Fear of Rejection, Part 5: Level Up Your Exposure

In this final post in the series about overcoming your fears around failure and rejection, we’re going to wrap up with ways to slowly ratchet up exposure to your discomfort and break down your deepest limiting beliefs—without getting completely overwhelmed.

Listen to the podcast episode on Apple PodcastsSpotify, and Amazon.

Step 1—Lean Into the Discomfort

Once you’re able to consistently create moments of mental and emotional stillness (see Part 4: Making Freedom from Fear a Daily Habit), you’ll start to recognize the events that trigger your habitual fight-flight response. Before you even realize what’s happening, your fears and limiting beliefs are taken over by this hard-wired habit, and you’re running in the opposite direction.

By learning how to create some space between who you are (your sense of awareness) and the internal disturbance you’re aware of, you’ll be able to see this stimulus-response happen like it’s in slow motion. When you’re no longer avoiding internal disturbance, you’ll start to experience it in an entirely new way, be able to simply lean into that discomfort, and allow yourself to finally feel and experience everything you’ve been avoiding for most of your life. You can simply watch your experience—the sensations of pain around your heart, the thoughts racing through your mind—rather than be at the mercy of them.

At this stage, you’re not trying to make the discomfort go away. You’re just interrupting the conditioned fear avoidance pattern that has been running your life on auto-pilot without your explicit consent.

From that position of awareness, you’ll have a better perspective on the pain itself. You’ll be able to more clearly recognize the limiting stories that are creating that pain, question the reasons for believing them, and dismantle them at the root. Instead of being pulled around like a puppet on a string, you’ll be able to start making more empowering choices based on your purpose and strengths.

Step 2—Ratchet Up the Exposure

Think of an activity or task that triggers your fear of failure and rejection, and that you’ve avoided doing until now. It could be something like cold calling prospects, or taking on challenging new projects that stretch your comfort zone and abilities.

In the past, you may have tried to overcome your fears by diving head first into the activity. Immersing yourself into whatever triggers your deepest fears, hoping that by going all in, you can simply rip off the band-aid with one quick move.

What you might have found was this kind of “all or nothing” approach to overcoming your limiting beliefs actually stokes them into nearly forest fire level intensity. Just the thought of all that discomfort—making all those calls or initiating all those uncomfortable conversations—stirs up so much anxiety that you can barely think straight.

Here’s a comparison that you might be able to relate to: Imagine you have an intense fear of snakes, and for whatever reason this fear has been causing enough disruption in your life that you decide to face it once and for all. A friend of yours happens to love snakes and owns a few exotic (yet harmless) breeds, and agrees to help you finally overcome your fear.

You arrive at his house, and he immediately instructs you to lay down on your back in the middle of his living room floor, close your eyes, and wait as he goes and collects all of his favorite pets. He intends to literally cover you in these slithering monsters, allowing them to belly crawl all around your face and body. He figures that if you can just face the worst version of your fear head-on and see that you’re not in any actual physical danger, that something will click in your mind and your irrational fear of snakes will simply go away.

Seconds feel like hours as you lay there with your eyes closed, your mind in chaos as you visualize what’s about to happen. Your anxiety now escalates into full-blown panic, and before your friend even has the chance to carry out his snake immersion therapy experiment, you open your eyes, bolt up to your feet, and run out the door. The thought of the experience was simply too terrifying and intense to endure.

Now imagine that your snake-owning friend was a bit more empathetic to your plight. Instead of planning to bury you in snakes, he invites you to spend just 10 minutes in a room with one small snake in a glass aquarium. At first you’d be too uncomfortable to do anything but stand as far away from it as possible. But after a few minutes, he coaxes you to slowly approach the glass, until finally you find yourself seated in front of the aquarium.

During that time, you would simply be leaning into your physical and emotional discomfort—experiencing all the sensations of fear and anxiety as they move through your mind and body.

The next day, he invites you to sit in front of another glass aquarium, this time containing a bigger snake. Then a few days later, a tank with multiple snakes. Each escalation in intensity brings you face-to-face with a deeper layer of your fear, allowing you to slowly process and acclimate with every step.

Finally, after a few weeks of escalating exposure, you find yourself back on your friend’s living room floor, laying down with your eyes closed about to be covered in a pile of snakes. Your fear hasn’t gone away, but you’ve conditioned yourself to simply experience that discomfort rather than immediately run away from it. It doesn’t feel all that pleasant, but at least you’re now able to handle it.

So what’s your “snake”? What’s an activity that triggers your deepest fears of failure and rejection?

Take that one activity and break it down into the smallest first steps you can possibly take that are just a little bit beyond your comfort zone. Instead of forcing yourself to make 300 cold calls in a week, start with 1 a day, then 2, then 4. Instead of committing to confronting everyone at work all at once, commit to initiating just one of those uncomfortable conversations tomorrow, then another one the week after, and so on.

Start small enough so that you’re able to lean into the discomfort and begin to acclimate yourself to the raw experiences that you’ve been avoiding all this time, without getting completely overwhelmed by them.

Then get in the habit of ratcheting up the exposure by just a little bit every day. Over time, you may look back with surprise at how easy it is to do the things that once terrified you.

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