Rabbi Harold Kushner

How to Not Feel Judged

This last weekend was my 20th high school reunion.  I hadn't been back since our 10th.

Nothing like a High School Reunion to Flare Up the Insecurities

What started off months ago as excitement at seeing my high school friends, many with whom I had gone to school with since first grade, turned into fear as the date got closer.

I knew it was fear because I recognize that anytime I have a voice whispering a variation of  "You're too different from them... they won't accept you" that my own insecurity is starting to put up walls of protection.  And the only time I'd need protection is if some part of me thought I was in danger.

Which of course I wasn't in danger.  But trying to convince the voice of a little insecure high school girl, who kept whispering that my marriage was too different, that my religious path looked too different, or that my lifestyle was too different, was like asking a baby to stop crying. Somewhat futile despite the best soothing.

You undoubtedly know the feeling. Sometimes it's walking into a cocktail party and assuming that everyone else knows someone, except us.  Or attending a ConnectingCircle where you hope to make new friends, but guessing  ahead of time that you probably won't have anything in common with anyone.  Or talking to someone and guessing that whatever we are (single, a mom, retired, a Christian, an immigrant) isn't what the other person wishes we were, leaving the conversation feeling very much like an outsider.

Fear Divides Us

And I knew that I wasn't the only one showing up at our reunion feeling the fear.  In fact, I guessed that there would be many who wouldn't even come, where fear was undoubtedly at the root of their reason.  With statements like "Everyone else still acts like they did back in high school," "I'm just too different," "We don't have anything in common anymore," and "I didn't even like them back then, I surely won't like them now," you can see that every excuse validates the voice of fear: "I'm too different." And the unacknowledged fear beneath that statement is that we'll be judged, or rejected in some way.

I often quote Rabbi Harold Kushner who says that our greatest human fear is the fear of rejection.  He makes a case that it is the fear of being rejected, or not being "enough," that is at the root of every other fear we hold.

If that is true, and I think it is, then we know that our default lens is often to presume we're being rejected, or somehow not measuring up.

If that's just true in day-to-day life, then the stakes definitely go up at reunions. There aren't many places in life where we "go back" to the same place and group of people.  That going back is like a mirror where we can see where we used to be, and where we are now. It's impossible to not see all the other paths we could have taken, how our choices have played out; and to then compare our current life either to those who graduated with us, or against our own hopes of where we pictured ourselves someday being.  Much like a door frame where our parents measured our growth with pencil marks, this ritual of going back can leave us feeling measured, evaluated, and insecure for any part of life that isn't "perfect."

I can feel sensitive about being judged for moving away and leaving our town; and someone else can feel fearful that I'd think less of them for staying.  Someone can come and feel nervous about being too accomplished and successful; and someone else can come feeling bad about not having finished college.  The person who is always being judged for having the "perfect" life is feeling just as insecure as the person who feels the weight of a bankruptcy, weight gain, or divorce.

What fear does is divides.  Fear whispers that we're not good enough.  Fear insists that there is a separation between you and me.  Fear focuses on the .1% that may appear different, rather than the 99.9% that is the same.  Fear forgets that we're connected. Fear builds up walls that tempt us to think someone is inside, and someone is outside.

How To Not Feel Judged...

Of course to bring our walls down means we have to feel safe.  And while most us think we need them to act loving before we can feel safe, I found it much more empowering to create my own safety.

Here are the two things I did differently this time, that resulted in me not feeling judged:

1)    First, I changed my story.

When I listen to most of us articulate our fears about what others might think of us, we say: "I feel judged for x."

Even if we don't use that word, we express those sentiments. You'll know you feel judged by the fact that you start defending yourself.  Only someone who feels attacked has to defend.  In defense mode we have two options: devalue them and/or inflate us.  We tell ourselves whatever we have to to try to feel better about our lives.

The problem with feeling judged is that it leaves us as the victims, implying there is someone doing something to us.  The story of judgment always has a perpetrator that we must defend ourselves against.

This time, every time I was tempted to take on the story of "feeling judged" I replaced it with "I feel insecure about x." I owned it!

That shift in language changed everything!  Now, instead of being a victim that needs to defend myself against someone doing something (that most often is only imagined!); I am simply recognizing that I feel the fear.  Now, I am in charge and I can ask myself, "Why do I feel insecure about this part of my life? Is it because I'm not happy with this myself? Or, am I not at peace with it in some way? What information can I take from this that will help me live my life more in alignment? Is there anything I can do to make myself feel better right now? How do I want to respond?"

Owning it as insecurity, rather than projecting judgment on others kept me loving to them with the clarity that they aren't the problem and empowered me with the information and empathy I needed to look inside and grow myself.

2)    The second thing I did was create a mantra that I said silently through out the whole weekend:

"Focus on loving people, not trying to impress them."

So this time... I listened with empathy to that little high school girl inside of me that just wanted to be accepted.  I heard it, validated the hunger, assured that little girl that others felt the same way, and decided that my own odds of feeling accepted would increase if I came in ready to give that to others.

I decided that I'd rather leave people feeling good about themselves rather than worrying about them feeling good about me.  That means I chose to affirm them, share the very imperfect parts of my life with honesty, and listen deeply-- all things that can't be done with a heart of fear.  Walls don't lend themselves to connection and love.

