Saturday, October 3, 2009

Acceptance and Rejection

After our basic needs for food and shelter have been satisfied, most of us are driven by our need for acceptance. We want others to like and respect us and a negative judgment about our character, behavior or personality can be devastating. The need for acceptance appears to be external, but it is not. Acceptance from others is futile if we first do not accept ourselves. If others accept us while we reject ourselves, we can never gain genuine confidence, security and self-esteem. We have also become confused by thinking that if we are accepted by others, we are worthy of love. Ironically, acceptance is usually more correlated to the person judging than to the person who is judged. Many people accept others only if similar characteristics are shared.

Accepting differences is usually very difficult. Could the Germans accept the Jews in the 1930’s? Weren’t these people ostracized only because they had different beliefs, culture and physical appearance? In Nazi Germany, there was only one question used to measure the value of a person’s character – “are you identical to us or not?” The Jews were not the only victims of prejudice. Other people who were obviously different from Aryans were also targeted for extinction; in fact, homosexuals and gypsies were some of the first people who arrived at concentration camps. His dream was a world where everyone was similar to him – a place where acceptance was based only on the presence of identical physical features, beliefs and heritage. If he had won the war instead of losing it, we can also assume that he would have tried to exterminate the Japanese after their purpose was fulfilled. Their genetic differences are clearly obvious. Hitler’s only loyalty was to his own race. The 1,000-year plan was a world of pure Aryans, which means that Orientals and all other races and religions would have had to be eliminated at some point in the future.

Why are people motivated to hate? Hatred breeds on itself and becomes a common bond for making the persecutors feel superior to others. Jewish children could not understand what they had done wrong during World War II and when Osama Bin Laden attacked the US, many Americans questioned whether the country’s actions created the irrational hatred. Terrorists also caused an increased prejudice toward Muslims because some people believed that a minority of evil people represented the totality of a beautiful, peaceful religion. There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. It is the world’s second largest religion. The terrorists represent their own interests -- not the interests of Muhammad and Islam.

Genocide and murder are the natural outcomes of mass rejection and hatred -- and the truly blasphemous rationalize their killings in the name of God. God is the tragic victim of hatred. We think that God must not exist in evil people or tragedy. Yet, God is there – intimately suffering the pain of the hatred. Evil people are weak and severely lack self-esteem. Their only cure is to convince themselves of false superiority by believing that others are inferior. It is extremely difficult to be good. It is easier to convince ourselves that people who are different from us are “bad,” and if people who are different from us are bad, then we can falsely deduce that we are good. The power of this faulty logic can be hypnotic and can result in the brainwashing of entire groups of people. There is power when a group unifies against a common enemy or shares a common philosophy or hatred. The unity builds on itself and creates a life of its own. Each person feels stronger sharing his or her similarities. If the similarity is hatred, the hatred breeds further hatred, which inevitably leads to an extermination of the object of the hatred. Jews were killed, blacks were hung, and innocent Americans were murdered when the World Trade Center towers were destroyed. Propaganda is an important part of the indoctrination. In the 1930’s, Hitler’s speeches monopolized the airwaves, papers and radio. Mussolini’s propaganda machine was fueled through censorship and Osama Bin Laden banned outside information from reaching Afghanistan. Cult leaders prohibit exposure to external friends and family so that their influence can completely monopolize a person’s soul. When only one side of a story is presented continuously, it is difficult, if not impossible to have the opposite view – especially when criticism can result in expulsion, rejection and possibly death.

Why is it easier to hate than to love? We know that love makes us happy and hate makes us cynical and bitter. Love brings out the best in us and hate brings out the worst. So why would we ever choose hate over love? Hate has power through fear. The power of the bully on the block is the fear of his hatred and potential aggression. The bully doesn’t need to fight as long as others remain afraid. Ironically, the common hatred bonds the people who hate and they think they have found an intimate connection with other people’s negativity. A form of intimacy is developed simply by sharing and reinforcing the evil intentions.

Weak people are afraid of others who are different. If someone is weak and insecure, acceptance is based only on agreement and similarity. Obviously, these prejudices violate the principle that all “men” are created equally. Insecurities have misconstrued this philosophy to imply that all people should have equal beliefs, heritage, religion and race. Equality is created instead of accepted. For these people, men are not created equally but if two people are perceived to be “equal,” then acceptance is then assured. Although both Hitler and Napoleon wanted to control the world, the primary difference is that Napoleon did not try to exterminate all people who were not French. Napoleon needed acceptance politically while Hitler needed acceptance genetically. These principles are no different from the politics that exist within a large corporation. The people who keep getting promoted are the ones most similar to Senior Management. Some employees purposely become “yes men” because they know that agreement means acceptance. This philosophy was also repeated during the McCarthy character assassinations. If you were a capitalist, you were accepted but if you believed in an alternative form of government, your life was ruined.

