Excerpt from How Kind People Get Tough
Chapter 4: Rejection From The Tribe
Can you remember a time when you felt rejected? It’s a horrible feeling, isn’t it? It can feel like an actual physical pain—as though someone has reached in and tugged out your heart.
Our first experiences of rejection happen in childhood. They can feel very intense. A lot of people can recall experiences like these:
- Feeling rejected by a parent who didn’t pay attention to them
- Being shunned by other children in the playground
- Being teased by older siblings
- Feeling hurt because a teacher didn’t notice them.
As time passes, whether or not we have clear memories of these intensely painful experiences, they do remain in the subconscious. Then in adult life, when we have another experience of being rejected, we re-experience those same powerful emotions. Psychologists will often describe this as ‘going into child’ because it’s the little child within us who is remembering and feeling these distressing experiences.
We could say that all children are vulnerable to rejection—even those who have the safest and most secure of upbringings—purely because they are so dependent on their caregivers. As a child you were small, and the caregivers in your life, such as parents and teachers, were big. They weren’t just big in stature—they were also big in terms of power. It’s only natural that you would have craved their attention and approval because you needed them to take care of you. You needed them to give you food and shelter and to keep you safe from harm. The worst thing that could have happened would have been to be rejected by them. Deep down it was all about survival.
Now let’s take this concept a little further. Children need adults to take care of them, and adults need each other. We are social animals. Our ancestors survived by living in groups. Tribes.
This is why asserting ourselves can feel so risky. Inherently, we feel driven to maintain relationships with each other in order to keep ourselves safe. We do this by:
- Trying to be liked, approved of and accepted: we want to draw people towards us.
- Avoiding conflict and hostility: we don’t want to push people away.
The reality is that when we step forward and speak our truth, someone may well be upset, at least for a while. At best the issue will be resolved, at worst it may mean the end of a relationship, but ultimately, we will survive.
However, on a primal level, we carry this innate fear that if we assert ourselves, we’ll be rejected and will be cast out of the tribe. No food, no shelter. We will not survive. We will die!
Return now to the twenty-first century and it seems illogical that we could run our lives based on such a primal fear—but we all do. So the next time you find yourself fearing rejection if you assert yourself, take courage. After all, if you say no to a friend, does that really mean you’ll be banned by society for the rest of your life?
Even the most confident of people can find it hard to assert themselves some of the time. The trick is to recognise that this fear is a natural part of human life and stop trying to avoid it.
Ravi moved to a new town and quickly made friends. Every Saturday night, they would all go to a bar. Ravi would always volunteer to be the designated driver because he wanted to be kind, and he felt good that the others all liked him for it.
However, he was getting fed up because driving meant he couldn’t have a drink, relax, and not have to worry about looking after everyone.
Ravi decided to tell them that he didn’t want to be the designated driver every time, but he worried that they wouldn’t invite him out again.
The following Saturday morning, he received a text:
‘We’re out tonight, mate! Is your car out of the garage yet?’
Ravi was greatly tempted to pretend his car was still in the garage so he could wriggle out of having to speak up. He knew in his heart though, that it was time to be his true self. It was a risk. He’d be making himself vulnerable to rejection.
However, he also knew that he needed to be kind to himself—a conscious kindness.
He took courage, and replied:
‘Car’s passed its fitness test, thanks. I’m not driving tonight though —who is?’
Ravi worried when he didn’t get an immediate reply. Then an hour later his phone beeped:
‘I’ve been in touch with Kate and she’ll do it. She’ll pick you up at 7pm.’
Ravi realised he’d been worrying about nothing. It was simply that his friends had become used to him doing the driving.
Ravi’s worries about being excluded from the group is a classic example of the human struggle with being more assertive. Something doesn’t feel right; we want to speak up, but fear of rejection stops us in our tracks.
By taking the courage to be more assertive, Ravi was able to forge a closer connection with his new friends because he now knew for sure that they liked him for himself, rather than just for his chauffeuring services. Had they simply been using him for a lift, would they really have been such good friends? It’s only when we test the waters that we find out if this is the ‘tribe’ we really want to be a part of.
This deeply innate fear of being cast out of the tribe is common to all human beings. It’s one very big reason that we struggle to step into the light and be our authentic selves. And, as life goes on, we may have experiences of rejection which only reinforce this fear—yet we do well to remember that while rejection can be a painful experience, it sorts out the wheat from the chaff. It makes space to forge stronger, more healthy and meaningful relationships.
Another reason we all struggle with assertiveness is the beliefs we learn in early childhood.