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Rejecting Rejection

Rejecting Rejection


Despite my training and profession, there are times when I am surprised by the simplicity and elegance that insight provides when applied to myself. I have noticed with a nagging frequency a compulsive need to please others, compounded by a compulsive need not to rock the boat. It's especially acute in close relationships, as I worry about damaging the connections I've formed if I should seek to have my needs fulfilled or assert my opinions. When I was less aware of this need, I ascribed such behaviors to past situations where I had been wounded when allowing myself to be vulnerable. But this cause-and-effect perspective was dangerous, implying that something in my past 'caused' my current state. It also didn't allow for a solution in the present. There is very little I can do with respect to the past. What's happened happened, and dwelling on it can simply induce further feelings of hopelessness. Here's a specific example to illustrate my point. As far back as adolescence, I recall experiencing extreme anxiety -- the feeling of a huge weight pressing down on me -- when worrying that others would discover who I 'really' am, namely that I am gay. The stakes were high. The closer my relationship with the person I feared would discover my secret or to whom I would have to reveal myself, the scarier the situation became and the greater the anxiety grew. And this fear was definitely not misplaced. When looking at the conservative community in which I was raised and the conservative church to which my family belonged, I knew the news of my sexuality would hardly be warmly welcomed. I feared loss of connection, judgment, and ostracism. Because I craved the acceptance of my family, my church, and my community, I hid essential parts of myself to be a 'good boy' and to not rock the boat. My logic was something along the lines of, 'If I'm really good, they will have to accept me.' And for a while -- at least in some ways -- it worked. It kept my uncomfortable feelings and anxiety at bay. It kept me being liked by others. It garnered social approval. The problem is that the acceptance earned under pretense is inherently incomplete. I knew that the person my peers and community accepted was not my authentic self. And it turned out that this false acceptance did nothing to guarantee continued acceptance after I decided to come out and stop pretending to be heterosexual. My mom's reaction when I told her of my sexuality was fearful and judgmental. My closest friend shunned me. Their reactions hurt me deeply. The logical conclusion I drew from these experiences is that it is not safe to be vulnerable or to reveal one's true self. Today, however, I wonder if my response at the time was truly based on their reactions or if it was because they simply reinforced what I was feeling about myself. Instead of asking whether it's safe to reveal who I am to others, I'm asking if I accept myself in the first place. When grounded in the unflappable certainty that I am OK, the craving for acceptance from others recedes. Rejection doesn't cut as deeply because my own shame isn't cutting me to begin with. Before, when rejected, I would endlessly develop plans to turn that rejection into acceptance or simply bury my true self deep down so as to not further rock the boat. But with self-acceptance comes the ability to reject rejection. If someone chooses to reject my true self, that is their right, just as it is my right to respond by saying 'to each their own,' wishing that person well, and moving on without that person in my life. Of course, with family it's far more complicated, but you get the idea. Far too many of us with HIV live in a perpetual state of shame, fearing the rejection of others when they learn of our infections. And, as illustrated by my coming-out experiences, these fears are often well founded. We can do little about the opinions others have of us. But we can learn to accept and appreciate ourselves. When we accomplish that, we can cling a little less tightly to the need to please others and a little more tightly to the need to please ourselves. Fransen is a licensed clinical social worker who is in private therapy practice in Chicago. He welcomes feedback at

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