My heart is hammering, my head is humming with tension and there’s a real possibility I may vomit. No, I haven’t been set up on a blind date with Piers Morgan. Instead, I’m about to approach a stranger in a packed King’s Cross station and ask to borrow £100.
I choose a middle-aged man with a kind face and a red scarf, and quietly make my request so as not to be overheard by commuters grabbing their lunch. He studies my face for the longest three seconds of my life before deciding, not unreasonably, that he “can’t really say yes without knowing what it’s for”. That’s fine: I’ve already succeeded. The whole point of the exercise was to experience the soul-crushing embarrassment of being rejected by a total stranger – something I have committed to doing every day for a month.
What terrible decisions led me to this point? I recently had a humbling experience after telling my therapist that I don’t think of myself as a particularly fearful person. She responded by asking whether I thought it was “significant” that I regularly wake myself up screaming. Momentarily blindsided by her sardonicism, I had to concede that she raised an interesting point.
Night terrors aside, I suppose that I am quite scared of all the usual things: failure, social humiliation, the impending climate apocalypse. Some unusual things, too: Fred West (I know he’s dead, but that doesn’t stop me waking in the night convinced that he’s lurking in my room), coleslaw, people sitting on my bed in their outside clothes. According to my editor, this makes me a perfect candidate to try out rejection therapy. Pioneered by IT worker turned self-help guru Jason Comely, it began as a card game challenging players to place themselves in the path of rejection (by, for example, inviting a stranger to a game of rock, paper, scissors or requesting a lower interest rate from a credit card provider) once a day for 30 days, thereby inoculating them against fear. Recently, its popularity has exploded on TikTok, where #rejectiontherapy has more than 98m tags, alongside videos of users asking strangers for hugs, dancing alone in the supermarket or releasing guttural screams in the gym. I tell my editor that the mere thought of doing any of those things is elevating my heart rate by an unhealthy degree. “Even more reason to do it,” she replies, sadistically.
Neil Tennant once described the Pet Shop Boys as a struggle between total embarrassment and total shamelessness. I can relate. The first time I interviewed a celebrity, for a back-page quiz in the gay magazine I was interning for, I was required to ask Danny Dyer whether he was flexible enough to fellate himself. I have a nervous phone manner at the best of times, and during this call my voice rose to such a high pitch that I realised Danny was flirting with me on the presumption that I was a woman (“Say ‘cock’ again, darlin”). These early experiences made me fairly unembarrassable around celebrities. Conversely, I can find everyday interactions quite mortifying. I loathe talking to strangers, and have been known to make other people order for me in restaurants when I’m feeling especially delicate. Perhaps it’s the traumatic legacy of having been a very camp child. It’s possible I’m just a wimp.
I decide the birthday party of one of my boyfriend’s friends will be a good soft launch for my experiment in ritual humiliation. Most of the crowd are middle-class Bristol soft boys, who are genetically predisposed to being agreeable. In the smoking area I tell someone I like her very generic red lighter, and ask if I can have it. She says yes. This is easy! Later, I ask a DJ if he’ll play All Too Well, the 10-minute Taylor Swift ballad about Jake Gyllenhaal stealing her scarf (the scarf is either a metaphor for her virginity or an actual scarf, but I’m not sure he can hear my explanation over the techno). He says no, but is very friendly about it, so I don’t feel particularly ashamed. I’m going to have to up the stakes if I want to be met with a hard rejection. Perhaps I could call my GP’s surgery and request an appointment?
The knowledge that I have to find someone to disgrace myself in front of every day weighs heavily. I find myself scanning crowds for a good target, like the Zodiac killer. If people look open and friendly, then I don’t want to take advantage. Equally, I don’t want any of the scarier characters to take offence and – I don’t know – murder me. I live in an unfriendly part of north London where I was once spat at outside the post office in what I assumed to be a homophobic attack, but may just have been a reflection of my inherent unlikability. Asking a local stranger to swap outfits with me feels … optimistic.
I alight upon a plan with a built-in getaway method, and ask a fellow cyclist at a red light whether we can swap bikes. He asks me to repeat the question, looks mildly disgusted, then fixes his gaze ahead and ignores me until the lights change. I’m so flustered and humiliated by this interaction that I pull off the main road, to avoid continuing behind him. I don’t feel edified or improved; I feel like a psychopath. As I spiral into increasing regret at having agreed to undertake this challenge, I also begin to feel guilty that I have mistreated this cyclist somehow; that this bizarre interaction will play on his mind and that he’ll wonder why he was targeted. I suppose the TikTokers who do the challenge view their victims as collateral damage in their quest for viral fame, but I’m not even going to achieve that. At best, local infamy will mean that undesirables give me a wide berth.
