What It's Like To Get Rejected Every Day

Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Rejection Therapy is a game with one rule: ask for something and get shot down. It is the least fun game I've ever played — and I plan on playing it for the rest of my life. 

I first heard about Rejection Therapy on the Invisibilia podcast. Jason Comely created the concept in 2009. Now the game is a minor viral phenomenon, but back then it didn't have a name — much less a following. It was simply Comely's last-ditch effort to get himself out of the house. He'd been struggling with a growing social phobia ever since his wife left him. It had started with simple avoidance and depression, like many experience after getting dumped. But, eventually, Comely couldn't even face co-workers without being overcome by a full-body panic.

"I just felt so angry and cheated. I thought, 'Why do other people have an easier time, and it's so hard for me? I can't even breathe around some people,'" Comely says. That's when he realized his fear of rejection had taken control of his life. He wanted to take it back.

"There were two options," he says. "I could try to avoid rejection (but, I was already doing that and it was making the problem worse). Or, I could face it, head-on."

The plan was simple: get rejected by someone at least once a day, every day. A very simple task, yet an incredibly challenging one. Comely started by going up to a stranger in a parking lot and asking for a ride across town. The man said no, and Comely thanked him anyway. Rejection: accomplished!  

Whether he knew it or not, Comely had begun to practice exposure, a technique often used to treat OCD and anxiety disorders in behavioral therapy. Some patients might fear something specific like subway germs, and therefore will practice holding the pole with bare hands. Others might have more generalized anxiety and rather than push their worries away, exposure tells them to let all the bad thoughts in. The idea being that with repeated exposure, these fears lose their potency. Normally, a patient begins this process in a therapist's office. But, Comely turned it into a game.

By turning "no" into the goal, Comely had incentivized these painfully awkward situations. He started asking to cut in line at the supermarket, friend-requested strangers on Facebook, asking for discounts at stores. Not only did his anxiety dissipate, he realized all the people and opportunities he'd missed out on simply by trying to avoid rejection. Each time he got rejected, the message sunk in deeper: Rejection won't ruin your life. But fear of rejection might. 

Jason Comely's fear of rejection may have been extreme, but of course, we all have it. No one wants to hear a "no." This is the fear that stops us from asking out someone we like. It's why we don't apply for the job we want; we're afraid of getting shot down. The more we want it, the stronger the fear is.

As Comely realized, fear of rejection is what stops us — in teeny-tiny increments — from living the life we want. By reversing that cycle, we can neuter the fear. Comely wanted to share this remarkable experience with others, but knew it wouldn't be as easy as telling folks to go out and get rejected. He'd have to give them instructions. So, Rejection Therapy was born. 
Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
The game itself is simply a series of prompts. I purchased it online and downloaded a PDF full of rejection cards, each with a different way to embarrass myself: "Ask a stranger for a breath mint, say hello to three people at the grocery store, ask a friend to do your laundry." 

In theory, this was all totally doable. But, it wasn't theoretical anymore. Ask a real-live friend to wash my dirty clothes? This was the Olympics of making it weird.

The cards sat folded up in my notebook for weeks, causing heart palpitations every time I caught a glimpse of them. "Challenge a stranger to an arm wrestle!" they goaded me. "Ask someone if they believe in God!" I wasn't ready for the Olympics, so I called in a pro. 

My therapist was thrilled. Exposure and shame is her jam, and so one rainy afternoon the two of us spent a session looking for people to reject us. Her office is in a professional midtown building, so we each picked a rejection prompt then headed out into the hall to find the first open door we could go into. It turned out to be the waiting room of a medical office down the hall, and I felt myself break out in a sweat as she bounded through the door, approached a businessman and politely asked him: "Do you think I look like Cindy Crawford?"

All the heads in the waiting room turned toward us, the crazy lady talking to strangers and her sweaty sidekick. 

"Um..." the businessman smiled, as if maybe she was a friendly sort of crazy. "Yeah! Sure!"

Thank God. Wait, no — fuck! She didn't get rejected, so she had to do it again. She turned to a guy in a track suit and he kindly agreed with the first. My therapist, by the way, is a perfectly good-looking lady, but there's only one Cindy Crawford in this world, and she wasn't in that waiting room. Clearly, these guys were just startled into extreme politeness, because that's how you handle crazy people. At last, she posed the question to a third man in a crisp button-down. He raised his eyebrows in the universal symbol for, "No way, Jose" and shook his head. We thanked him and fled. 

Next, it was my turn. There were no more waiting rooms to lay siege upon, so instead we loitered in the lobby, waiting for our next awkwardness victim. Soon enough, Track Jacket Man came out of the waiting room to take a phone call in the hall. I turned to my therapist, wishing I'd never pitched this stupid, stupid story. She grinned. I walked up to the stranger, ready to make his day even weirder.

"Hi, excuse me?"

He gestured to the phone. I smiled and nodded, but I didn't leave. Finally, he told the caller to hang on a sec and put the phone down.

"Can I help you?" he asked.

"Yes. Do you like my shoes?"

He paused, considering my rain-soaked Oxfords.  

"Yeah, you know what? I do," he smiled. He meant it! "It's a nice look. Casual but put together." 

Behind us, I heard my therapist laughing. At once, I was bathed in relief and frustration. What a nice guy, I thought. That, and Great, now I have to do it again. I turned back toward the lobby just as a middle-aged woman walked in from the rain. Before I could lose my nerve, I accosted her with the question.

"Hi! Sorry! Do you like my shoes?!"

She started, then took a look at my shoes. After a long moment she looked up at me from under lowered eyelids, and she was absolutely not smiling. 

"They're shoes."

She headed off down the hall and I jumped for joy. It was a rejection; that much was sure. And, with a bonus barb. The woman paused halfway down the hall and turned back to me, adding, "Fashion is a crock."
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Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
As ever, the first time is always the hardest. But, what I learned from that first rejection was that the relief is as great as the anticipation. Walking up to the stranger was the worst part, filling me with dread and resistance. By the time I actually spat out the words, I'd be so jacked up on adrenaline that I'd barely even register their response. The moment it was over, that's when the miracle happened. Oh, I'd realize. That really wasn't so bad

Repetition is the key, and so for the next few weeks I did a little rejection therapy every day. I asked strangers for mints and ordered restaurant items that weren't on the menu. I asked half of Manhattan if they liked my shoes.

Each time, I felt the same resistance — my fight-or-flight response kicking in to protect my precious ego. That's the real lesson of Rejection Therapy. Sure, the fear and shame get less intense the more you feel them. But, what you realize is that fear and shame won't kill you. Rejection Therapy doesn't get rid of them; it shows you how to live with them.

I aim to get rejected on purpose at least once a week now. I don't want to lose that feeling of falling off a cliff and living through it with only a bruised ego. Frankly, we could all stand a bruised ego every now and then. And, when I go into a real-life situation where rejection's on the line, I think: If I get the yes, great. If it's a no, then that's great, too. The no is what keeps me in fighting shape.

Another thing you realize when you get rejected regularly: It's fine. It's seriously fine. No one remembers the lame joke you told at the party, or that rando who asked them for a mint in the street. We're all pretty busy thinking about ourselves. Track Suit Man isn't lying awake at night thinking about my shoes. All he's thinking is he had a pretty weird afternoon. 
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