Acceptance should be granted unconditionally. If we all share the need for acceptance, then why can’t we simply accept other human beings because we share the human experience? We don’t need to accept everyone as a friend or a lover. That is conditional acceptance. The ultimate goal is the acceptance of a human being as a person who faces the struggles of life and survives. I don’t know one person who has not faced personal difficulties. The world is not necessarily fair and we are all subjected to the inequity of humanity. Some people are luckier than others, or more attractive, or smarter, or grew up in privileged environments. An extremely talented person may receive significantly less income than a person who is less talented and a competent employee can lose his or her job based on politics or sabotage.

The inequity of the human experience begins at birth. The statement that we are all created equally does not mean that we are equal externally. It means that in the eyes of the universe, no human being is superior to another. Thus, having more money or better looks or greater intelligence does not translate to superiority. Society has conditioned us to believe that external gifts translate to greater value in relation to others. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. A gift is only a gift. The challenge in life is how that gift is used. If the gift is used as a way of feeling superior to others or to make others feel less worthy because they do not have the same gift, an ethical violation has occurred. We all are given gifts in life. One gift is not better or worse than another, it is only different.

Acceptance may require that we look for positive qualities in others that we may not possess ourselves. We are all unique and some are born with talents or physical attributes that another person may not possess. As the Dalai Lama stated in An Open Heart, “Sometimes, when I meet someone and feel that I am a little better than this person, I look for some positive quality of the person. He may have nice hair. I then think, I am now bald, so from this point of view the person is much better than I am. We can always find some quality in someone else where we are outshone. This mental habit helps in countering our pride and arrogance.”

The fear of rejection can be paralyzing. Since we were young, we have sought acceptance from parents, friends, society and ourselves. In grammar school, was there any feeling worse than being the last one picked for a team? How did we feel when we were excluded from the “popular” parties? Or when our “crush” chose to be with someone else? One of my best memories from High School was when the Captain of the Football team told me that he had broken up with his girlfriend to go out with me. I didn’t even consider the pain that she might have felt. Instead, I was overwhelmed by the thrill of acceptance. Acceptance and rejection became the foundation of our four-hour nightly phone calls to all our friends. Being popular meant everything.

The need for acceptance appears to decline as we get older and more secure but it never really goes away. Some people are so scarred by early rejections that they carry these rejections with them even after their popularity is secure. A girlfriend with an extremely attractive body confessed, “I see so many physical flaws when I look in the mirror. I was fat when I was in grammar school and everyone made fun of me. No matter how thin I became, I always heard their words. I have never been able to look at myself objectively. I know I am not overweight now but the ‘fat little girl’ seems to haunt me. When people compliment my body, I still can’t believe that the words are true.”

In life, we learn that as we experience something over and over, it becomes easier. Running a mile can be difficult but if we run a mile every day, the strain disappears. However, the pain of rejection does not get easier over time; it actually gets harder. Each rejection brings back memories of all the other rejections that came before. The pain is multiplied, instead of reduced. We can even feel pain when we are rejected by someone or something that we never desired because the overt rejection can make us feel inferior or unwanted. For example, a romantic rejection can be painful even if we had already decided that the potential partner was undesirable. Apparently, many of us carry a memory of pain that is automatically activated by rejection. Ironically, the reason for a romantic rejection may not result from a lack of interest – instead, it can be instigated by the fear of rejection from the other party. If someone receives subconscious rejection signals during an encounter, he or she may reject the other person due a fear of being rejected first. I once dated a person who proudly proclaimed that he had never been rejected by a woman. In his mind, he rejected every woman he dated. We dated for three months until I realized that his arrogance was unbearable. Although I told him the relationship was over, he still tells his friends that he was the one who rejected me. He is so fearful of having to face rejection that he can actually create an alternate reality.

Any type of rejection can be devastating since love and acceptance are our primary desires. Children rejected by their parents can feel unworthy of love forever. Rejection from a particular college or job can seriously threaten our self-worth. People respond to rejection differently to ensure self-survival. Some people stop trying to achieve their dreams because they are afraid they will fail. When individuals fall into their “comfort zone,” they can stay there indefinitely. The fear of the unknown may be more uncomfortable than the boredom of a monotonous routine. We simply “resign” instead of putting ourselves in a situation that has the possibility of rejection. We know that the worst that can happen is that someone says, “no,” but hearing the words can be debilitating. Other people take rejection so seriously that they end up rejecting themselves. They start believing that some people’s opinions are reality and consequently, they lose their self-respect and confidence.

