If there’s any experience that hallmarked my twenties, it was rejection. Rejection from grad programs, job opportunities, journals where I submitted pieces of creative writing, from people in the form of breakups and the simple, “I don’t have time to get together this week.” There were certainly a lot of tears, a lot of feeling like I’d never be happy again, only to find myself once again flirting with hope as I again sent out my resume, tailored cover letters, edited poems, and spent time getting to know new people.
The dance with rejection is one in which I’m still an unwilling partner. But it’s one I’m slowly learning has much potential in shaping not only my response to hearing “no,” but my resilience in difficult moments. Rejection is actually making me a more hopeful person.
The pain of rejection is real
The sting that accompanies receiving rejection is one you may know quite well. Interestingly our physical and emotional makeup are such that rejection is meant to hurt a bit. According to a 2015 article on the TED Ideas blog, “The same areas of our brain become activated when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain. That’s why even small rejections hurt more than we think they should because they elicit literal (albeit, emotional) pain.” The article goes on to explain that our response to rejection is evolutionary:
Evolutionary psychologists believe it all started when we were hunter-gatherers who lived in tribes. Since we could not survive alone, being ostracized from our tribe was basically a death sentence. As a result, we developed an early warning mechanism to alert us when we were [in] danger of being “kicked off the island” by our tribemates — and that was rejection. People who experienced rejection as more painful were more likely to change their behavior, remain in the tribe, and pass along their genes.
Like other dangers, rejection seems to have the potential to send us into fight/flight/freeze mode, which can prevent us from doing things like trying again. For example, my fear of rejection from literary journals (a realm in which rejection happens A LOT) has not only prevented me from sending out my work, but at times has also led me to question the work’s value.
Making rejection work for you
A few years ago, I discovered I was not alone in this feeling when I encountered entrepreneur Jia Jiang’s 2015 TED Talk, “What I Learned from 100 Days of Rejection.” Realizing he feared rejection, he went about conquering this fear by way of Canadian entrepreneur Jason Comely’s idea of turning rejection into a game. As Jiang describes in his TED Talk, “the idea is for 30 days you go out and look for rejection, and every day get rejected at something, and then by the end, you desensitize yourself from the pain.” He decided he would make this game his own, choosing to film himself getting rejected for 100 days, and coming up with his own rejection ideas.
Sounds a bit scary, doesn’t it? That’s what Jiang thought the first day of the challenge when he went and asked a stranger for $100. Rejection caused him to literally run away. But he learned something from examining his fear: the key to bearing rejection well was to “stay engaged” in the rejection instead of letting it shut him down.
Staying engaged with rejection led Jiang to a few different realizations. One was that rejection could lead to opportunity: “I found if I just don't run, if I got rejected, I could actually turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes,’ and the magic word is, ‘why.’”
“Why” allowed Jiang to consider the reason someone was saying “no” to him. It often wasn’t because he didn’t measure up as a person, but because “what I offered did not fit what he [or she] wanted.” In his TED talk, he gives the example of asking to plant a flower in a stranger’s backyard. The stranger says “no,” and to Jiang’s “why,” the stranger shares he has a dog that will ruin the flower. He also redirects Jiang to a neighbor who loves flowers, and she gives Jiang the go-ahead to plant the flower in her yard. In this way, “no” becomes a means of encountering new possibilities.
Hindsight is often 20/20, and there are a few moments in the past decade where I can look back and say, “Thank goodness I didn’t get what I wanted.” Particularly, the rejection from one grad school opportunity to pursue secondary education allowed me more time to see I wasn’t cut out for it. Without that “no,” it wouldn’t have been a possibility to get accepted into graduate school for creative writing a year later. So, the “no” led me to a greater yes.
Using rejection as a springboard
In the course of writing this piece, I’ve received six rejections (four of which came within a 36-hour window): three from literary journals, three from job opportunities. If you, too, are in a season of rejection, I feel you!
For me, rejection has become a springboard to hope in the realization that my self-worth is not based on hearing yes. This is not to say I no longer feel the sting, but I’m a bit freer to believe that the opportunities that feel “lost” or “missed” may actually be leaving me room to find opportunities that fit me better. In my literary journal submissions, for example, I’ve had to be honest with myself about whether my work really did fit the needs of the journal. And though there are times when “no” leads me to question my work, it has also offered me the opportunity not to compromise my writing style for the literary journals I’m submitting to. Sure, there’s always room for revision, but the fact that “no” can lead me toward knowing what I value about the writing process and my own work has been a surprising benefit of rejection—one that is helping me meet discouragement with resilience. I’m now a bit more apt to try again than I was even a couple of years ago.
For Jiang, rejection was also the springboard for hope—in other people. He mentions on his website that one of the lessons he’s learned through his rejection project is “people are much kinder than we ever imagined.” It was amazing for him to discover during his 100 days of rejection project that some people said “yes” to his asks. And even those who said “no” were often interested in helping him find alternatives to what he was asking for.
So how to gracefully accept rejection? Allow yourself to feel the sting, to cry, be angry. If appropriate, meet the rejection with “why,” if not to the person who rejected you, at least to yourself. And then consider what the rejection has taught you, what it has left room for. Chances are, there is something good to learn—about yourself, others, and what really matters to you.