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Episode 220: Managing the Fear of Rejection—with Deb Zahn

Deb Zahn: Hi, I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. So, on this podcast, we're going to talk about a big, scary, difficult feeling that a lot of consultants get, especially at the beginning, but often other times as well. And that is the fear of rejection. So, what am I talking about? How does it show up and why you need to manage it to make sure that it doesn't actually get in the way of you having the successful consulting business and the life that you want to have. And then I'm going to talk about ways to be able to manage it so it doesn't stop you.

The first thing I want to say about it is just know and embrace that it is normal and expected. Like it sucks. I mean, I can still say that because it's PG 13, but it sucks. I hate it. I don't know anybody that likes the feeling of rejection, let alone the fear of it. And it's interesting because there're actually been studies they've done that people who have been rejected can often experience it as worse than physical pain. So, it's a real thing and it's wired into us to hate it to a large degree. And so it's not a defect in you. There's not something especially wrong with you that, "Oh my gosh, why am I just feeling this?" So, it's nothing to be embarrassed about; it's nothing to be ashamed of.

It is important to manage it, and it really is important to acknowledge it so that you can do that. And I'm going to talk in a little bit about why it's so important to manage because there are so many ways that it could get in the way of having the business that you want to have. But to acknowledge it as a first step towards managing is really critical.

And generally what I have found with the fear of rejection, which I've certainly felt many times as well as any other kind of tough feeling that arises, is that if I try and suppress it, if I try and be like, "No, no, no, I don't feel that way, I don't feel that way," and just sort of shove it down, it's going to find a way to pop up often creatively and often when I really don't want it to because it wants to be noticed. And so I have to actually surface it, name it, look at it, and then I can work with it. If you're feeling the fear of rejection, that's why I wanted to do this podcast. Is I've just been hearing a lot about this recently from consultants and being able to manage it is a really critical skill to have the consulting business you want to have.

So, when I talk about surfacing it, name it, and then you're able to work with it, folks who are familiar with cognitive behavioral therapy probably are like, "Wait, that kind of sounds familiar." And I've experienced it. When I was in therapy that's the type of therapy I had and I used it because I found it extraordinarily helpful. I am not an expert, but let me say a couple things about it because I'm going to be drawing from that and I'm also going to be drawing from some other things that I've learned and other things that I've done. But essentially, cognitive behavioral therapy has some core principles, and this is how the American Psychological Association talks about it, which is that if you've got problems, if you've got things that you're struggling with that are psychological, things like the fear of rejection, it can be based either wholly or in part on unhelpful ways that you're thinking about things. So, again, this sounds like what other folks are calling mindset and what I call mindset.

So, you've got some unhelpful ways of thinking about things that are getting in your way, and it could be based on learned patterns. So, the habits of thinking that we have or the learned habits that you get because of unhelpful behavior that's been repeated over time and starts to shape your thinking. And that if it's something that you're suffering with, , there is a way out. And that is to learn better ways of coping, ways of actually relieving the symptoms and generally becoming more effective, including effective at your business.

This is what I mean by surfacing and naming it. Learning to recognize when distortions in the way you're thinking are actually getting in your way or creating problems. And then to say, "Hey, wait a minute, I need to look at this now in the light of what I actually know reality to be in order to understand it for what it is and be able to manage it." And so that's to get a better understanding of, "OK, why am I behaving a certain way? Why do I feel motivated to do these things?" And then using problem-solving skills to be able to better cope or manage whatever the difficult situation. And in this case, it would be the fear of rejection.

And in doing so, you end up getting this greater sense of confidence in your own abilities to manage difficult feelings and difficult situations. And I will tell you that I have found this to be abundantly true, not just in my consulting business but in my life. Tremendously helpful for your consulting business to learn skills that are like this. And you don't have to go to therapy necessarily to learn those unless you're drawn to do that or you're already in that, which I think is a wonderful thing. But to be able to have those reflective skills that you build up over time will actually help you have, again, the business and life you want to have because then you can change some of the patterns of how you behave and patterns of how you think. And it's a beautiful, wonderful thing. I'm telling you, it makes everything so much easier.

So, the key is not to let the fear of rejection get in the way of you having a successful consulting business. And this is where I want to talk about what it can do because if it does take over and take the wheel, it's going to stop you from doing a whole lot of things that are really critical to getting business or really critical to getting business that actually gives you the income that you want. So, fear of rejection and it literally can sabotage your business if you really let it take control. So, let me give you some very specific examples.

