivalent about forking out that much money for a skincare product, he said something quite brilliant: "Look, forget about the price. Everyone deserves the opportunity to have skin like this." By acknowledging that the cream was expensive, he offered a kind of empathy, a kind of human connection — and that, in turn, is something that has been shown to increases the odds of selling a product [2]. 

The price I was supposed to "forget about" was 180 Euros, my kids were with me, and the school year was about to start. "Do you know how many books I could buy with that?", followed my rhetorical question that the salesman nonetheless didn't take as such. I didn't walk out of the mall with an overpriced skin product that day. I did leave with something else; a kind of grudging admiration for this guy, and others like him, people who don't let embarrassment stand in their way and who artfully go in for the kill.

I'm as outspoken and opinionated as the next person in the right circumstances, but I feel really uncomfortable with the general idea of convincing people to give me stuff I don't really think they ought to — from free babysitting to a raise, and from a discount on big-ticket items to a date. I'd definitely make a terrible salesperson. What could I learn from this young man? What could you?

Why Can The Prospect Of Rejection Be So Scary?

If, like me, you don't generally stick your head out to risk rejection, two conflicting instincts may be at work. 

There's the one where you know pushing people into doing things they don't really want to is annoying, and social acceptance is important for your continued comfort in society. Then there's the one where, let's face it, you have to stand up for yourself to get ahead, to thrive, to be successful. 

Though other pack animals have fairly complex social structures as well, we, humans, are quite unique. We'd never have come to dominate the planet if it wasn't for our ability to cooperate — and therefore compromise — with other people. In times past, social acceptance was quite simply a matter of life and death. As one study says: "Because rejection had serious, potentially fatal, consequences in the ancestral environment, a person would have needed to avoid social exclusion and ostracism at nearly all costs and had to be attuned to cues indicating that his or her positive standing in other people's eyes might be in jeopardy." [3]

Rejection, research shows, is pretty much the opposite of acceptance and a sense of belonging [4], and while the consequences of social rejection might not be quite so dire in modern times, they're hardly non-existent. Boldly asking for things comes with the risk of rejection. And rejection hurts, research has found, as genuinely as actual physical pain [5]. 

None of that changes the fact that the road to success is paved with rejection — whether you're applying for jobs, trying to grow your business, looking for "the one", or really anything else in life. How do you get more comfortable putting yourself out there, knowing that you might well be rejected?

What Can We Learn From The 'Rejection Pros'?

Everyone with a paid job runs the risk of facing rejection over the course of it — whether in applying for a promotion, proposing a radical new idea, or even just attending a performance review. Some of us take it to another level, though. I suspect the salesman from the story above was very much an extrovert as well as someone who really didn't care about being rejected as long as he met or exceeded his quota, but not all jobs or callings are like that. 

I recently had the ambiguous pleasure of having a conversation with LDS (Mormon) missionaries. In LDS tradition, young people — particularly young men — are encouraged to serve as full-time missionaries in a place away from their homes, often even abroad, for two years [6]. These brave youngsters aren't in it to meet quotas and commissions, but rather to save your soul. "I was actually quite shy before my mission," one such young missionary, whom they call "elders" for some reason, told me. "I have learned to be much more comfortable with people," he continued, after which he felt at ease enough to ask this already self-declared agnostic to join him in a short prayer. He thought he had God on his side — and that's got to inject some confidence, no?

Jia Jiang is quite a different story. I stumbled on his TED talk about a radically different kind of rejection-filled journey one insomnia-plagued late night, and was instantly intrigued. This marketing manager with dreams of growing his own business was determined to overcome his fear of rejection, and in a really entertaining way — by making humorous and slightly odd requests from total strangers, filming it, and putting it on YouTube. What he dubbed "rejection therapy" involved things like asking random folks to borrow $100, play soccer in their backyard, or make interlinked "specialty donuts" in the shape of an Olympic symbol. [7] He expected to hear "no" a lot of the time, and hoped this would help him feel more at ease with the prospect of being rejected. 

Jia Jiang wasn't in it for the greater good and merely for personal development. Surprising things started happening, though. First off, many more people said "yes" than he expected. Then, numerous people were inspired by what he was doing, and he actually found great success — not to mention a good dose of fame — through his journey of rejection. 

The moral of the story? People like you and me can overcome our fears, whether of rejection or simply social embarrassment, and we can do it by practicing. As the LDS missionary's story shows, you don't need to be extroverted or confident to get better at this skill, and as Jia Jiang demonstrates, your odds of success aren't quite as low as you may think!

To Acceptance Through Potential Rejection: How Should You Get Started?

I don't know about you, but I think certain circumstances make it much easier to ask people for stuff they might well say no to:

  • Believe what you're asking for is truly right, good, or useful. Even I would feel more comfortable trying to sell a product I love than one I don't care for. When it comes to applying for jobs, business loans, and the like, the "product" you really have to believe in is, ultimately, yourself. So go ahead and honestly — rather than negatively — assess your skills, and give yourself credit where it's due. 
  • Try asking for things on someone else's behalf. It may come as no surprise that many people take more risks when managing someone else's financial portfolio than their own [8], because they're not the ones who'd experience the loss. Could we also feel more comfortable making requests for gain on someone else's behalf? Try fundraising for charity, advocating for your elderly parent, or having a word with your professor about your friend's undeservedly bad grade, and find out for yourself.
  • Practice on total stranger you'll never see again. Humans have this whole ingroup/outgroup thing going on, where they identify with people they perceive as similar to themselves and not so much with those they don't. This is why, for instance, soccer fans may feel empathy toward fans of their team being harmed, while feeling pleasure when it happens to a fan of a rival club. [9] This takes us back to the avoidance of rejection as a social function. Strangers won't pass lasting judgments on you if you ask them for a discount on a big ticket item just 'cause, or even if you (weirdly, as Jia Jiang did) request to speak a message into your supermarket's intercom system. You'll never see them again, and that just might take the sting out of your fear.
  • Start small. Asking for extra ketchup sure is easier than asking for a big business loan. 'Nuff said. 
  • Use times of need to grow. My dyslexic cousin applied for a job as a librarian when she was laid off. Need makes us bolder. Use that, and you'll still reap the benefit when you're sailing in smoother waters.