Rejection and Failure: How We Learn and Can Unlearn to Be Afraid of Them

One of the major reasons why people come to see me for treatment is to help them overcome their fears of rejection and failure. So, I wanted to write a brief blog post on both, elucidating why they hurt so much, and how we can begin to overcome them.

The pain of rejection and failure is based on classic conditioning, a concept which according to psychologist James Alcock represents “the processes, whereby a neutral stimulus becomes capable of triggering an automatic bodily (or psychological) response.” Think back to the experiment carried out by the famous Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov begin his experiment by introducing food to a dog, which caused it to salivate. Then, he paired the meal with a bell, bringing it to the dog, which in turn, also engendered salivation; and, he did this several times. Finally, Pavlov simply presented the bell, which, by itself, you guessed it, caused salvation. From his experiment, Pavlov concluded that when an unconditioned stimulus (which causes a natural, unlearned response) is a paired with a neutral stimulus (such as a bell), the subject “learns” to respond to only the neutral stimulus by associating it with the unconditional one.

So far; so good. Now, rejection and failure. In our culture, when we’re children we’re often taught that both events are bad and that both imply some horrific truths about us; we’re told that if we fail, we’re failures and if we get rejected, we’re losers or ugly or stupid, or some combination. As with Pavlov’s dog, an association is made; this time, between the acts of rejection and failure and our understandings of them, our interpretations. These understandings cause us to feel devastated and heartbroken, rather than the events themselves; when we think of the events, we begin to ruminate over how terrible we are. But as time goes on, similar to when the meal was no longer presented and thus not in the dog’s awareness, we become unconscious of our interpretations, subsequently believing that the events themselves are what cause our symptoms, and to some extent they do, at least in our minds; as our core beliefs remain unconscious, the events themselves become the triggers for our sadness and anger, thus bypassing our system of conscious interpretation. Just as the meal becomes linked to the bell, our beliefs become linked to failing and being rejected; the food, as with our beliefs, doesn’t need to be present to have an influence on the dog’s response.

Therefore, the work of therapy consists of bringing those core beliefs to the forefront, learning how they, rather than the events themselves, are the culprits of our symptoms, while utilizing logical reasoning to overcome our irrational assumptions about ourselves and our fears of what could once again become neutral stimuli, at least to an extent. This is the core of cognitive behavioral therapy.


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