We may not realize how much we need approval from others. Rightfully so, many people say that they are not influenced by the opinions of others; they believe that they are the masters of their fate. Yet, the need for approval can hide beneath the surface – affecting us in very subtle ways. Since we don’t usually test our willingness to go against the norm, we may not know whether conformity still influences us. A friend related the following story; “I spent my entire life doing exactly what others expected of me. I followed all the rules. I went to a top business school, I obtained senior management positions in corporate America and I earned a good income. Yet at one point in my life, I decided that I no longer wanted to pursue capitalistic goals. Instead, I needed to work for a humanitarian organization. I thought others would support my decision, but instead, I was exposed to judgment and criticism. I was told that my talents would be wasted and my friends and family insisted that I was making the wrong decision. They wondered why I wouldn’t just be happy doing volunteer work on the weekends. No matter what I said, they could not understand why I would ever consider a job that paid a third as much as I could make in the corporate world. In their minds, money was the measurement of success and if I desired a career that did not pay good money, I was a failure. I found myself over-rationalizing my decision and I was extremely hurt by their rejection. I always believed that I was a non-conformist but when I was faced with rejection, I realized that I was still influenced by other people’s opinions. I did not change my decision, but it took tremendous strength to pursue a new career that was not supported by the people who cared about me.”

Even though we know it is our egos that want to conform, it can be very difficult to suppress the need for ego-fulfillment. Some individuals may even change their personality or character to avoid criticism. It can be extremely difficult to be true to yourself when others are criticizing you. For instance, one of my colleagues is a profound thinker and she was gifted with a brilliant mind. It is one of her best qualities. However, her boyfriend continually criticized her desire to think about philosophical issues. He said that she should stop thinking all the time and he told her that she would be unhappy unless she was willing to develop different hobbies and special interests. He could not understand how analytical thinking could be satisfying because he was happier with superficial interests and conversation -- and he could only see the world through his own eyes. Sadly she said, “I couldn’t understand how he could tell me that I wasn’t having any fun because I liked to think deeper than he did. He would never believe that my analytical interests provided much more fulfillment than a game of tennis. I think my desire for knowledge must have threatened him in some way. He just couldn’t understand why I would want to keep studying long after I had graduated from school. Eventually, I found that I was ashamed to talk about the subjects that interested me the most. I thought I didn’t need other people’s approval, but the pain of his rejection made me realize that I am still influenced by other people’s opinions. I knew I had two choices -- I could give up what was most important to me to obtain his acceptance or I could exclude him from my life. Needless to say, I ended the relationship. If he could not accept my desire to be analytical, he could not accept me. His rejection hurt; but it would have been much worse if I had ended up rejecting myself.”

Individuals who have learned to accept themselves do not let external circumstances or other people’s opinions and judgments damage their self-worth. Why would anyone give another person so much power over influencing his or her life? There is a famous quote: “The greatest power is not what man possesses, but what possesses him.” When secure individuals are rejected romantically, they can separate the acceptance of the relationship from the acceptance of their own personality characteristics. When they are rejected for a job, they understand that the requirements of the job did not match their professional capabilities and experience. In fact, very successful and talented people are rejected every day because they appear to be overqualified for the position they are considering.

Rejection can be viewed as positive instead of negative. If one person provides significant information to another person without receiving the same information in return, he or she is allowing the other person to accurately end a “relationship” that would have eventually been perceived as negative by both parties. The information can be hidden in the short term, but eventually we reveal the whole truth. Inevitably, the relationship still ends; it just takes longer to figure out. Therefore, an early rejection is positive because there was less time to develop a deep attachment or commitment to the other person. If the relationship is doomed to fail, an early rejection can be a blessing by saving us from a wound that is harder to heal. For example, a friend related a similar example: “For the first month I dated Jim, I decided that it was better to hide my desire to talk about intellectually stimulating subject matter. I avoided subjects that revealed my intensity. Everything went great and I found myself becoming emotionally connected to him. Yet, the charade could not continue forever. I became extremely bored by our superficial conversations so slowly I began to reveal my true character. It quickly became obvious that we had nothing in common except a physical attraction for each other. He wanted to talk about sports and I wanted to talk about life after death. I wanted to explore the mysteries in life and he did not want to talk about anything that could not be proven in black and white. After the relationship ended, I realized that I wasn’t fooling anyone but myself. The pain was so much worse because emotionally, I had grown attached to him. If only I had been true to myself from the beginning, I would have endured much less pain in the end.”

