What is Rejection Therapy and Can it Help You?


Would you ask a stranger for €100? Or to sit on Santa’s lap? How about to sleep on the mattress of a furniture store?

For most people, the answer is probably no. Unless, of course, they were trying rejection therapy.

What is rejection therapy?

Rejection therapy started out as a game created by Canadian Jason Comely. The premise was simple: to desensitise yourself to rejection, expose yourself to as much of it as possible. For 30 days straight, the task was to get out of your comfort zone and ask for something to which you expect the response to be “no”. It could be to jump the queue at Starbucks, to take a photo of a stranger or to make an announcement on a train. Or bigger still – to drive a police car, fly a small plane, play football in a stranger’s back garden. Anything that is likely to get you good and firmly rejected, leaving you better placed to handle what Comely calls “the tyranny of social rejection” [1].

Although started by Comely, rejection therapy was popularised by someone else.

In 2012, Jia Jiang quit his well-paid but unfulfilling job at a Fortune 500 company and decided to go out on his own, starting a new business. After being rejected for an investment, he was left surprised by how much the experience hurt him. Twenty-four years prior, his first grade teacher had told her class of six year-olds to give compliments to all their classmates. They did. Except by Jiang’s turn, they were all out of kind words. He got nothing, and left the classroom feeling rejected and dejected. And even though so many years had passed since, when the investor told him no, he felt exactly the same again. He decided that if he was ever going to be a success in business, he’d have to thicken his skin and confront his unhealthy relationship with rejection head on. That’s when he stumbled on rejection therapy.

In 2016, Jiang’s TED Talk on the transformative impact rejection therapy had on his life went viral. He was given book deals, speaking opportunities, and ultimately, later in 2016, Comely called him and they mutually decided that Jiang would take over the reins of the rejection therapy crusade. Comely gave his successor control of the SocialRejection domain that he had set up many years prior. Jiang started his business running rejection therapy consultations, and in 2018 launched his mobile app. As of 2023, the hashtag “rejection therapy” had more than 72 million views on TikTok.

The science of rejection therapy

It’s perfectly natural to hate rejection. In fact, we can’t help it. It’s part of our neuro-chemistry.

“We started really simply with the question: what goes on in the brain when people feel socially excluded?” says social psychologist Naomi Eisenberger, speaking to The Guardian, whose study with her UCLA colleague Matthew Lieberman sought out to answer that very question [2].

“We brought people into the fMRI scanner and had them go through a game in which they were excluded,” she continued.

The virtual game, Cyberball, involved subjects tossing a ball back and forth with two other participants. Except the other players didn’t really exist – they were avatars programmed to stop throwing the ball to the subject at a certain point in the game.

Eisenberger tracked the subjects’ brains, monitoring what happened while the subjects were included and excluded from the social activity. She found that the regions of the brain that were activated when a person felt left out were the same regions that were activated during physical pain.

“From this early study we sort of thought, ‘OK, maybe there’s a reason people talk about feeling rejected as feeling hurt. Maybe there’s a good reason we use physical-pain words to describe these experiences of social pain.”

Rejection hurts. But what Jiang and now many others have found through rejection therapy is that over time it hurts less. This follows the same patterns as exposure therapy.

Upon hearing about rejection therapy, clinical psychologist Michael Stein, who has specialised in treating anxiety disorders using exposure therapy for more than 14 years, assisting clients from his private practice, Anxiety Solutions, in Denver, Colorado, responded, “It’s fantastic. It’s exactly what I would recommend for people with social anxiety” [3].

“Short-term avoidance of anxiety leads to long-term maintenance of anxiety,” he continues. “Anything you do when you feel anxious to try to make yourself feel better might work in the moment, but it actually guarantees more anxiety the next time you’re in a similar situation.”

Dr Peter Tuerk, a clinical psychologist who uses rejection therapy to treat adolescent social anxiety, agrees. “What we want is people to learn that they can tolerate the distress that’s associated with their physiological responses,” he says. “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.” [4]

On his first day of his self-prescribed 100-day rejection therapy challenge, Jiang asked a stranger for $100. The man said no. But then he asked Jiang why he wanted the money. Jiang didn’t have an answer. In fact, he just ran away, not engaging with the question. He realised this was his problem in microcosm, rather than facing up to his rejections, he was running away. He made a promise to himself that he would never do that again.

The next day, he asked for a “burger refill” at his local burger joint. This time, when the confused burger joint employee asked what that was, he did not run, he engaged. He explained that it was the same as a drinks refill except for burgers. He said he liked the burger and wanted another one for free. The employee told him it wasn’t possible but said he’d bring the idea up with his manager. Jiang left, happy with his rejection and with the fact that he’d had the courage to see the process out.

Jiang cites day three of his rejection therapy as the day that changed his life.

Don’t ask, don’t get

You may have seen the video. 6.2 million people have.

On day 3, Jiang enters a local Krispy Kreme and asks for donuts that look like the Olympic rings. Rather than rejecting this request outright, the woman behind the counter spends a moment thinking, then starts drawing diagrams, sketching out how one might go about realising his request. She asks Jiang the colours of the rings. He doesn’t even know – why would he? This request was bound to get rejected.

