In 2012, 30-year-old Jia Jiang approached a stranger and asked if he could borrow $100. “No” was the answer from the bewildered man sitting in a hotel lobby. He wanted to know why he was being asked, but Jiang didn’t explain; he just said “thank you” and then left. It was the first day of Jiang’s Rejection Therapy, a concept created by Canadian entrepreneur Jason Comely that challenged people to approach strangers with strange requests to build resilience against rejection.
Jiang’s fear of rejection centered on the memory of being rejected at school as a young boy. A teacher had invited classmates to compliment each other, but they all fell silent when it was Jiang’s turn. It shook his confidence for decades. In his thirties, he was working as a marketing manager, but his dream of developing mobile applications was blocked by fear that his proposals would be rejected.
When Jiang searched for help online, all he could find was inspiring fake advice. Then he discovered Comely’s website, rejectiontherapy.com. On the site Comely explained that he wanted to “break the tyranny of social anxiety” by designing a “real game” with a single rule: “You must be rejected by another person at least once, every day”. He created 30 daily challenges where getting rejected was the goal. Players had to ask a stranger for a free spin or ask for a discount when buying something. They would succeed by being denied – and hopefully overcome the pain of failure by facing it head-on.
Jiang liked the idea so much that he took it 70 steps further, creating 100 challenges for himself.
“When I started, my goal was to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to be rejected and learn from rejection to get tougher,'” he says.The questions he asked were simple but tricky, like asking a free night in a hotel or ask for a selfie with a stranger.
Jiang now works full time to help others overcome the same worry he encountered. When I talk to him on Zoom, he’s sitting in front of a green screen in his California home that he uses as a backdrop to coach clients around the world.
“Fear of rejection actually holds a lot of us back,” he says. “Even in our DNA, it’s just something we want to avoid.”
Jiang is calm, confident and charismatic – a transformation from the awkward presence of the first YouTube video he posted a decade ago.
But why are we so afraid of social rejection? Social psychologist Naomi Eisenberger designed a study with her UCLA colleague, Matthew Lieberman.
“We started very simply with the question: what happens in the brain when people feel socially excluded? she says. “We brought people into the fMRI scanner and put them through a game in which they were excluded.”
The virtual game, Cyberball, involved subjects throwing a ball back and forth with two other participants. Except the other players didn’t really exist – they were avatars programmed to stop throwing the ball about at a certain point in the game.
This allowed Eisenberger to track what was happening in the brain when subjects were included and then excluded from social activity, and she made an interesting discovery. The regions of the brain that were activated when a person felt left out were the same regions that were activated during physical pain.
“Based on that first study, we kind of thought, ‘OK, maybe there’s a reason people talk about feeling rejected as feeling hurt. Maybe there’s a good reason why we use words of physical pain to describe these experiences of social pain.
Eisenberger says this borrowing from the pain system is likely a result of our reliance on caregivers as children.
“As a species of mammal, we are born immature. We need to make sure we stay close to a caregiver to get the right food, protection, and warmth,” she explains. “If it’s so important to stay close to a caregiver, then it could be really adaptive to feel disturbed, pained and distressed if we’re apart.”
Over time, this protective system may have expanded its functions and now activates whenever we feel our ties to our friends, family, or social groups are threatened.
“There was something beautiful about it,” Eisenberger says, reflecting on the discovery. “It shows how important our social connections are; that we use what I consider to be a really primitive system, this pain system, to make sure we stay connected to others.”
When I describe this rejection therapy challenge to clinical psychologist Stein, he says he loves the idea, “It’s fantastic. It’s exactly what I would recommend for people with social anxiety.”
Stein has specialized in treating anxiety disorders using exposure therapy for years. He says it’s one of the most research-backed treatments available, and he uses a variety of methods to actively tackle anxiety.
“Short-term avoidance of anxiety leads to long-term maintenance of anxiety,” Stein says. “Anything you do when you’re feeling anxious to try to feel better may work in the moment, but it actually guarantees more anxiety the next time you find yourself in a similar situation.”
Exposure therapy does the opposite: it forces you to endure the uncomfortable feeling. But the goal isn’t necessarily to feel less anxious, but rather to learn to tolerate emotion.
Stein’s advice is to target the type of rejection that worries you the most and practice exposure at a pace you can manage. When the going gets tough, remember the benefits that outweigh the anxiety.
On the third day, Jiang walked into a Krispy Kreme and asked for a special donut shaped like Olympic rings. He was hoping for a quick no, but this time things were different. Jackie, the worker behind the crate, stopped and then began drawing a picture. Fifteen minutes later, she filled out the application and gave them to Jiang for free.
Jiang shared the interaction online and it was featured on the front page of Reddit, receiving millions of views.
“That’s what really got me all the press and notoriety,” he says.
“Later I wrote a book and gave a Ted Talk, and now I give tons of speeches – but all this key knowledge accumulated in those 100 days.”
For three months, Jiang played soccer in a stranger’s backyard, sat Santa Claus on his lap, and fulfilled his life’s ambition: to teach a class on a college campus.
By day 30, Jiang had increased his resistance to rejection and gained confidence in himself and others, as many said yes to his strange requests.
“We often expect the worst,” he says. “In reality, almost everyone is nicer and less aggressive than you think.”
Jiang used this newfound self-esteem to become the entrepreneur he had always wanted to be. In 2016, Comely called him and they decided that the SocialRejection domain should hand him over.
Jiang’s advice for others? Rejection is inevitable, so don’t avoid it or take it personally.
“We think every rejection feels like an indictment of who we are, and every acceptance feels like a confirmation of our merit,” he says. “It’s not.”
— Guardian News and Media