Due to our need for acceptance, we can convince ourselves that we want things that are actually undesirable. For example, if the majority of women are influenced by fashion magazines to wear longer skirts, they may change their wardrobe even if longer skirts are not flattering. Men who are influenced by advertising campaigns can be convinced to buy cars that aren’t really practical for their needs. Does a single person really need an SUV?

Why are other people’s opinions more important than our own? Why do we feel the need to conform? Do we have the courage necessary to go against the flow? And if we decide to go against the majority, do we know which way we want to go? As Erich Fromm stated in The Art of Loving, “If I am like everybody else, if I have no feelings or thoughts which make me different, if I conform in custom, dress, ideas, to the pattern of the group, I am saved; saved from the frightening experience of aloneness… Most people are not even aware of their need to conform. They live under the illusion that they follow their own ideas and inclinations, that they are individualists, that they have arrived at their opinions as the result of their own thinking – and that it just happens that their ideas are the same as those of the majority.”

There is an advantage to being different because we can influence people’s opinions in very subtle ways. We just need to figure out how we want to express our uniqueness of character and once we decide, we need to have the confidence to carry it off. We cannot be afraid that our performance or appearance will not be accepted by everyone. We just need to be able to accept it ourselves.

The other interesting fallout from our need for acceptance is the weight we place on negative comments. We can hear 100 compliments and one insult and we spend a disproportionate time thinking about the negative comment. The positive words seem to roll off our backs, while the negativity sticks to us like glue. We are our own worst critics because it is difficult to feel confident and secure in a world that is dominated by judgment from others. In the movie, Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts accurately stated, “the bad things are easier to believe.” Why would we pay more attention to our criticisms than our compliments? Why can we do 20 good things in our jobs without comment but hear hours of criticism about our latest mistake? Why does the bad carry more weight than the good? Is it because we are looking for people’s vulnerabilities, including our own? In High School, we were taught that modesty was positive and conceit was negative. Did we translate that philosophy into a belief that we have to ignore our positive attributes and focus on our faults? Is it really that hard to believe in ourselves?

Correspondingly, we need to understand that negative words have extreme power over others. In a moment of rage, we may say things that are vindictive and heartless due to an impetuous desire to lash out at the object of our anger. Although we may not believe that our criticisms are true and we may not want to hurt another human being intentionally, once the words are said, they can never be taken back. I remember some criticisms from guys I dated 20 years ago. We may forgive the person but the words stay in our heads forever. These words (that may not even be truthful) linger on to damage our self-confidence for years to come. Since words have power, we all need to restrain ourselves during moments of hostility. Someone can say something that causes our blood pressure .to rise and we may feel justified in being cruel. Yet, we need to remember that anger is a form of temporary insanity and we do not have the right to hurt someone else simply because our emotions are out of control. We may want to explode after someone says something that offends us, but we must remember that it is only because our egos are bruised. If we can detach ourselves from our egos, we can avoid hurting someone who does not deserve it

I think the weight that is placed on any comment is directly related to a person’s self image. If a person has low self-esteem, insults probably aren’t as painful. For example, if someone weighs 350 pounds, he or she may not react to a statement about being overweight. If someone is five pounds overweight, however, the comment can be devastating. I suppose it’s like a polygraph. When we tell the truth, the line stays flat but the minute we say something that conflicts with our view of reality, the lines start moving all over the page.

We need to put as much weight on the positive as we do on the negative -- or we just need to realize that if a negative comment upsets us, it is only because we have a positive view of ourselves. Nobody can affect our self-image without our consent. We have to understand that everyone can be a critic but the only true criticism is a negative attribute that we choose to accept. If someone calls us a liar and we know that we aren’t, we just have to ignore the statement. We need to recognize that our good qualities are based entirely on our own evaluation; and if there is something about us that is perceived as negative (in our own eyes), then we just need to be committed to change.

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1 comment:

Mark Zamen said...

One could say this post is really about self-esteem, and it is a very good one: accurate, insightful, honest, and well expressed. There is no doubt that a poor self-image can ruin the life of a person who otherwise would likely have attained at least a modicum of success and contentment. The real-world ramifications of this issue can be clearly seen within the pages of my recently released biographical novel, Broken Saint. It is based on my forty-year friendship with a gay, bipolar man, and chronicles his internal and external struggles as he battles for stability and acceptance (of himself and by others). More information is available at or

Mark Zamen, author