AT ONE OF our noon discussion meetings here in Toledo, a middle-aged man who was recently divorced suggested that rejection was turning out to be the major problem of his life. First, there was a measure of rejection in the failure of his marriage. But he was meeting additional rejections in his efforts to date women and to find someone who would really care about him. Meanwhile, he was also conscious of other kinds of rejection and even thought that he might be getting paranoid on the subject.
The man's comments made a deep impression on me and also made me realize that I had been less than honest about my own fears of rejection, despite many years of AA experience. In fact, I could not remember many AA discussions of the subject. I wondered whether we had not been either too proud or too sensitive to discuss this matter.
In surveying my sorry feelings about rejection--and sharing at meetings--I made some of the following observations.
Fear of rejection caused me to affect an air of bravado and indifference. I appeared not to care whether I was accepted or not. Perhaps this was a way of not letting people know that I wanted them to accept me. I was probably trying to tell them they could not hurt me--when, of course, they could.
I also avoided what could be termed close competition. I did not mind competing in things that I could easily win. But I didn't like any sort of contest in which I had real competition. I always wanted the deck heavily stacked in my favor.
In the same way, I disliked being evaluated or interviewed unless I had a clear-cut advantage and would obviously emerge from the experience with a favorable report. I wanted praise from the boss, for example, but I dreaded being told that my own performance was lagging behind that of others with similar jobs.
Every rejection seemed very personal. As a single man, I was particularly sensitive about rejections from women, and I would never telephone a second time if I had been refused a date for any reason. I never could believe that a woman really had prior commitments and meant it when she asked me to call again.
I wanted to be free to reject others, but I was not willing to concede to them the right to reject me. I apparently wanted exemption from the risks and hurts of being an ordinary human being.
I mentally rehearsed rejections that could come to me, and I sometimes decided prematurely that a plan or idea of mine would not be accepted. This gave me sufficient reasons not to proceed at all. In looking back, I can now see that fear of rejection kept me from taking positive steps in my own best interests.
I probably sought some rejection as a way of avoiding change and responsibility. Perhaps I invited rejections from women because I secretly feared the responsibility and demands of marriage.
Finally, low self-esteem has been a factor in all of my feelings about rejection. The higher my self-esteem, the more able I am to understand and cope with the give-and-take of human relationships.
Rejection and the fear of rejection have been very serious problems for me, both in drinking and in sobriety. Being honest about the nature of the trouble offers some relief. Yet the higher goal should be to understand rejection and to eliminate the fears and hypersensitivity that make it such a disability. Here are some solutions drawn from my own AA experience.
The friendships I have found in AA have helped eliminate some rejection from my thinking. I now feel strongly that we should never minimize the importance of accepting anybody who comes to AA. Also, we should try to be interested in all newcomers and to make it clear that they are not expected to "perform" in order to have continued acceptance.
Even bad behavior is no real reason for rejecting or excluding a sick alcoholic who needs help. I remember an AA group treasurer who spent the group's money on a protracted binge, but was welcomed back when he was ready to return. Many AA groups become havens for people who are looked on as weirdos by the rest of society. Perhaps there are times when we are tempted to discourage certain people from attending, when we wish that all of our fellow members were more like us. Since we were not rejected when we came to AA, we should take care not to create barriers for the other person who also needs acceptance.
It is true that acceptance in AA will not meet all of our needs for approval and acceptance in the outside world. Still, it is a source of warmth for people who are already in agony from too many hurts and humiliations. The acceptance I found in AA gave me a start in building satisfactory relationships elsewhere in the community. I realize that the larger community and my employer accept me only because I am able to meet their expectations in performance. But I would not be able to offer this satisfactory performance if AA had not given a welcoming hand to me.
AA is a special society that does not follow the operating procedures and customs of most other organizations. In a sense, what you find in AA is not what you find in the real world. Yet it seems to me that AA members eventually learn how to fit into a larger society that seethes with problems and contradictions. We learn how to hang on to a certain amount of idealism without becoming impractical; we are able to be realistic without becoming cynical. And in learning about our own defects of character, we are able to understand how other people can be the way they are.
Thus, we should be able to see that certain kinds of rejection will come to us simply as part of the ebb and flow of living. Beyond that, some people will reject us for reasons that have nothing to do with our worth or lack of it. Some people are inconsiderate and mean; others are deeply prejudiced about certain matters. We are sometimes rejected simply because our objectives do not match the aims of the people we want to influence. On the other hand, we may also find acceptance for trivial reasons or just because we are lucky.
It often sounds like sour grapes when somebody rationalizes a rejection or setback by explaining that it might be a blessing in disguise. I have never liked such explanations very well, and they never did much to ease my pain or to soothe my bruised ego immediately after the fact.