One of the ways to get business, particularly when you're new, is to reach out to people in your network and one, to try and get business from them, but also get introductions and referrals to other folks that might need your help and might need what you have to offer. If you're too afraid of rejection to do that, that might actually stop you from doing that, in which case that's income that you could have had that you're not going to have because fear of rejection stopped you from that.

And that's tough reaching out to people that you know, let alone what happens when you’ve got to connect with strangers. Connect with people who don't know you, who don't know how wonderful and fabulous you are, but connect with strangers to try and get leads and ultimately try and get business or you have to start marketing.

And one of the purposes of it is to increase visibility of you. Oh my gosh, fear of rejection in the face of “I'm going to make myself more visible” can feel terrifying. And so it often stops consultants from doing it.

But let's say you even can do that piece and you're like, "OK, I got past it. I did this." And now it comes to putting a proposal together and pricing your services. If you're suddenly afraid that you're going to get rejected and within you is that trigger of the fear of rejection, then you might do things like underprice yourself. And if you underprice yourself and if you keep underpricing yourself, that means you either don't earn the income that you need and want, or you have to work endlessly to be able to get the income that you need and want.

So, fear of rejection. That's just a few that I named that if you don't figure out a way to surface it, acknowledge it and work with it, it can really get in the way of your business and you could end up either not having a consulting business because you weren't able to get past it or having a consulting business that doesn't really serve your business needs and doesn't really serve your life needs. So, those are just a few. That's why it's so important because you want to make sure that ultimately you get enough business and you get enough of the money from that business to support the life.

So, I have experienced fear of rejection. I still experience fear of rejection. It still pops up every now and then. So, what I do, and this is where I'm going to borrow from something else, not cognitive behavioral therapy. I'm going to borrow from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which again, if anybody's interested in that stuff, you can look it up. But they have this notion of the observer self, which I have found tremendously helpful in my own life, where I basically a self-reflection tool that I use where I step back and I look at what's going on with myself as if I'm observing myself. And so when fear of rejection comes up, as with any tough emotion, it's almost as if I'm saying, "Oh, hi, there you are. I haven't seen you in a bit,” or “Maybe I saw you yesterday." But to have my observer self give me enough distance from what can often be a big, huge emotional charge to now be able to pay attention to it in a way and really see what's going on.

And I always like to not just immediately jump to action because I don't know if I just jumped to action, am I really just squishy? And is it going to pop up in some other way? So, maybe if I jump to action, then yeah, I'll get people who want to work with me, but now it's going to pop up when it comes to pricing. So, I want to make sure I'm actually surfacing it in its entirety so I can pay attention to it. And what I don't mean is that you have to be in therapy for years and years and know it in every single possible conceivable way and nuance before you can do anything. But you got to get a good inventory is how I would say to what's going on. And I use a variety of tools to do that. I'm very much as with consulting, I use a toolbox approach. I want to use the right tool for the right job. Sometimes I just need one, and sometimes it is so big and it is so difficult that I need a few.

So, one of the things that I do is I pay attention to, well, where is this fear of rejection coming from? Because I can't assume, and from experience I know I should not assume that it's only coming from the situation that's in front of me. So, I want to pay attention to what is this really about? What are the origins of this actually? And often it's multifactorial. It's not just one thing, but I want to pay attention to that.

I also pay attention to what I call the parasites, which are other tough emotions that might be attaching itself to the fear of rejection. And when they do that, it actually makes the feeling feel much bigger than it actually is and feel way more intractable than it actually is. And so I pay attention to that going, "Hey, who hitched a ride on fear of rejection? And let me take a look at you. I'm going to check the trunk and see what we got in the trunk, and I'm going to check the back seat." So, I often will look for things like, did self-worth hitch a ride to this? And is it therefore, if I've got some things going on with my feelings of self-worth, is it amplifying this fear of rejection? So, I want to take a look at that.

And if I sort of know the anatomy or I've taken an inventory... I'm using tons of metaphors here, grab whichever one you like. But if I take an inventory, well, now I can work with it because now I know what to pay attention to. I know what needs my loving touch in order to make sure that it is not something that I am squishing down, but it's something that I'm really giving the attention it needs. And I do so gently and I do so lovingly because the goal of this is not to shame myself into not feeling something. The goal of this is to be able to essentially clear my path, and that's how I think about it. And sometimes I need to clear my path of barriers that I have put up, and I don't use a battering ram to do that. I pick them up, and I move things to the side.

