What Is Rejection Therapy, And Does It Really Help?

Rejection — a scary but inevitable part of life. We all experience it throughout our lives, whether it's being rejected by a crush, not getting into a dream school, or hearing a lot of no's while job hunting. Sometimes, we get so afraid of rejection or failure that we limit ourselves and refuse to try at all. You can let this fear break you down, or you can stare it in the face and conquer it.

When we do the things that scare us, that's when we can really grow as people. Though it sounds counterintuitive, embracing rejection can help you overcome whatever it is that's holding you back, from dealing with phone call anxiety to having trouble making new friends. Over the past decade, people have begun to embrace rejection through a concept called rejection therapy. Before we get into what it is, let's understand a little more about why people tend to struggle with rejection.

Why is rejection so hard for us?

Humans are social beings. Since the beginning of our time on Earth, human survival has depended on community support and acceptance. The need for connection and belonging is hard-wired into us, so when we face rejection, something feels terribly wrong. In fact, through MRI scanning, a 2011 study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that when individuals experienced physical pain and rejection, the same areas of the brain activated. For the human brain, that feeling of rejection stings just like a scraped knee.

Our current digital world has opened up new ways to experience rejection. Though we are more easily connected to each other through social media, there's still the possibility that our messages get ignored, we are left out of group texts, or we have to handle being ghosted. We may carry a fear of rejection from childhood into adulthood, remembering the times we were left out in school and then lacking confidence as we get older. "Rejection destabilizes our need to belong, leaving us feeling unsettled and socially untethered," says psychologist Guy Winch via Ted Ideas. Being afraid of rejection and wanting to avoid it is normal, but letting this fear rule your life can hold you back from living your best life. Rejection therapy is a way to desensitize yourself to rejection so that you can take on the world.

What is rejection therapy, exactly?

About a decade ago, Canadian IT professional Jason Comely coined the term "rejection therapy" while going through a rough patch in his life, per an NPR interview. He decided to conquer his fear of rejection by purposely seeking it out every day. Comely created a game out of this practice where you pick up a card every day, telling you to do something that may set you up for rejection, like sitting next to a stranger and starting a conversation. This practice completely changed his life. "I was able to approach people, because what are you gonna do, reject me? Great!" he says.

Despite its name, rejection therapy is not an actual form of therapy created by a therapist. It is, however, considered a form of exposure therapy and self-help that allows people to face their fears and break out of their comfort zones. We engage in rejection therapy in our daily lives, whether it's asking for a raise, pursuing a new relationship, applying for jobs — anything that might make us feel vulnerable. The idea of rejection therapy is to get yourself comfortable hearing "no" so that you don't hold yourself back in life. 

Examples of rejection therapy

If you don't wish to purchase the card game, you can think of your own ways to try rejection therapy. It's really anything that pushes you to do something you would normally be afraid to do, and it forces you to deal with the unexpected. Just remember, when someone does say no to your request, just say "thank you," and move on. There's no need to push them to say yes; that defeats the purpose of the game and might make someone uncomfortable.

You may have seen people sharing their own journeys with rejection therapy on TikTok. The rejection therapy hashtag has over 70 million views, with endless videos of people trying it out, from asking a stranger for a hug to asking a barista if they can make their own Starbucks drink. Though the original rejection therapy game started as a 30-day challenge, many people are expanding it to 100 days, including Halle Buttafuso. In her first video, she asks a stranger for $100. Another user named Sumeya shared a video where she asked someone at the supermarket to teach her Spanish. You'll notice that the more they try rejection therapy, the easier it gets. It's awkward at first, but don't worry, that's the point.

Can rejection therapy really help?

Rejection therapy is not necessarily for everyone. If you're someone looking to step out of your comfort zone and take risks, this can be a very healthy and fun exercise. But if your anxiety is more serious and gets in the way of your daily life, you may need further support from a mental health professional, and that's ok. There's no shame in asking for help.

Psychologist Dr. Elisabeth Morray explains to Pure Wow that rejection therapy might make matters worse for those with severe anxiety. "The risk of 'going it alone' is that, without the support of someone who understands how to approach exposure therapy in healthy and responsible ways, pushing yourself head-first into the kinds of situations you fear can actually be traumatic in ways that will increase your fears, rather than reducing them," she says. 

Coping with rejection

Whether we like it or not, rejection will happen to us. But it doesn't always have to be a bad thing. It can allow us to be stronger, more resilient people. If we give up every time we don't get the outcome we want, we'll find ourselves stuck rather than moving forward. We have to keep pushing on, and when we finally get to where we want, it will feel that much better if we never stopped. We won't fully live our lives if we are afraid that rejection is right around the corner.

Sometimes, rejections are a blessing. Maybe there was a time when a job rejected you, but then you found an even better opportunity that you wouldn't have found had you gotten that other offer. The no's in your life can still lead you to amazing opportunities. It's easier said than done, but don't be afraid to embrace rejection. Then, after a while, the mountain of things that once scared you will only seem like a tiny hill.