By Making A Game Out Of Rejection, A Man Conquers Fear

Jan 16, 2015
Originally published on January 20, 2015 7:56 am

Fear is one of the strongest and most basic of human emotions, and it's the focus of Fearless, the second episode of Invisibilia, NPR's new show on the invisible forces that shape human behavior.

This segment of the show explores how a man decided to conquer his fear of rejection by getting rejected every day — on purpose.

The evolution of Jason Comely, a freelance IT guy from Cambridge, Ontario, began one sad night several years ago.

"That Friday evening that I was in my one-bedroom apartment trying to be busy," Comely says. "But really, I knew that I was avoiding things."

See, nine months earlier, Jason's wife had left him.

"She ... found someone that was taller than I was — had more money than I had. ... So, yeah."

And since then, Jason had really withdrawn from life. He didn't go out, and he avoided talking to people, especially women.

But that Friday, he realized that this approach was taking a toll.

"I had nowhere to go, and no one to hang out with," Comely says. "And so I just broke down and started crying." He realized that he was afraid. "I asked myself, afraid of what?

"I thought, I'm afraid of rejection."

Which got him thinking about the Spetsnaz, an elite Russian military unit with a really intense training regime.

"You know, I heard of one situation where they were, like, locked in a room, a windowless room, with a very angry dog, and they'd only be armed with a spade, and only one person is going to get out — the dog or the Spetsnaz."

And that gave him an idea. Maybe he could somehow use the rigorous approach of the Spetsnaz against his fear.

So if you're a freelance IT guy, living in a one-bedroom apartment in Cambridge, Ontario, what is the modern equivalent of being trapped in a windowless room with a rabid dog and nothing to protect you but a single handheld spade?

"I had to get rejected at least once every single day by someone."

He started in the parking lot of his local grocery store. Went up to a total stranger and asked for a ride across town.

"And he looked at me, like, and just said, 'I'm not going that way, buddy.' And I was like, 'Thank you!'

"It was like, 'Got it! I got my rejection.' "

Jason had totally inverted the rules of life. He took rejection and made it something he wanted — so he would feel good when he got it.

"And it was sort of like walking on my hands or living on my hands or living underwater or something. It was just a different reality. The rules of life had changed."

Without knowing it, Jason had used a standard tool of psychotherapy called exposure therapy. You force yourself to be exposed to exactly the thing you fear, and eventually you recognize that the thing you fear isn't hurting you. You become desensitized. It's used in treating phobias like fear of flying.

Jason kept on seeking out rejection. And as he did, he found that people were actually more receptive to him, and he was more receptive to people, too. "I was able to approach people, because what are you gonna do, reject me? Great!"

That was when Jason got another idea.

He wrote down all of his real-life rejection attempts, things like, "Ask for a ride from stranger, even if you don't need one." "Before purchasing something, ask for a discount." "Ask a stranger for a breath mint."

He had them printed on a deck of cards and started selling them online.

Slowly, the Rejection Therapy game became kind of a small cult phenomenon, with people playing all over the world.

Jason has heard from a teacher in Colorado, a massage therapist in Budapest, a computer programmer in Japan, even a widowed Russian grandmother. She's using rejection therapy to pick up men.

"That's really cool — so, there's an 80-year-old babushka playing Rejection Therapy," he says.

So what has Jason learned from all this?

That most fears aren't real in the way you think they are. They're just a story you tell yourself, and you can choose to stop repeating it. Choose to stop listening.

"Don't even bother trying to be cool," Jason says. "Just get out there and get rejected, and sometimes it's going to get dirty. But that's OK, 'cause you're going to feel great after, you're going to feel like, 'Wow. I disobeyed fear.' "

To hear more about fear and what would happen if we made it disappear, listen to Fearless, the second episode of Invisibilia, NPR's newest program. It explores how invisible things shape our behavior and our lives. The program runs on many public radio stations, and the podcast is available for download at NPR.org and on iTunes.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're introducing you this morning to Invisibilia. It's the name of a new NPR program that's all about the invisible forces that shape human behavior. This week's episode focuses on fear. And to give just a taste of one of Invisibilia's co-hosts, Alix Spiegel, brings us the story of a man with a debilitating fear of rejection.

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: The evolution of Jason Comley, freelance IT guy from Cambridge, Ontario, began one sad night several years ago.

JASON COMELY: That Friday evening in my, you know, one- bedroom apartment trying to be busy. But really, I knew that I was avoiding things.

SPIEGEL: See, nine months earlier, Jason's wife had left him.

COMELY: She, my ex-wife, had found someone that was taller than I was, had money more money than I had and was better-looking than I was. So yeah, yeah, it was...