Now, I've done a ton of work on myself. I am my favorite project as I like to tell folks. So, sometimes what I find is just acknowledging, like just saying, "Hey, fear of rejection, there you are.” And “Oh, self-worth I see you there. I see you there in the back seat." Will often reduce the weight of it and will often reduce the emotional charge that's attached to it. Now, sometimes I'm not so lucky and it's big enough that's not going to happen, but often that does happen, just me saying, "Hey, I see you. I see what's going on here." Then I start to work with those feelings.

And so the first thing I like to do is I remember my why for being a consultant because that is a powerful force. And so if I've got a big emotional charge around something, I want to bring a big powerful force into the mix as well. And so my why, which is I'm a consultant because I truly, truly want to help people and I'm a healthcare consultant. And so I know that not always, but sometimes I do things that have a real impact on people's lives, and particularly on patients' lives and on their families. And having been on the other side of it when things went really well and knowing how much that meant to me and when things went poorly and knowing how horrible and painful that was, that's a big charge for me to be part of the solution related to those things.

And also knowing within organizations, having been in organizations, if there's people who are just feeling stuck and they've got problems they don't know how to solve, and knowing what that feels like because I've been there, I want to help them solve problems, and I want to help them make their dreams come true and get the things that they aspire to and serve in the way that they most want to serve. So, that is critical to me. And if I remember that, that brings that really positive emotion into the mix, and that's extraordinarily helpful for now working with something that is a little more of a, "Oh, I want to make myself smaller." Well, if you make yourself smaller, you can't do the good things that you really want to do. So, that's one thing I do.

I also force myself, and I find this really difficult, but I force myself to remember all of the times, the many, many, many, many, many, many times I did not get rejected. And I have to remind myself that I've had more experiences of that than I have of being rejected, rejected just because it's painful, feels bigger, and it feels like it's happened more often, but in reality it hasn't. And I have to remember what true reality is, again, in order to have the appropriate weight to the fear of rejection. So, that's one thing that I do.

I also kind of look at it strategically, and again, this is where my observer self can be really helpful, is I anticipate and I say, OK, so we're afraid of rejection. All right, let's say rejection's coming. What are the things that could cause that rejection? Because the fear of rejection, often how at least I experience it and some other folks that I've talked to is, it's almost this nebulous thing. And it's not really attached to anything specific, it's more they're going to reject me. And it's not my offer, it's not my price, it's not the details. It's I am going to be rejected. So, now I want to interrogate that a little bit and say, OK, if I know that it's not me, capital M, capital E, but it's actually going to be things related to what I'm offering or things about how I'm doing the discovery process or whatever, let's take a look at that. Let's think about the different ways that might trigger a no when I really want a yes. And then let's get strategic and say, "OK, how do I mitigate that? How do I eliminate some of those things?"

And that switches my mind to let's talk about solutions for things that might actually trigger a rejection. And now I'm doing something that's actually a helpful behavior and I'm doing helpful thinking, and I'm kind of out of the rut of, "Oh, no, no, no, this is just going to be a rejection. It's just going to be a rejection." And I'm not really dissecting it in any sort of helpful way. So, that's one thing that I do that I find really, really helpful.

The other thing I do is I kind of trick myself, and that is I get rid of my back doors. And what I mean by that is a back door is something that allows you to not change your behavior or not change your habits of thinking or the way that you're thinking about things because you can just slip out the back door. And so, one of the ways that we have created back doors is I just won't set up a potential meeting with somebody. I won't reach out and set up a meeting because I think I got to do all this other stuff before that happens. I got to get this ready and that ready, and I got to get my language perfect and I have to perfect, perfect, perfect, perfect. And this is where, by the way, perfectionism always in the backseat, never in the trunk, by the way. Sometimes it's shotgun in the car of the fear of rejection, but that one always shows up.

And so I think perfect, perfect, perfect. And that's my back door to actually taking the action that would get me in the situation where we would actually have to face the fear of rejection. So, I take one step and I deliberately tell myself, "You don't have to worry about the whole thing. You just have to do this next thing." And usually that next thing is I will reach out to just set up a call. And I know the call is not likely going to happen today. It's not likely going to happen tomorrow. People are busy. I'm going to have some time to figure it out. So, don't worry about anything else, just do that thing because that first thing is less scary than the whole thing. And in that way, I'm getting rid of my back door. And then I'm just saying, "You know what? You'll figure out the subsequent steps." And even though the fear of rejection is like, "No, you won't," it's OK. I know I will. I often do.

And so I just make myself take that first step and I look for other back doors, and I'm like, "All right, where are you hiding?" So, that I can actually lock that door so I don't really have a way out of the actions that are going to be most helpful to me.

