Notes on social rejection
Reflections from a recent experiment in initiating social connection.
A few months ago I tried an experiment:
After months of on-again, off-again frustration with my lack of plans most weekends, it was clear that the biggest thing getting in the way of my social life was myself. I wrote in my journal in early November:
even though my brain knows I have dozens of friends in the city that I would enjoy hanging out with, my body knows that on most days reaching most of these friends feels impossible. a few days ago I sent a text to three people for dinner next friday, and one of them said they're out of town while the others didn’t respond at all.
this is the loneliness, the dreariness of the big city – of walking around feeling like everyone else is incredibly successful and well-off or just really busy with whatever they have to do next, and you’re here all alone with no plans and no one reaching out to you.
So over the span of two weeks, I pushed myself to reach out to people proactively, and every time I felt uncomfortable or awkward I made a note of it.
Fri Nov 12 – msged M "plans this weekend?"
Fri Nov 12 – msged P after he left "actually do you wanna get drinks?"
Fri Nov 12 – S msgs back "I have plans"
Fri Nov 12 – msged K "any plans for the weekend?"
Fri Nov 12 – msged B "wanna hang this weekend"
Sat Nov 13 – take opportunity to sit alone at cafe while waiting for D
Sat Nov 13 – msged C and T "yo wyd today"
My goal was to hit up as many people as possible, recognizing that most of the time, people will have already made plans or will just be too busy to respond. And writing it all down was just as important: I wanted to approach this with a new level of intentionality and awareness that I previously didn’t have.
By some combination of luck and intention and the placebo effect, that very weekend turned out to be the best one I’ve had in New York. It was full of genuine connections with friends both old and new: brunches, cafe hangouts, long walks, sleepovers, movies, dinners, vulnerable conversations. I went to sleep at the end of that weekend feeling a sense of fullness that I hadn’t felt in years. Like, wow, people love me and I feel at home here. And most of those hangouts would not have taken place if I hadn’t been proactive about reaching out to people.
Of course, a big part of this was luck: the weekends after, while still being more social than what I’d been used to, weren’t quite as memorable and healing as the first one. (And then in December, social activity slowed down with apartment hunting and then omicron.) But the goal of this experiment wasn’t even to hang out with a bunch of people: it was to confront my fear, to understand it better, to take action in spite of it, and to experience what it’s like—even just in glimpses—to not feel this fear of rejection so deeply.
How to experience rejection
My most salient learning from this experience is that there are two ways to experience rejection – two kinds of internal dialogue in response to it – and you can choose which dialogue you want to have:
Option 1: "ugggghh SEE? this is what happens when you msg people. why are you even doing this? these people don't give a shit about you. you're not interesting or popular or accomplished enough, you're kinda awkward and unfashionable and unattractive. stop doing this."
the negative feeling triggers negative thoughts, which incur more negative feeling. this makes the negative-ness expand, so you, very naturally, hesitate to re-engage with the original triggering behavior
Option 2: "hahaha, nice :)"
the negative feeling does not trigger a negative thought. in the absence of a negative thought, your body very quickly realizes...wow that was not so bad. I can handle this. now the original triggering event has slightly less of a fearful aura around it.
Before my experiment, I would habitually engage in option 1 when I was ignored or rejected. I had this image of myself, in my less secure moments, as a person who’s lonely, desperate, out of place, unloved; and even the smallest slight could reinforce this image. But if I was able to let go of my reactivity and judgement for a second, and acknowledge that maybe being rejected is a good thing—because it means you put yourself out there—then it was so much easier to move past.
The benefits of writing it down
Writing it down was also important for getting perspective. When you experience the discomfort of vulnerability, it’s easy for it to expand into this big nebulous cloud of negative thoughts and feelings. But once you write it down, you realize that all that really happened is...you asked someone to dinner, or someone told you they’re busy this weekend. You expressed an interest in connection that was not requited. All the ideas about how you’re a loser with no real friends are your conclusions in the midst of a reactive, panicked mind state. An hour later, you read the same message and all you think is, oh yea I guess they were just busy.1
The more times you write it down, the more you see that experiences which felt overwhelmingly uncomfortable in the moment have lost all their power in just a few hours. Writing down the instances of discomfort around messaging people helps you see it more clearly for what it is: something brief, ephemeral, inconsequential.
I’ve realized through this process that it’s not just about facing rejection, but facing social discomfort altogether: all those little moments where I’m not sure if I’m being annoying, or whether someone likes me, or whether I’ve embarrassed myself. Seeing these moments not as something to avoid at all costs, but as something to embrace and even relish, because they’re indications that you’re taking risks, that you’re trying to connect with people.
I also realized that my discomfort with giving rejection is the flip-side of my discomfort receiving it. As I got more comfortable with knowing someone had plans or didn’t want to hang out at that particular time—as I took it less seriously and less personally—I also became more comfortable being candid with others. Not everyone wants to hang out with everyone all the time! We have boundaries and needs and constraints and we have to respect them in ourselves and others.
One other experience was revealing: a few days after that first incredible weekend, I went to a networking event. These kinds of things are always difficult for me. I vividly remembered the previous such event I’d gone to a few weeks earlier: the heart palpitations, the sweat on my forehead as I worked up the energy to talk to people I didn’t know.
But in this case, I went in and started introducing myself to others confidently, with minimal nerves. I could not believe how easy it suddenly felt. My best theory for what happened is: once I had an underlying belief (at least temporarily, after that weekend) that I am loved and have friends, it didn’t feel like such a big deal whether I connected with new people at this social.
Unfortunately this effect didn’t last much longer than a week or so. But still, these days when I feel especially nervous heading into a party or event, I picture my good friends, cheering me on and supporting me, to remember that my performance at this one event does not define the quality of my friendships. It helps a little bit.
Taking friendship seriously
I look forward to the day where I read this blog post and find the neuroticism to be completely unrecognizable. You're always gonna be sensitive in one way or another to what people think about you, and you should be to some extent. But you should also have some intentional control over this sensitivity. You should not reflexively flinch at every conceivable slight from every random acquaintance you've ever met. You should be comfortable telling someone you don't want to hang out with them tonight (implicitly or explicitly), and having someone tell you the same. You should be capable of remembering that people do love you and do want to spend time with you, even if it’s not everybody and not at all times.
For me, this intention to embrace social rejection and discomfort has been part of a broader perspective shift in the past few months of taking friendship seriously. Putting in the effort it takes to build and deepen friendships—ones that I expect to last for life—even when it’s uncomfortable or difficult. I’ll have to elaborate on this more in a future post, but suffice to say that I increasingly think of building friendships as one of the most important things I do with my life. And that kind of thing is worth the risk of rejection.
Other things I’ve written
It’s been a long while since my last newsletter! Been pretty busy with miscellaneous life things (including hanging out with people more 😜), but have written a few more philosophical posts on my blog:
Alternatively, there are some instances where a person actually does not want to hang out with you, and they just pretend they’re busy. These instances are also great opportunities to face your fear: here it is, right in front of you, someone who thinks you’re not cool enough to hang out with them. Once you acknowledge that fear and embarrassment and let it just sit there, it passes pretty quickly on its own. You are cool for trying and putting yourself out there. And there’s always someone else—whether you’ve met them yet or not—who is interested in spending time with you.