Florine Stettheimer, Lake Placid, 1919
I have two friends who embody the attitude towards rejection that I’d like to have. They ask for whatever they want all the time. Politely, not rudely. Everything from “Can I get a free ticket for this?” to “Do you want to hang out tonight?” They get rejected often, naturally, but they also hear “yes” more than anyone else I know.
In general, this seems to be the correct approach. There are rarely any costs to asking, as long as you’re not doing it in a wildly inappropriate context. And there are often extreme upsides to asking. So why don’t most of us ask more? Answer: because we find rejection painful.
I used to think I had something called rejection sensitive dysphoria, which is considered a symptom of ADHD and is defined as “extreme emotional sensitivity to perceived rejection.” But now I’m not so sure: aren’t most childhoods characterized by fear of rejection? Basically every coming of age movie is about someone grappling with social and romantic rejection. You know: being turned down by your crush, being dumped by your high school girlfriend, being bullied by the jocks, not getting into the college of your dreams. When we’re young, feedback from adults and peers literally creates our identity: how popular am I, how attractive am I, how smart am I. Our sense of self is necessarily socially determined: if I think of myself as “smart,” I obviously can only be smart in relation to other people being less smart than me. We learn to understand our attributes and abilities from the feedback we get, and we’re crushed when our performance doesn’t match up to our hopes.
But by the time we’re adults, we’re supposed to have a more independent sense of self. In my circles, there’s so much value put on “originality”—you’re supposed to be thinking what no one else is thinking. You’re supposed to be seeing what no one else is seeing. You’re supposed to be coming up with something original, and you’re supposed to not care about rejection because if you’re original you’re going to be misunderstand. All it takes is for one person to believe. As adults, we’re supposed to be cool about rejection: I don’t want to date someone who doesn’t like me, anyway. I didn’t really want the job. Who goes to grad school anymore?
But I don’t think almost anyone is really like that. I think most people really, really hate rejection. In fact, I know many people who’ve built their lives around avoiding it—they only put themselves out there when they’re certain the answer is yes. Which means they either live very passive lives where they rarely venture out of their comfort zone or they are manic overachievers who’ll jump through every hoop so they can’t possibly ever be rejected.