We all have fears. Fear of spiders, fear of flying, fear of failure, fear of dying.
Fear is often an irrational emotion. One negative experience can deter us from allowing ourselves to enter that situation again. It makes us take preemptive action, and colours our opinion of the thing we are afraid of. One negative experience can turn us hostile against all things uncertain and all people beyond our control. This irrational fear is what drives war. This is the fear we all need to avoid.
On the other hand, fear can also be a logical emotion, a survival mechanism deeply ingrained into our genes as well as our culture. Our limited senses can only give us so much information about the world around us, and if we don't have that alarm to keep us on our toes in dangerous situations, we may fall victim to embarrassment, pain, and loss.
For me, my life was defined by a different 'phases' of fear. In fact, I have become increasingly fascinated by how much I am defined by my fears, and how after I overcome one, another seems to always emerge. Because of this, I felt like revisiting each phase and see what the lesson learned was from all this grief and anxiety, and maybe put an end to what seems to be a vicious cycle.
So for the next few days I'm going to do a bit of a "blog my life" because I believe what I went through is not unique to me, at least in part. This is not a cry for help, just sharing things that I have gone through for the record. If you don't want to read something that can be at times uneasy, you might want to skip these posts. Go re-watch The Lego Movie. But for those who wish to journey with me down the rabbit hole of my psyche, read on. I suspect each phase may get deeper.
I have had very few fond memories of primary and high school, especially when it came to people. Having quietly experienced bullying and several form of discrimination through most of my schooling life, and being largely 'the last person picked for teams in sports class', I developed a significant fear of being rejected. These fears caused anxiety and unhappiness when it came to all social settings, especially those where I wasn't close to anyone other than those I went with, like family, or maybe the birthday boy/girl who invited me. During that period, I would always suspect the next person I meet might make fun of me, have a bad first impression of me, or worse, be completely uninterested in meeting me. "Why should I bring potential trouble/grief onto myself?" Was the thought that often crossed my mind.
Take big community dinners for instance. While everyone is happily in some small circle chatting away, about their day at work, or the latest football game, I would often find myself standing by the food and drinks, idly sitting at the table I was assigned, slowly chewing away my sense of isolation, swallowing my courage to take the initiative and try to strike or join a conversation. It seemed so natural to them, as if there was some social skill gene I was not born with that allowed me to fluidly slip myself into these circles. But the problem actually begins when I do end up chatting with someone, which is why I seldom did.
I'm a bit of a 'go straight to the deep and meaningful' type, so I don't often think about whether the other person is actually ready have a concentrated, one-on-one, heart-to-heart conversation. Not everyone can extend their trust or feel comfortable to transition from acquaintance to friendship in 2 minutes. Somewhere in my head I often make the poor assumption that if we start talking, might as well move quickly into sharing personal things and minimise the trivialities. Or maybe it's because I like to reverse the process: know the person first so that we can then enjoy the simple stuff more naturally and wholeheartedly (if that makes any sense).
Anyway, this fear of rejection led to a fear that the friendships I have are asymmetric; where I would commit more time and energy and heart towards the other without it being reciprocated. So it created a weird divide where I would work extra hard to protect and preserve my already established friendships, while putting little to no effort in forming new ones, especially if I don't think the other person is ready to also put in the same.
Fortunately, by the end of high school I did find my fit with this approach, and have maintained a few good friends that were strengthened by either a school trip we shared or a church we attended, or both. To this date, I would say those few friendships and connections I maintained has become somewhat of a benchmark I wish to meet with future friendships, if possible. So for the briefest while, I felt like I belonged and did not feel or fear rejection, but it was not to last.
These fears re-emerged once I attended university, having to move interstate and start over socially. My closest friends were all elsewhere. But this time it wasn't as bad. I was a member of both a club and a church which I could potentially belong in. And realising that I was surrounded by more mature peers, I was more proactive in making the most of it. I tried multiple forms of participation; as a simple member enjoying the benefits and activities, as a group leader to help shepherd and encourage the (slightly) younger members, and even as a committee member to help organise a national convention at one point.
The big upside during this time was that I didn't get bullied or discriminated against, as the community I lived in was now more diverse in background and educated in general. Living in a student residential college was also another excellent source of potential social life, though I never gravitated towards the college culture of booze and footy, so instead turned to computer and board gaming; a decision I never regretted. College life was perhaps the best bit as I did have a inner circle. Not so for the other two.
So with all this participation in club and church, I somehow never ended up in any cliques. Not that I think clique-y communities are a healthy way to go, but I just found it odd that's how medium to large-sized clubs and churches always seem to end up. In my case, I was often viewed as a walking Wikipedia, an talented musician, a keen helper to most, a teacher/mentor/role model to a few, but close friends with fewer in both settings. I would sometimes be invited for lunch/supper after service/club meetings, though it's more of a general call out to everyone, and on occasion I would be called out by a few to have a more exclusive catch-up. But in retrospect, all the friends I made during this time were not made via club or church participation; it's often through other activities or events, some more deliberate than others.
Things turned for the worse as the years passed, and I grew older and a new generation of members began to take the 'limelight'. Not only did I find my involvement redundant, but I also felt that my presence in either communities inconsequential. Gradually, I found myself less and less enthusiastic to participate, and even began skipping club meetings/sunday church altogether. I think partly this was due to fatigue, but also partly due to fear of trying again and this time being rejected for being unable to relate to them.
During this time I would put on self-protection layers such as avoidance, indifference, intellect, and minimal expectations. There is always a voice deep inside, telling me to not be emotionally involved or invested, to stay a silent observer, a sideliner, as much as possible. "Be above the situation" is often the excuse I find myself chanting. Yeah it did develop into a pride thing, and caused further isolation, but at the time I would rather choose how I got rejected than just be subjected to rejection despite concerted effort to not be.
But people who have met me see that I'm generally more interactive and appear more than eager to contribute in conversations, share ideas, correct misconceptions, and basically maintain an appearance of busyness and awareness. This is because I have another fear which I developed during my uni years; I will get to that one later. On the outside, I maintain an appearance of enthusiasm, but inside I often felt detached and half expecting no return on investment in these social hangouts.
The final years of my studies was plagued with assignments, exams, and a feeling of preferring the safety of my bedroom than the once-vibrant club or church. This was also when I began to get closer with a few others who were going through the same thing as me. They were also on the fringes of the club, on the way out because they could no longer relate to the majority of the members. Through that single point we connected, and this was the phase of our lives where our paths briefly crossed, or perhaps merged. I now regret not having tried to reach out to these individuals at an earlier stage because we may have had developed stronger friendships rather than just sharing the occasional 'I feel you bro' sentiment.
So what can I take away from all this? I learned that fear of rejection is an irrational one, and one that if left unchecked, can twist how your thinking about people in general and reduce your expectation, enthusiasm and valuation of getting acquainted with new people. Every person you meet is likely to be different, and how they will react to your personality, your opinions and beliefs, even your physical appearance, will ultimately depend on the time, place and method of making rapport. You may feel like many will ultimately reject/forget you, but you honestly can't assume or predict it. If you send a friend invite to all, at least some will respond. At least try once or twice. When they actually don't reciprocate your enthusiasm in meeting them, then perhaps you have a real reason to move on to another.
If both parties fear that they will be rejected and avoid initiating, they have inadvertently rejected each other. Give them a chance, and if they waste it, it's their loss, not yours.