Not only does the woman come back 15 minutes later with a box of donuts designed to look like the Olympic rings, but she gives it to Jiang free of charge.

This opened up a whole new window in Jiang’s thinking. It wasn’t just that getting used to hearing no was good for you, it was that if you ask for what you want, you just might get it. With that in mind, within three months, Jiang had achieved his lifelong ambition: he’d taught a college class. How had he done it? He’d asked, and someone had said yes.

“When I finished teaching that class I walked out crying,” he says during his TED Talk. “I saw I could fulfil my life’s dream just by simply asking.”

Many others who have tried rejection therapy have had similar experiences. They ask for something ridiculous, something unreasonable even, and people go out of their way to help them get it.

It shows that it’s not just the fear of rejection that is in our heads but the expectation of it too. How many things do we not ask for in life simply because we presume we’ll be rejected? We’re so focused on what we assume will be the humiliation of the no that we don’t even consider there could be a yes. Rejection therapy is not about getting yeses, quite the opposite, but it happens far more often than one might expect, because people are kinder and the world a little less scary than we tend to think. And if you get rejected, well, that is rather the point.

Celebrating rejection

In a similar mould, some groups of academics have even started having rejection parties. Cognitive-science professor Barbara Sarnecka and two of her graduate students wanted to change their experience of professional rejection and so made a rule: for every 100 rejections amassed by their group, be it for grants, journal articles, fellowships, you name it, they would throw a party to celebrate [5].

One of the poisonous aspects of rejection is that it is so laced with shame that people avoid talking about it. As such, when one hears of another’s success, we assume that’s all they’re having, given we’ve heard nothing of their failures but are mortally aware of our own. Rejection parties or any such event that allows people to acknowledge and celebrate their own failures – and crucially those of others too – removes that sense of shame and shows us that we’re not alone.

Rhaina Cohen, producer and editor for NPR’s Embedded podcast and the author of The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life With Friendship at the Center, writes in The Atlantic that in her rejection-collection group she has “seen how rejection stings less when it’s reframed as progress and handled communally. I’ve also observed how the collection encourages people to increase their submissions. When you see how much effort your fellow rejectees are putting in, it’s hard not to feel proud of their attempts, and motivated to put yourself out there more.” [6]


Of course, there are those who don’t buy into rejection therapy. Dr Becky Spelman, a counselling psychologist and clinical director of Private Therapy Clinic, says that, “The effectiveness of rejection therapy in confronting and managing fears is not as well established as exposure therapy.” [7]

“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,” she adds.

Meanwhile, writing in Forbes, Aaron Agius, co-founder and managing director of the global marketing agency Louder.Online argues that rejection therapy may help immunise one from the painful feelings that come with rejection, but that that’s no good thing.

“I’m not sure it’s in everybody’s best interests to get that comfortable with rejection,” he writes. “The fear of rejection is what keeps us trying. It keeps us sharp. And it’s one of the best teachers you can have.” [8]

Agius even uses rejection as a motivational tool and differentiator.

“I don’t want to make myself immune to rejection because I want rejection to power me. I want my ability to handle it – and to handle it well – to be the thing that sets me apart. The thing that means I’ll be in business long after those who can’t cut it are gone.”

Can rejection therapy help you?

Everyone is different. Some, like Agius, don’t need or want rejection therapy because rejection is not holding them back – in some ways it’s pushing them forwards. For others, like Jiang, fear of rejection and the associated feelings it brings was preventing him from achieving what he wanted to achieve and maximising his capability.

Only you know your personal relationship with rejection. But if it is disruptively negative, why not give rejection therapy a go? The worst you’ll hear is no.

As Jiang surmised, “Rejection was my curse, was my bogeyman. It had bothered me my whole life because I was running away from it. Then I started embracing it. I turned that into the biggest gift in my life.” [9]

More on Resilience

The psychology of success with Simon Hartley – Podcast

Game Changer: Mindset Mastery with Christian Straka – Podcast

Bouncing Back from Professional Failure

High Standards and Low Expectations: a Blueprint for Wellbeing


[1] https://www.dazeddigital.com/life-culture/article/60439/1/young-people-rejection-therapy-to-heal-their-social-anxiety-tiktok

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2022/jul/24/if-you-are-hurt-by-rejection-then-take-the-rejection-therapy-challenge

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2022/jul/24/if-you-are-hurt-by-rejection-then-take-the-rejection-therapy-challenge

[4] https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2022/01/celebrate-your-rejections-failures/621327/

[5] https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2022/01/celebrate-your-rejections-failures/621327/

[6] https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2022/01/celebrate-your-rejections-failures/621327/

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2024/jan/13/an-experiment-in-ritual-humiliation-would-a-month-of-rejection-therapy-make-me-fearless

[8] https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesagencycouncil/2019/10/03/what-11-years-as-an-agency-owner-teaches-you-about-rejection/?sh=55540fe34aa1

[9] https://www.ted.com/talks/jia_jiang_what_i_learned_from_100_days_of_rejection?language=en