Q: How can I overcome the fear of rejection? Lately, I've noticed that in order to avoid rejection, I'm doing things that actually set me up for rejection, such as not joining in conversations, never initiating small talk, not asking people questions about themselves.
A: I'm not sure from your e-mail if you are talking about strangers in new situations, or people you already hang with. If it's strangers, then you're talking about feeling phobic. If it's with people who are already your friends or colleagues, you may be angry and not know it or not know how to express it.
OK, first things first--if it's with strangers, you wouldn't believe how many awesome, attractive, winning, charming, delightful, smart, interesting, talented, and altogether excellent people get weirdly phobic at certain times in their lives about social situations.
It has nothing to do with how interesting and attractive you may be. In fact, I'm sure you could point to any number of dull, annoying, yukky people who are perfectly comfy at a party, right? But this is about what's going on in your head regarding your self-perception, compounded by your biochemistry and exacerbated by the way bias have this nasty way of taking on lives of their own.
So a particularly stinging rejection or embarrassment may have set this off, but soon that's not even the point anymore. Now the secondary worry--the fear of your fear--has taken over, and that's where your attention goes now, to worrying about whether you'll be worried at the next social event.
The key here is to keep on getting your scared little butt to these social situations, even if you are quaking inside, and even if you must bring props--an old buddy you can trust, a rehearsed shtick, or a memorized list of things you can talk or ask about. You can get some short-term counseling at a phobia clinic, or you can use guided imagery to revamp your innards. You might need to take, for a brief while, one of the new antidepressants that work so well (oddly enough) on phobias. Basically, you are using your head to drag the rest of you, kicking and screaming, into these situations. And the good news: If you make yourself show up, then you're not officially phobic. You're just nervous. You aren't phobic till you repeatedly avoid the situation altogether.
Whatever happened, that feeling that you're deliberately doing things to elicit rejection, usually does come from anger turned inward--the "I'm gonna eat some worms" syndrome, I call it. (Some of us are old enough to remember the perverse little ditty that went like this: "Nobody loves me everybody hates me, I'm gonna eat some worms.") There's a perverse sort of satisfaction in doing this that's hard to describe, but if this is what's driving you, you'll recognize it.
You may need to have a heart to heart with the person who's hurt you, asking what that was about, expressing your discomfort, etc.; this often enough will take the sting out of the situation and neutralize the embarrassment, because you're taking charge of your reaction. You may hear some things--about something you did, or that was perceived you did, that will surprise you. If so, try to listen non-defensively. This is a good conversation to be having. Pay attention and listen well. Maybe you'll want to change some things. Mostly, you just want to disrupt the cycle that's getting you deeper into the muck.
You may want to confide in the most trustworthy person you know and get some support from outside yourself--someone who can non-verbally cue you and support you in some of these situations. And finally, sometimes just acknowledging to yourself that you're angry, resentful, and hurt can stop the behaviors that are inviting rejection.
Anyway, I hope something here fits. Let me know how it's going.