I arrange a call with Jia Jiang, whose Ted Talk detailing his own experiments with rejection therapy has been viewed more than 10m times. He was a struggling entrepreneur when he stumbled across the concept, and had recently had his confidence knocked when a potential investor berated him over his idea for an app. “I decided I needed to overdose on rejection,” he tells me, “because my fears were preventing me from pursuing my dreams.” His challenges included offering to plant a flower in a stranger’s garden and asking to sit on Santa’s lap. “Rejection therapy changed my life,” he says. “The first couple of rejections felt like death. On an intellectual level, I knew I would survive, but it was very nerve-racking, like standing in front of a lion. Then it got easier, and I see the world differently now. I view it through a lens of abundance – if you open up to other people, they might open up to you.”
These days, Jiang is a spokesperson for rejection, and runs camps encouraging pupils to become fearless. “One person was suicidal because his wife had left him. After committing to doing something that made him uncomfortable every day, he asked a woman he met in a coffee shop out on a date. A year later he invited me to their wedding.” Does he have any tips for me? “If you’re relaxed and smiling, it puts people at ease, rather than feeling they’re being cornered. And at the very start, acknowledge you’re asking for a big favour, and recognise they might not be able to fulfil it. If people know they have the freedom to say no, it allows them to be open-minded rather than automatically saying no.”
Inspired by Jiang, I have a smoother interaction when I spot a rambunctious woman in a purple gilet marching along with three dogs on leads and a fourth in a stroller. I ask if I can stroke the one in the pram and she seems delighted, proceeding to offer his exhaustive biography, including likes, dislikes and a concerning catalogue of health problems. I toy with the idea of asking if I can have him, but I don’t want to scare her (I’m also not sure I can afford his various treatment plans should she agree). At the merch stand of a Madonna concert, I ask if I can have two T-shirts for the price of one. “No, we’re not allowed to do that,” comes the vendor’s curt reply, as if it’s the 60th time he’s been asked. He also tells my friend he can’t try on a sweatshirt and refuses to give us a bag for our purchases, so I can only deduce he has had more than enough of Madonna fans and our bullshit.
A popular TikTok rejection theory challenge involves going into a mattress store and asking to take a nap. This is one I’ve been dreading, and I feel even more apprehensive when I arrive at my nearest furniture shop and find that I’m the sole customer. I rule out asking the first salesman (too scary) before realising that he is the only member of staff. He doesn’t seem particularly fazed by my request, telling me, “You can. Obviously they’re covered up, so it might not be the most comfortable.” It turns out that what is even more mortifying than asking to go to sleep in his workplace is spending several minutes lying motionless with my eyes closed (thankfully, when I squint them, he has gone to a different part of the shop floor).
Later that week, I notice a bricklayer building a wall outside one of the houses on my street. I ask him if I can have a go, and am met with a beaming smile. He demonstrates how to apply mortar to a brick with a pointed trowel before affixing it to the row. I hadn’t expected him to say yes, and in my nervousness I fluff the process twice and have to start again. “I live up the road, so I’ll always know which one is my brick,” I say. He laughs and taps it with the trowel: “This one.” He seems amused by our interaction, and it’s the first challenge that has felt anything approaching fun. At home I start to panic that I’ll become some kind of manic pixie dream boy who dances self-adoringly next to buskers. I’m brought back down to earth the next evening when I call an Italian restaurant to ask if they’ll make me a heart-shaped margherita and am told “only round pizzas” by a harassed-sounding woman who clearly thinks I’m an imbecile (fair).
Every day my mind buzzes with ways to degrade myself. I discount asking a mother on Tottenham Marshes if I can have a go at pushing her baby in its pram (too creepy) and requesting that the biggest man in my gym have a go at lifting me up (same). Prospective challenges begin to feel like intrusive thoughts, like the ones that tell you to jump whenever you’re standing on a bridge. Should I undress on the tube? Ask my optician for a snog? I wonder whether the challenge will fail to make me fearless but succeed in giving me an anxiety disorder. A therapist friend tells me that what I’m doing is essentially exposure therapy – the practice of subjecting a patient to increasing quantities of the thing they’re scared of until they become desensitised to it. I’m about to argue that it’s surely scientifically impossible to become entirely unembarrassable. Then I remember Nadine Dorries.
