06/05/2012 04:48 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2012

FACE IT: We Get Old But Rejection Doesn't

I know a man -- a highly successful one at that -- who is so fearful of rejection that he literally can't ask dinner guests if they want a drink. "Would you do it for me"? he pleaded one night, fearing the words "no thanks." Understand, this is a man who negotiates big deals for athletes, so hearing such words can't be that out of the ordinary in his daily life.

Clearly, there is a disconnect between how we handle ourselves in the outside world and the inner self doubts that never go away. In fact, I think those doubts only get worse as we age, at which time we should have learned some important life lessons. Like "no risk, no reward."

When I was 21 and filled with confidence and ambition, I wrote what I thought was a ready-for-primetime script. I brazenly called the William Morris Agency and asked the receptionist to connect me with an agent. When she asked which agent, I said I didn't care. She dismissively transferred me to a young man who had just been hired. I sent him the script -- not even in professional format, mind you -- which he sold immediately to a new television series.

Today, if I find the courage to query someone, almost always via email, it can take me days to gather the nerve to read the response. Pick up a phone and pitch myself or a project? Forget about it.

"You would think that by the time we reach middle age, we would have learned to tolerate rejection," says psychologist Dr. Vivian Diller. "But rejection runs deep as we age, since it becomes equated with feeling invisible, overlooked and unimportant. Age discrimination may be a cultural phenomenon, but when we experience it personally, it hurts a great deal."

Perhaps we should be given rejection-density tests along with the bone variety, as our self esteem grows brittle and vulnerable to fracture. It might seem we would become immune as we mature. But the flip side is that more rejection has likely added up. Rather than hardening our arteries, we reach that ugly place when we begin to wonder if they all might be right. That we deserve the negatives more than the positives.

By now, we have also likely accumulated rejections for others beyond ourselves. Like our children. In fact, it may be easier to promote and defend those we love. When our perfect and brilliant 3-year-old was flatly turned down for her first attempt at pre-school, did we crawl under the covers? Leave town? Send her for audition tutoring? No, we learned our lesson in the realities of the world of power-Pre K, and fought back with photos, pleas and reference letters. (Who knew that 15 years later, it would all start again?) Now, their pain and disappointments have become ours as well.

Rejectophobia is, of course, a fact in our personal relationships as well. One friend of mine, a woman who is not only beautiful but also doing just fine in the publishing business, met a man about a year and a half ago with whom she thought she had great rapport. She was surprised and dejected when he didn't follow up with interest. Her friends had to plan an intervention to talk her into taking the next move. Frozen with fear, this creative woman asked for help in drafting the email. To make a long story short, they were married a few months ago.

Let us not forget that there is a big difference between criticism -- which we may not like but is part of self improvement -- and outright rejection. The former leaves room for making something better, whether it is a term paper, a resume or a hairdo. The latter strikes at the gut and says, "no you can't." One has to marvel at those who put themselves out there every day -- all the aspiring young performers of the world. I have reminded myself many times that J.K. Rowling was turned away by multiple publishers before one saw the potential of her boy wizard.

It's a long way from sending a manuscript to a publisher and becoming so paralyzed by potential rejection that you can't do a dinner party -- or offer someone a drink when you do. I have no expertise on how to get beyond rejectophobia, but I do try a few things (other than the Rowling reminder). Whenever I am about to NOT do something because I fear no one will come or help or approve, I commit to it anyway. It may mean setting a specific date or putting down a deposit, but I am then on record as having faced the fear and possible panic and moved ahead anyway.

The other tip I offer is the old It's a Wonderful Life approach. I look back at some of my proudest moments and wonder if they would have happened had I not picked up the phone or broached the subject or somehow put myself out there. I think of that gutsy girl who called an agent and ultimately got what she felt she deserved. I hardly recognize her any more, but that doesn't mean I don't deserve to hear "yes you can" more than the alternative.