Another thing in my toolbox is I sometimes think through, "All right, what if I don't get this gig? What are really the true implications of that?" And if the answer to that honestly is, well, I was banking everything on getting this gig, then I know, oh, OK, well, that's something I need to change about my business because I should never rely heavily on any single one engagement in order for me to get my income in. I know that I now need to reach out to other folks so that this one thing where I'm afraid of being rejected doesn't feel so big. And I haven't essentially allowed it to be so big because I had so much dependency on it for income.

But I think through the implications and a lot of times the implications, if you put them all on a scale, they aren't the same weight as the fear of rejection. They're a lot lighter. And so it helps me think through, all right, so let's say this doesn't happen. We've tried to mitigate it, we've tried to eliminate any reason it might happen, but let's say it doesn't happen. What are the implications? And if the implications are significant, then what are the actions that I need to take and order to reduce what the implications are and reduce the consequences of me not getting it? And now I've got actions to focus on. I've got new things to focus on.

One of the most powerful things, and this will be the last tool that I talk about, but one of the most powerful things that I do is I tell someone I trust. So, one of the things years and years ago when I was in therapy, which I was in a good chunk of my 20s and a little bit into my 30s, is I had a promise that I told myself, which basically... Because I was broke all the time. So, I thought, if you're actually paying for therapy, then you need to get the most out of it.

So, one promise that I made myself is if something felt terrifying, if some feeling felt terrifying and it felt so hard that saying it out loud felt like one of the worst things that I could do is I would make myself say it out loud. And in this case, I'd make myself say it out loud to my therapist. And because I had a fabulous therapist, I had somebody that I could truly trust. And what I said to myself is, "Don't worry about the consequences of saying it out loud, just say it." And that's all you have to worry about, is saying it. And as you can see, that's kind of a thing with me. I'm very practical. Take the next step. Don't worry about every step, take the next step. And this step was to say it out loud and to say it to folks who get it and aren't going to reinforce the fear.

So, this is where you have to be really selective because if you're going to tell somebody who's typically a Debbie Downer or doesn't really have faith in your ability to do this, and they're like, "Yeah, you should totally go back to employment," that's not helpful. That's not who you want to tell. You want to tell people who understand it and who have maybe struggled with it themselves so that they know the taste and the feel and the flavor of the fear of rejection, but they're going to encourage you to face it, and they're going to encourage you to manage it. And I will say that this is one of the absolutely beautiful things about being in a community of other consultants.

And this is where, yes, I am unabashedly going to give a plug for my membership because this is the type of stuff that comes up in there, which makes me humbled and thrilled that I've created a space and help nurture a space that does this. So, folks in there talk about the fear of rejection. They talk about, "If I say that number of price, I'm going to get rejected." They talk about, "If I reach out to those folks and I press just a little bit, oh my gosh, they're going to think I'm pushy. They're going to think all these things and they're going to reject me." So, we talk about it in there, and the folks because there's such wonderful folks in there, they get it because they've been there or they're there today and they can share ideas about how to manage it. And more importantly, they can encourage each other to manage it and not just to cling to it like it is the only reality, but to recognize it for what it is, which is a difficult emotion that can be surfaced, it can be acknowledged, it can be named, and it can be managed.

So, you have to find out what works best for you. And if it's a community of other consultants, come check out my community and see if that's where you need to be. If it's somewhere else, go wherever it makes sense for you to get that type of support because you're going to need it. You're going to need it more than once. And when you have it, and when you have the right type of support, there's nothing better than that. And there's nothing better than that emotionally, but also there's nothing better than, "OK, I can now move forward and I'm not going to get stuck, and I'm not going to go back to a job that I don't want to be in because I've got the right folks who are giving me the right type of support."

So, again, you need to find out what works best for you, but just know this, and this is the last thing I'll say about this. You are not alone. I have felt it. Other folks have felt it. Other consultants are feeling it at this very moment and are hopefully listening to this podcast and feeling really seen. And there's nothing wrong with you, and there's nothing wrong with feelings like this when they emerge. It's just there's a way past it. And knowing that you can get past it, knowing you can have the life that you want, just trust that and do the work, and you'll ultimately get what you want at the end.

Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content, and I don't want you to miss anything. But the other two things that I'm going to ask you to do is, one is if you have any comments. So, if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those.

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So, as always, you can go and get more wonderful information and tools at Thanks so much. I will talk to you on the next episode. Bye-bye.

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