And truthfully, people like people who like them so odds increase that if they feel good--as opposed to insecure-- talking to you, they'll like you! Acceptance has a way of breeding acceptance.  Which is what we all want anyway... so why not just get straight to the point?  :)

You probably don't have a high school reunion coming up... but I'll leave you with this prayer:

May you know your worth, feeling deeply how valuable you are.  May you remember that while your default mode is to feel rejected, that you can choose acceptance instead.  May you continue to grow in accepting yourself and giving that gift to all whom you meet.  We are all accepted, all good enough, all created with love....we just forget sometimes. Let's remember...

 

Our Greatest Fear: Rejection

A few nights ago I attended a lecture by Rabbi Harold Kushner, who's probably most well known for his best-seller "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" but whose subject this evening was his most recent book release: "Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World." The introduction caught my attention when it was said that more people have died of fear caused by 9/11 and the idea of terrorism after the fact (anxiety produced complications and deaths) than the number of lives actually lost by the events that day. Wow.

Our Greatest Fear: Rejection Interestingly, terrorism is not our greatest fear. Nor is the economic recession. Nor is it the reality of aging or the thought of someday dying. We hear a lot of about those things; the news is consumed with those subjects. But, truth be told, the most paralyzing fear we experience is rejection.

Sitting in that auditorium, that observation resonated. How much of my life choices are impacted by that fear? Whether it's doing something to try to get someone to like me or not doing something to avoid someone not liking me. Whether it's not trying for the promotion, the new job, the business idea development or the sale for risk of failure or pursuing them only to try to gain approval. Whether it's acting uninterested when I really am. Or acting interested when I'm really not. How much of our lives are influenced by the desire to be accepted or the desire to avoid rejection?

"Whether it's losing a job or being rejected in a failed romance, it can pull the rug out from under peoples' sense of identity," says Kushner. Indeed. I've been through a divorce. I know it takes a while to rebuild the self-confidence, to hold the belief that someone else could possibly someday like me. And that, coming from someone who considers herself quite self-confident! I can only imagine how difficult it would be to take risks if you've had multiple experiences of rejection that you had taken personally or if you were raised not ever experiencing real acceptance.

How our Fear Impacts our Forming Friendships I came home from that lecture thinking about how important GirlFriendCircles.com can be in this world-- an opportunity for people to connect and build a sense of belonging. Surrounding themselves with friends that remind them of their acceptance.

But on the reverse side, I thought about how hard it can also be to actually take steps to creating that community if one's greatest fear is rejection. It's a double-edge sword. We feel lonely and crave connectedness and yet can't pursue it because we fear no one will actually like us. And so we stay lonely. We hunger for acceptance, but avoid giving people that opportunity.

In our GirlFriendCircles community, there are hundreds of women who have signed up and paid and yet, haven't attended their first ConnectingCircle where they can actually meet friends. For some it comes down to scheduling, but for many it comes down to fear. We wanted friends enough to sign up, but when it comes to actually putting ourselves out there, the discomfort is too great. And so we just put it off.

And for some, we have gone to one or two events, met a few people and used our experience to confirm our fears. Someone didn't write back so instead of concluding that it might be her issue (she's flaky, her spam filter got it) we conclude that it's our issue: no one likes us. And we give up.

Or, worst, we assume someone is going to reject us because we're different and so we self-reject and project it onto them. This happens all the time. We assume since none of them have kids and we do that they wouldn't want to be our friend. Or that because they're older that they probably think I'm too young. Or she's more stylish, has more money, seems more popular, looks more beautiful, etc. so therefore.... you get the idea.

How does fear of rejection impact you in your journey of making friends?

Overcoming Fear For Kushner, conquering fear requires a combination of "rational awareness of potential consequences complemented by the willingness to reach out to family, friends and community for help."

That makes sense to me when the fear is, say, a natural disaster. But it's a tough formula if our greatest fear is rejection. For what do you do if the very medicine (reaching out to friends) is also your greatest fear?

And how I wish I had an easy answer to this. I do not. I only know that in my line of work, I often see people choose the fear of loneliness over the fear of risking rejection. The one thing we crave-- to be accepted-- sometimes isn't a strong enough desire to push us past the risk. And it breaks my heart.

All I can do is try to create a community where you know it's safe to try. Where you are reminded that no matter how wonderful of a person you are, there are simply going to be times where, to no fault of your own, you need more friends. Where you are surrounded by other women who also value friendship and are willing to risk for it. Where you have permission to take your time and do it in your own way. Where you know it's okay that you don't connect with everyone, nor does everyone need to connect with you-- that doesn't speak less of either, it simply acknowledges that the fit wasn't there and it doesn't have to be anyone's fault.

And perhaps that's all we can do-- engage in the fear together, as a community, so no one goes it alone. "If you can't solve the problem by yourself, you do a worse job when you're afraid," Kusher said. "You make things harder if you try to do it alone."

For if we can engage in relationships even in our fear. (Wasn't it Mark Twain who said courage isn't the absence of fear but rather valuing something else as greater than the fear?) Then, we're that much stronger against any terrorist, disease or crisis. And together, there is so much courage we can offer this world.

What is one step you can take today to pursue what's important to you regardless of your insecurities and fears?