According to Dr Becky Spelman, a counselling psychologist and clinical director of Private Therapy Clinic, my fears that the challenge could backfire aren’t entirely unfounded. “The effectiveness of rejection therapy in confronting and managing fears is not as well established as exposure therapy,” she tells me. “In 30 days of rejection therapy, individuals might develop increased confidence in dealing with minor social rejections or become more comfortable with asking for what they want – but the impact may be limited without comprehensive therapeutic intervention.” Spelman also cautions that, “while rejection therapy may have some benefits, there are also potential risks. Repeated exposure to rejection without proper support or guidance could lead to increased anxiety or distress.”
It occurs to me that perhaps I should have consulted an expert about the likelihood of irreparable psychological damage before I began launching myself at unsuspecting strangers. But I’m in too deep to back out now. I discover that nightclubs are fertile grounds for asking odd questions: people are either in exceptionally high spirits, or just exceptionally high. A suggested challenge is to ask a stranger if you can take their picture for no reason – and I do this with abandon. Most people agree, no questions asked, which is surely proof that Instagram has melted our brains. On one night out, I ask if I can pour my own pint and am told no by a barmaid who doesn’t even bother to make eye contact. By this point, being dismissed as an ignorable inconvenience feels like a win. The quicker the rejection arrives, the better.
Towards the end of the challenge, I find myself on an Avanti West Coast train on my way to visit my nephews. I approach the onboard shop and gingerly ask an older woman behind the counter whether it might be possible for me to make an announcement over the Tannoy. “Don’t ask me; that’s her job,” she says, gesturing to her younger, red-haired colleague, who fixes me with a conspiratorial smile and replies, “Of course, what do you want to say?” I hadn’t anticipated there being any chance they would agree, and am momentarily flummoxed. “I’ve already announced that the shop is open,” cautions the first woman. “Well, maybe I could remind everyone that it’s … still open?” I suggest. “Let’s go for it,” laughs the second woman, gesturing to a small cabin next to the shop with a mounted phone handset and a panel of buttons. She presses a yellow button and gives the thumbs up when it’s time for me to speak. “Just a reminder that the shop is open in coach C,” I croak. “Thank you!” We both giggle like schoolchildren, and I return to my seat lightheaded, as if I’ve just eaten a three-course meal consisting entirely of laughing gas.
At moments like this, the challenge feels less punishment and more adrenaline sport. In the minutes before making one of my bizarre requests, I’m flooded with such anxiety that the release that comes with actually asking the question feels preferable to stewing in my own cortisol. I never look forward to my challenges, but often feel a strange sense of accomplishment when they’re done. It’s not the feeling of achievement you might get from, say, earning a promotion or single-handedly derailing Justin Timberlake’s music career. It’s more what a “final girl” might feel to be alive at the end of a slasher movie: giddy relief at having survived.
After 30 days, the challenge ends with a whimper when I ask a teenage sales assistant in Halfords if I can use his staff discount to buy an inner tube. He says no. Am I transformed? I’ve definitely been surprised by some people’s willingness to accommodate my strange demands, but I’m not entirely sure how this would improve my life, unless I decide to become a full-time train announcer. The one time I tried to leverage the challenge for any material gain – by asking for an unrealistically high fee to syndicate one of my articles – the person never responded to my email. The experiment also didn’t succeed in making me immune to fear, embarrassment or rejection, but that could be a good thing. Perhaps the world has enough entitled white men making unreasonable demands. While the meek might not inherit the Earth, they also won’t cause an obstruction in the Pret queue haggling for a discount, or clutter up John Lewis napping on the merchandise. I guess you could say that I’m rejecting rejection therapy. It’s what it would have wanted.
Want to ask a stranger for a hug? Here’s how to overcome your fear of rejection
1 Understand that rejection is not a reflection of your self-worth but an opportunity to learn, adapt and evolve. It’s important to view it as feedback, not a setback.
2 Acknowledge your feelings during moments of rejection, but at the same time remind yourself of your strengths and achievements. Self-compassion fosters resilience, making it easier for you to bounce back.
3 Build a support network: sharing your experiences of rejection with trusted friends or family can provide both a different perspective and emotional support.
4 Set realistic expectations: understanding that rejection is a part of life can help to mitigate its impact.
5 Engage in activities that boost your confidence and mental strength. This could be through hobbies, exercise, meditation, or even professional development courses.
Dr Becky Spelman, counselling psychologist