I was listening to a podcast when I first heard the words "rejection therapy."
It was an episode of NPR's Invisibilia, and the host was interviewing this guy, Jason Comely, who was having trouble meeting women after his ex-wife left him for someone else. Realizing his fear of rejection was crippling him, he invented rejection therapy as the answer.
It went like this: Every day, he had to be rejected at least once. So he started asking strangers for things — a discount on his coffee, a breath mint, a ride home from the grocery store, etc. And to his surprise, he didn't always get rejected on the first try.
After listening to that interview, I jotted down some kind of takeaway on my phone. ("Get repeatedly rejected; become whole?") It was quickly forgotten.
In fact, it wasn't until months later that I was looking at startup events in New York City and came across something called "Rejectionathon."
The website read: "At Rejectionathon, you’ll be given a list of challenges that will put you just slightly out of your comfort zone, and you’ll want to complete as many of them as you can with your team."
This time, rejection was being advertised as a way for startup founders "to gain confidence in selling." But I was starting to think that practicing getting rejected might just be the one-size-fits-all holy grail panacea of life-living. The case was starting to look pretty solid from here.
I went back and forth about whether I should actually go (of course, while congratulating myself on having considered it in the first place). Maybe I'd just DIY it some other time — you know, when I was in that special mood for the burn of social alienation?
It wasn't until the night before, looking at the tab still open in my browser, that I saw clearly what my resistance was: I was nervous, obviously. And the fact that I was nervous meant I should go.
The next day (the day of the event), I tried to focus on logistics more than the actuality of what I was walking into. I thought about how I'd better leave by 12:30 to catch my train. Better bring a snack for the long day. What should I wear (to get rejected repeatedly by strangers)? Comfy shoes, probably! Just some flats, a T-shirt, and a skirt for this sunny day of walking around NYC.
When I finally got off the subway at Bryant Park, I was having trouble getting my Google Maps to work. I ended up phoning a friend for help locating the building and arrived five minutes late, sweaty and out of breath, to a room of put-together 20-and-30-somethings who had spent the last half hour getting to know one another. (Would I get a sticker for having the first embarrassment of the day?)
No sooner than I could put a check next to my name on the attendance list, we were corralled into a conference room to watch a Powerpoint presentation on the day's proceedings.
- We would be given a list of challenges that involved walking up to random strangers and asking them to do something for us.
- We would get one point for each time we were rejected.
- We would get two points for each time we succeeded. (Why success was rewarded more than rejection at a rejection-centric event, I'm not sure. Maybe because of the "sales" angle?)
- We had to supply a picture of every rejection or success or it didn't happen.
- Final rule: You can't tell anyone you're in a Rejectionathon.
Events in the past apparently had groups of four to six people, which meant a lot more watching than doing. This event was rectifying that by putting us in teams of two. That's three times the normal amount of rejection. Hooray!
Before I could even process it all, I was assigned my partner, Raj, and we headed out the door with a mere piece of paper to shield me from the impending psychological pain.
I started scanning the list in the elevator while exchanging how-do-you-dos with my teammate.
"1. Ask a stranger for his/her opinion on a political issue/political candidate." OK, I can do that.
"2. Call up an old flame or old crush who you haven't been in touch with for at least a year and tell him/her how much he/she meant to you." NOPE.
And just like that, we were outside and off to the races.
As a first try, Raj decided to ask a guy holding a camera bag for career advice. He grunted and shooed him away. First point!
Next, I asked a woman for her feelings on Donald Trump. She didn't speak English. Second point!
Chasing after moving targets on the street began to feel like a problem, so we decided to head to the park, where people would be conveniently seated at little cafe tables.
When we got to the park, I felt worse than ever about bothering people. They're just trying to enjoy their lunch or a cup of coffee, dammit! Bothering people is the worst! But I was getting used to the look of confusion and annoyance in their eyes, so I pushed through.
I asked people if I could try on their shoes. Raj asked people if he could count the money in their wallet. I begged people to dance with me, but not a single one did.
The worst bomb of all, however, was a multi-subject challenge. I had to introduce two strangers to each other and then get one to tell the other a funny story. You may imagine at this point that I chickened out at step one or got a "no" and walked away, but that would not be the case. I was committed.
I saw a couple and a single guy sitting at different tables that were close together. I asked the first man (who was there with his girlfriend/wife) what his name was.
He said, "Why?"
I said, "Because I wanted to meet you!"
He said, "Nah."
Then I proceeded to meet the guy at the next table and hassle them both about funny stories.
By contrast, my greatest triumph of the day was on my third or fourth try to get someone to sing "Happy Birthday." (I could earn a point for each extra person who joined in.) Turns out, people are incredibly receptive to the birthday song if you simply break out into it yourself and then wave your hands around as if to say, "Please join me."
Finally, by the end of the day, good 'ol Raj and I still barely knew each other, but we had a special bond and a third-place finish. And I have to say that I went home a little bit different than I was before.
I do believe that most of us put a lot of false constraints on ourselves. We say things like, "I could never pull off a sequined bomber jacket!" But really, the large majority of these limitations are in our head. All it takes is being willing to feel a little discomfort for a short time.
The Rejectionathon helped me see that getting turned down isn't so bad. And that sometimes people are perfectly happy to make you a paper hat on demand.
Since the Rejectionathon, I think I'm better at asking for what I really want. A few weeks ago, I got an email offering me a free VIP ticket to a talk (otherwise $200) that I actually really wanted to attend. I wanted to go, but I didn't particularly want to go by myself. I hemmed and hawed for a moment, then replied by thanking her and asking if there's any way I could have another ticket for my colleague. I got a solid "Yes, my pleasure."
The other day, I even found myself at ease asking table after table at a bar if there was any room for my friend and I to sit. (The first two tables said they were saving spaces. A lady at the third moved her purse and said the seats were free.)
Just this morning, as if it were a good omen for this piece I knew I'd be writing today, I scrolled upon one of those inspirational quote posts on Instagram that said, "You get in life what you have the courage to ask for."
I smiled and remembered the time I tried to teach "The Twist" to an avoidant elderly man. And I thought, the burn of rejection is not dissimilar to the burn of a flexed muscle. In a way, it feels kind of good.