In my 20s, I used to have a recurring dream. I was in the hallway of a conference center, peeking through a cracked-open door. Inside, some important meeting was going on, but I was stuck on the outside looking in, and I hated that. At the time, I was a relatively new husband and a new father, and I hadn't yet established myself in my career. The jury was still out on who I was going to become, and I didn't want to be shut out of anything.

Nobody does. We all long to be accepted. In fact, I believe it's our number one need: to truly feel part of something and know that others care about us. We are at the pinnacle of life when we feel involved in the world, whether that means being part of a couple, a family, or a group of friends or colleagues. We want to belong.

If our number one need is acceptance, then it follows that our deepest fear is rejection. I'll tell you just how universal this fear is. The woman who seems to have all the confidence in the world, the best athlete on the field, the businessperson who's made billions—I don't care who they are; every single person is afraid of rejection. The next time you feel unsure of yourself and wonder whether something is wrong with you, I've got your answer: absolutely not.

So how can you meet your fear head on? First, let's look at your relationship with you, because that's the most important relationship you'll ever have. How harshly do you judge yourself? Evaluate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 as total self-acceptance and 1 as complete rejection. Where do you fall on that continuum? If your score is lower than 4, then your first order of business is to focus on learning to accept yourself.

It's astounding to me how often people reject themselves without realizing how that feeling bleeds into every other relationship in their life. You know yourself better than anyone, so when you don't like yourself, you're essentially saying, "Why should anybody else like me?" And then you have to make sure no one ever gets to know the real you because they might find out how unlovable you are. As a result, you feel trapped in a masquerade, always one step away from being found out as a fraud. That's no way to live.

The fear of rejection plays a big part in the way human beings interact with one another. Once you understand that, you'll be able to manage your relationships more effectively. I don't mean you should turn into a manipulator. I'm just suggesting that you consider others' core needs so you can be a receptive audience. People want to feel that they matter, so pay attention to them. People want to feel heard, so listen to them. When you can allay their fears and make them feel safe, you'll create trust and forge more meaningful connections.

As for that dream about the important meeting, I haven't had it in decades. I don't consider myself perfect in any area—not as a husband, a father, a professional or a friend—but I've come to enjoy a high level of self-acceptance, and I feel accepted by the people around me, too. Of course, I still fear rejection, but it's not a significant part of the fabric of my life. And the more comfortable I am with myself, the less vulnerable I am to being hurt by what others think. (It's a good thing—because when you're in the public arena, there are always a few haters who are all too ready to share their opinions.)

Sure, it would be nice if everyone loved you. But that can't compare to what it means to love yourself, which is priceless. And you shouldn't accept anything less.

Dr. Phillip C. McGraw's daily talk show is in its 13th season. He has written seven best-selling books; his latest is The 20/20 Diet: 20 Key Foods to Help You Succeed Where Other Diets Fail (Bird Street Books).


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