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What is rejection therapy, and can it really heal social anxiety?

With over 72 million views on TikTok, young people are trying out a 100-day challenge to face ‘the tyranny of social rejection’

Early adulthood is an embarrassing time – it’s no wonder that studies show 90 per cent of social anxiety cases first occur by the age of 23. Unfortunately, further studies suggest that when it comes to adolescent social anxiety, there is “limited evidence” on the efficacy of available therapies. Essentially, this means that young people are facing a crisis of self-confidence – but when it comes to treatment, are we up a certain creek without a much-needed paddle? 

Enter: rejection therapy. The premise is simple: each day, you try to get rejected. Whether it’s asking a stranger for a hug (or a photo, or £100), or asking if you can take a nap at a mattress shop, the goal of rejection therapy is to inure yourself against what its creator Jason Comely calls “the tyranny of social rejection”.

The therapy began as a card game, with Comely challenging players to seek out rejection every day for 30 days. It was then spearheaded by Jia Jang, whose TED Talk on the matter went viral in 2016. Now, its popularity has exploded, and #rejectiontherapy has over 72 million views on TikTok. What began as a method for individuals to develop personal resilience to social self-consciousness has now become a social media trend, a means of seeking out likes, followers, and audience engagement.

As young adults, our increased susceptibility to rejection makes us more likely to take risks in the name of conforming to trends, and countless studies have found significant associations between social media use and social anxiety. With this in mind, could turning to TikTok for therapy be doing us more harm than good?

Dr Peter Tuerk, a clinical psychologist who uses rejection therapy to treat adolescent social anxiety, is keen to highlight the benefits. “Exposure therapy”, he says, “is a number one tool that we use – it’s super empirically validated”. ‘Exposure therapy’ is an umbrella term for a form of treatment where participants encounter a phobic stimulus in a safe environment. Confrontation with the source of anxiety leads to a reduction in fear responses, and subsequently prevents the avoidant behaviours that feed phobias and social anxiety. “What we want is people to learn that they can tolerate the distress that’s associated with their physiological responses,” says Dr Tuerk. “What happens over time is you habituate. Just like when you jump in a pool: it feels cold, then you wait, and that gets better.” 

Almost invariably, when people approach strangers to ask for a small loan, or to climb a tree with them, or to trade shopping bags, they are told ‘no’ – which is the point. This is what happened to Grace, who tried to exchange her post-mall haul with a stranger as part of her foray into the rejection therapy trend. “She said ‘no, that’s a weird question,’” she says. “I actually like that she said that – this was the first person who was actually honest, instead of pretending I was normal.”

“I was doing it to overcome caring what other people think of me, and just allowing myself to exist,” she continues, explaining her motivations for the challenge. “It was to get comfortable with people thinking that I’m weird.”

So, 100 days later, did it work? “Since doing the rejections I’ve learnt to ask for things, instead of just accepting a no – but obviously if it is a no, I can just accept it,” she says. Grace credits rejection therapy for giving her a newfound confidence across all aspects of her life, from claiming gym equipment to asking for store credit. It’s even helped her navigate some more stressful social situations. “I was at the bar and I got separated from my friends, and my phone wasn’t working so I couldn’t really text them,” she recalls. “I had met these girls in the bathroom, so I saw them later and I just asked if I could hang out with them.” Grace is certain her prior rejections saved her: “If I hadn’t done my rejection therapy […] I would have just started freaking out,” she says.

@hallebuttafuso Rejection Therapy Day 92❌🦈 back from my little hiatus and ready to continue being rejected :) thanks for being patient, ive been all over the place and needed some time to get myself together 🫶🏼 #rejectiontherapy #rejection #rejected #shark #sharkattackdrink #100daysofrejection #rejectiontherapychallenge ♬ original sound - Halle

Travel influencer Vivienne is seeing similar benefits from rejection therapy. “I’ve always leant into things that scare me,” she says. “The aim of me participating in rejection therapy is to boost my tolerance for asking for things I want, but view as absurd.” Still, in the midst of her 100-day challenge, Vivienne has already learnt a lot. “There are so many opportunities waiting on the other side of fear,” she says. And those opportunities aren’t just social: she credits rejection therapy for hotel room upgrades, and even for collaborations with events platforms. “Closed mouths don’t get fed,” she says.

It’s reassuring to see such optimism, but why do people need to film themselves trying rejection therapy? By moving rejection therapy online, the goal has shifted: no longer an end in itself, self-improvement becomes a means of encouraging audience engagement. And by incorporating individual therapeutic practice into a viral trend, the attempt to protect ourselves against embarrassment now depends upon the very economy of social acceptance and rejection it was developed to diffuse. “The money in social media is likes and hits,” says Dr Tuerk. “Popularity is the currency, so when you’re not getting any currency in the system… it’s depressing.”

“I wouldn’t give a teenager an assignment that depends on social media,” he adds. Instead, he prefers simple, offline rejection prompts, like offering to buy someone’s coffee, “or holding the door open for strangers longer than you think is reasonable”. In his own practice, Dr Tuerk uses “things that are time-limited and in the moment that aren’t going to haunt the kid afterwards because it’s on social media forever.”

“Popularity is the currency, so when you’re not getting any currency in the system… it’s depressing” – Dr. Tuerk

Not all creators are so lucky. For one of Grace’s videos, she challenged herself to ask a girl in Starbucks to swap seats. The girl, sat alone, agreed. She got up and walked away. Grace, thankful for another step on her path to self-improvement, posted the video online. “I didn’t think anything was wrong with it,” she says. The public response, however, was less positive. “People were saying it was mean,” Grace recalls. It wasn’t long until concern for the girl at Starbucks turned into vitriol for Grace and she eventually deleted the video. Evidently, posting your ‘therapy’ on social media can make its efficacy inherently mixed: for every ten comments congratulating you on your personal growth, there’s a group of trolls eager to vilify you for your ‘main character syndrome’.

But some would argue that posting these videos isn’t about clout, and that it’s simply a way of documenting your journey instead. “I didn’t post the videos because I hoped they would go viral [...] I wouldn’t have felt ‘rejected’ by having low engagement,” says Vivienne. For her, rather than a source of validation, Tiktok is more of ‘a virtual diary’ – a means of tracking, witnessing, and appreciating her own personal progress.

Conversely, Halle, whose rejection therapy videos have had hundreds of thousands of views, thinks the experience actually helped her rethink her own relationship with social media. “There was a time where views used to determine my self-worth,” she says. “Rejection therapy has helped me work through that; by posting so many videos throughout this time, I’ve learnt that engagement isn’t everything and it’s not something I need to take personally.”

While rejection therapy can provide a useful toolkit for dealing with day-to-day anxiety, is embarrassment something we can ever really cure? We’re hardwired to respond viscerally to social exclusion, as in the Ice Age, exile from your social group might mean you were more prone to death by runaway mammoth. Today the consequences of a social faux pas like your joke not landing are comparatively minor (and don’t involve mammoths), but this evolutionary hangover has duped our brains into thinking that embarrassment – violation of a social norm – is life-threatening. So, could it be that rejection is simply part of the human condition?  

Dr Tuerk differentiates between the experience of daily embarrassment and pathological disorders. “I use rejection therapy to help people that have functionally-impairing conditions: people that are avoiding going to school, people that are avoiding going to the store, people who are having panic attacks,” he says. “I wouldn’t use it for a teenager who’s just an awkward teenager, because they’re likely to still be embarrassed at the end of the day.”

“We don’t have enough rejection therapy tools to get them totally immune from rejection,” he concludes. “And we wouldn’t want them to be.”

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