Nevertheless, I have to grit my teeth and admit it: Rejections have helped direct my life along very favorable paths that I probably would not have selected if all choices had been left to me. I was once quite disappointed when I could not find employment at a large motorcar company in Detroit. A few weeks later, I went to work for a small company that was hardly known outside its own field. I have had twenty-six years of steady employment with this company and the firm that eventually acquired it.
You can find such examples in every person's life, although sometimes the outcome is unfavorable; that is, today's good fortune turns out to be tomorrow's liability. If I need inspiration and reassurance on this point, I like to reflect that a business rejection drove Bill W. to seek out another alcoholic back in 1935 and indirectly helped launch AA as a society. Other AA members tell me of similar disappointments with happy endings in their own lives.
In thinking about my past hurts over rejections, one thing is very clear to me: In almost every case, I was more concerned about a bruised ego and hurt pride than the things that were really important in the matter. By way of example, I resigned my position about sixteen years ago to accept an assignment as an editorial writer on a major newspaper. This was a very unhappy experience for me and my new employers, and most of my work was either rejected or radically revised before publication. I soon returned to my former position a chastened and much wiser man. For many months, this failure continued to upset me when I let myself think about it.
Yet what was of real importance in the experience? It was not really important that my ego was bruised or my pride hauled down a notch or two during this ordeal; perhaps this actually helped me grow up a bit. But it was important that I continue to bring in a paycheck to support my family. I also had a moral obligation to accept full responsibility for the mistake and to leave the newspaper without rancor or bitterness. Most important, to me as an alcoholic, was to maintain my sobriety during this period of insecurity and upheaval.
That experience has proved helpful in conversations with other AA members who have gone through humiliating or demoralizing experiences. Time and again, I have been able to point out that nothing important has really sustained any damage. Only pride and ego have been bruised, and these hurts will soon heal.
As I have already stated, one of my serious defects was that I feared rejection but could be quite cold and indifferent in rejecting others. In other words, I simply ignored the Golden Rule, and I thought life was so arranged that I could give out one kind of behavior and yet receive an entirely different kind from others. I don't think that way today. I believe that we eventually reap what we sow. If we are harsh and brutal in our rejections of others, this treatment will someday come back to us in one form or another. Even if it does not, our harsh treatment of others will create fears and tensions in our own lives.
But life is so organized that we must often make choices involving rejections for some people. I have been keenly aware of this reality when I have had to fill a position from among several promising applicants. I cannot hire all of them, and I must face the unpleasant job of telling some applicants that the job has been filled. I cannot evade this responsibility, but I can at least be kind, considerate, and gentle. I think that it also helps to pray for the applicants being rejected. Somehow, kindness in necessary rejections of others will also enable us to understand such rejections when we are on the receiving end.
I discovered long ago that AA's spiritual program is my best answer when I am suffering from a real or imagined rejection. One of the sayings I sometimes hear at meetings is that "God don't make junk." In other words, every person has an infinite spiritual worth that has nothing to do with the ordinary judgments of the marketplace and the world. Other people may reject us for both good and bad reasons, but the real Source of our existence will never turn us away. Moreover, this Higher Power is also capable of leading each of us to the people and places that fit our needs and our special talents for service. Many of us who are now in AA feel that this happened when we were being led to the Fellowship.
I believe that this process works in everybody's life and, when properly understood, means that nobody can really be permanently rejected if his or her will and life have been turned over to the care and keeping of a Higher Power. We are only human beings, with a very limited capacity for understanding why things happen as they do. We want the support and approval of others, particularly people we admire and respect. But we should not measure our own worth by the amount of approval we are able to get from others. People's opinions about us will change from day to day; beyond that, no other person really has the authority or sufficient judgment to serve as our guide in all things. There can be times when each of us may have only our Higher Power for guidance and reassurance.
This spiritual idea will save us from a great deal of tension and anxiety about the problem of rejection. I have found that I no longer struggle fiercely to win acceptance or victory in any competitive situation. The most comfortable approach is to work hard, do my very best, and then leave the outcome in God's hands. Sometimes, I am rebuffed in my efforts to form friendships with others, but the hurt soon disappears when I remind myself that they have a right to refuse my friendship; that in so doing, they are probably acting in my best interests as well as their own. It hurts badly to be passed over for promotion or to be turned down for something that goes to another person. But the other person is also a child of God, and we probably will soon come to see that the decision was the best for each of us.
I would never want to minimize the pain and grief that rejection has caused me or to suggest that the spiritual idea has completely insulated me from trouble. But I am learning to understand it, and to live with it in a world that has much pain and trouble. If "God don't make junk," He must have a plan for everybody. Our task is to discover and accept that plan for ourselves. If something is wrong for me, I cannot be accepted for it. And I can never be permanently excluded from that which is rightfully mine.