SPIEGEL: And since then, Jason had really withdrawn from life. He didn't go out, avoided talking to people, especially to women. And that Friday, he realized that this approach was taking a toll.

COMELY: I had nowhere to go and no one to hang out with. And so I just broke down and started crying. It was just something that made me realize that I'm afraid. And then I just - I asked myself, afraid of what?

SPIEGEL: And sitting there, he says, it just suddenly hit him, why he was so afraid.

COMELY: It was rejection. I thought, I'm afraid of rejection. And so this is going to sound a little bit weird, but when I realized that it was rejection, I was kind of thinking about the Spetsnaz.

SPIEGEL: The who?

COMELY: Do you know about the...

SPIEGEL: No.

COMELY: ...The Spetsnaz?

SPIEGEL: No.

The Spetsnaz, apparently, are an elite Russian military unit with a really, really intense training regime.

COMELY: You know, I heard of one situation where they were locked in a room, a windowless room, with a very angry dog, and they'd only be armed with a spade. And only one person's going to get out, either the dog or the Spetsnaz.

SPIEGEL: And then a strange thought occurred to Jason - maybe he could somehow use the rigorous approach of the Spetsnaz against his fear.

COMELY: So I thought, you know, I'm going to try to apply their training methodology to this situation.

SPIEGEL: So if you're a freelance IT guy, living in a one- bedroom apartment in Cambridge, Ontario, what is the modern equivalent of being trapped in a windowless room with a rabid dog and nothing to protect you but a single, handheld spade?

COMELY: I had to get rejected at least once every single day by someone.

SPIEGEL: He started in the parking lot of his local grocery store, went up to a total stranger and asked for a ride across town.

COMELY: And he looked at me, like, and just said, I'm not going that way, buddy. Yeah, just like - and I was like, thank you.

SPIEGEL: It felt great.

COMELY: It was like got it. I got my rejection.

SPIEGEL: Because Jason, he had totally inverted the rules of life. He took rejection and made it something that he wanted so that he would feel good when he got it.

COMELY: It was sort of like walking on my hands or living underwater or something. It was just like a different reality. The rules of life had changed.

SPIEGEL: So he kept going - went to Wal-Mart, tried to give a flyer for his Mormon church to this woman he found in the aisles.

COMELY: And she looked me squarely in the eye and sort of spoke very slowly so that I would completely understand. And she just went, no.

(LAUGHTER)

SPIEGEL: Jason eventually came up with a name for this makeshift game he'd created. He called it rejection therapy. Then one day, Jason got another idea - he wrote down all of his real-life rejection attempts...

COMELY: Ask for a ride from a stranger, even if you don't need one.

SPIEGEL: ...Had them printed up...

COMELY: Before purchasing something, ask for a discount.

SPIEGEL: ...On a deck of cards.

COMELY: Ask a stranger for a breath mint.

SPIEGEL: And he began to sell those cards online, you know, to make his game more official. And slowly, rejection therapy, it became a kind of small, cult phenomenon with people playing all over the world.

MATT RAMIS: Hi, sir, do you have any chewing gum by any chance? No? OK.

SPIEGEL: Like this guy, a student in California named Matt Ramis.

RAMIS: Hi, excuse me, do you guys have chewing gum by any chance?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, I don't, sorry.

RAMIS: All right. It's all right.

SPIEGEL: ...Or this guy, Joey Chandler from San Francisco.

JOEY CHANDLER: You want to come play golf with us tomorrow night?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When?

CHANDLER: Tomorrow night.

MAN: I would love to. I don't know if I can.

SPIEGEL: Jason's heard from a teacher in Colorado, a massage therapist in Budapest, a computer programmer in Japan and even a widowed Russian grandmother. She's using rejection therapy to pick up men.

COMELY: It's really cool. So there's an 80-year-old babushka playing rejection therapy.

SPIEGEL: So what has Jason learned from all of this? That your fears, most of them anyway, aren't grounded in reality in the way that you think that they are. They're just a story that you tell yourself, and you can choose to stop repeating it. You can choose to stop listening.

COMELY: Don't even bother trying to be cool. Just get out there and get rejected. And sometimes it's going to get dirty, but that's OK because you're going to feel great after. You're going to feel like, wow, I disobeyed my fear. You know, I disobeyed fear.

Say hello to three people at the grocery store. Offer to pay for someone's order. Introduce yourself to a stranger. Make yourself look radically different today. Knock on a neighbor's door, request something. Ask someone out on a date. Sit beside a stranger. Strike up a conversation. Smile at every person you walk past today.

GREENE: That story came to us from Alix Spiegel. She is co-host of Invisibilia. You can hear the program on many public radio stations this weekend. The podcast is available for download at npr.org and on iTunes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.