Let’s talk about rejection. It should join death and taxes in the inevitability department, because everyone experiences it in one way or another in their lives. Some rejections are negligible (a left swipe on Tinder), some are heartbreaking (being turned down by your crush), some seem like they’ll shatter your soul down to the atomic level (limited theatrical release of Shin Godzilla not coming to your city). Every single one is unique, and they all hurt in some way.
I’m just 25 years old, but I’ve faced my fair share of rejection. I busted my tail and sank over 100 hours into preparing, applying, and interviewing for my dream job, only to be unceremoniously shot down. My first summer after graduating college, I shot off hundreds of job applications without any peep of response, and for the few interviews I did get, all but one were followed up with “We decided to proceed with a candidate that better fit our needs.” In my occasional returns to OKCupid (I’m not ashamed to admit using it), most of my opening messages go unanswered. Dozens of pitches for articles on popular websites were shot down. Book outlines submitted to literary agents fizzled (but hey, even Harry Potter faced that brick wall). More recently I’ve had to savor requests for blog interviews going unanswered. It all starts to blur together in a hazy fog of “Thanks but no thanks.”
But hey, I know I’m not unique, and there are plenty of people who’ve faced many more than I have. Just ask published writers or artists, they all have rejection letters to share. The 2008 economic crisis gave us single job openings with over one hundred applicants, so there were plenty of “Thank you for applying and we wish you luck with your job search…” emails to go around. Pickup artists share a legend of a man that loitered at an LA bus stop every weekday and asked every woman stepping off the buses to sleep with him, which meant his rejections would number in the millions if the story were true.
Rejections suck, but face it, they’re going to happen. The good news is you can fight the death grip they hold.
The Science of Rejection
You know that dull ache in your gut, chest, or wherever else you feel when you get the cold shoulder from a crush? There may be no physical ailments (unless you were creepy and got pimp slapped in comical anime fashion), but that pain is very real. According to a study by the University of Michigan Medical School, the brain reacts to social rejection the same way it reacts to injury. In this case, the researchers found the participants’ brains released opioids (No, they weren’t giving them heroin) in response to rejections in an online dating setting.
It’s not just ‘all in our heads.’
There is an evolutionary precedent for the fear and pain of rejection. Friends blowing you off on Saturday may be an ultimately harmless affair, but in the early days of humanity, ostracization meant death. Rejection from the clans meant facing a world of predators and harsh climates alone. Our brains evolved this painful physiological response to rejection to protect us.
Despite the reduced danger of saber-tooth cat attacks though, the mind has yet to catch up and drop the now-unneeded adaptation. The nature of social interaction has changed immensely since the days of mammoth-skin tunics and flint spears. Instead of spending our entire lives with a clan of eight to ten, we encounter dozens, sometimes hundreds of people on a daily basis. Interaction with these many people carries a chance of, you guessed it, social rejection.
The age of Internet only amplifies the speed and volume of rejections we can receive. Dozens of jobs can be applied for in a single day. Multiple attempts at asking crushes out can fall flat. We can plan several auditions that get nothing but crickets in return. Sharing a blog post in several places can get no responses at best and sharp rebuke at worst. It’s no wonder people develop a fear of rejection. For someone lacking to resilience to refusal, it’s a continuous needle jab day after day after day.
How do we develop that resilience?
Grow Your Grit
This may sound contradictory to fortifying yourself against the pain of rejection, but the first step is acknowledging it hurts. There’s no need to carry shame for a natural reaction have little control over. Your brain will naturally inflict torment on you for spurns that matter little in the long run. The shame of feeling depressed over rejection adds another negative emotion to the ones you already feel.
So first, just stop, take a deep breath, and acknowledge you are hurt. Give yourself space to feel angry, disappointed, or depressed. Journal about it. Talk to a friend or family member. Developing resilience to this completely natural reaction requires a cool head and a clear mind. Consider it reconnaissance for your mind to map out this emotional fog of war.
So what’s the silver lining in this inevitable dark cloud of emotional pain? Unlike the real danger of physical injury, this pain can’t kill you. To beat it, you have to reframe which rejections matter and which ones are pointless fluff. We must condition our brains to worry about the ones that matter and let slide the ones that don’t. To do that, we have to return to our cave person brains once again.
Determine Threat Level
Think about the rejections that bother you, in whatever forms they take. Write them down, make an inventory. It can be specific occurrences (for example, turned down by a YouTube channel you wished to join) or ‘in general’ situations (difficulty getting a date/relationship). Write as many as you can think of. You may even think of some you didn’t think bothered you.
Next, go through the rejections one by one. Try to divorce yourself from any emotional baggage attached to it and ask the simple question: What danger does this pose to my life or livelihood? There are ones that do matter and warrant concern. Job applications turned down are an important concern if you need the money to keep your home or put food on the table. Rejections from colleges or training programs affect career prospects. A longterm, serious relationship ending affects living situation, personal property, and sometimes even family.
The majority of the rejections you list out, I wager, don’t matter. So-called ‘friends’ who ignore or ditch you cause no physical harm. When you text your crush and get the old seen-not-replied in return, your health isn’t taking a hit. Negative comments on your YouTube video may hurt, but they’re usually nothing that would seriously affect your life (aside from death threats, of course).
By acknowledging their lack of danger/true importance, you defang the dread. You become less afraid to take risks that could result in social rejection. You build resilience to that painful reaction. You conquer those fears.
Look Outward, Not Inward
The next step is to learn from those rejections. With a cool head, you can objectively look at your actions, the situations, and the outcomes to determine how you can do better next time. A little bit of objective thinking and analysis can improve the outcomes, or in simpler terms, help prevent rejection, rather than just avoid it.
Return to your list of rejections, and select a situation in particular you want to rectify. Write out what you did to initiate the interaction, all of the steps you took. Write about how you felt when you acted. Then, shift focus outward and try to think of as many outside factors that affected the situation. You must try to figure out the full story, not just your part in it.
For example, a girl you tried to ask out may have had a stressful day when she ignored your message. Perhaps, especially in nerdy social circles, she had bad experiences with creepy guys. The dream job you applied for may have received dozens, even hundreds of applicants. If you made it to the interview stage, perhaps the company decided you weren’t compatible with their culture and teams, even if you were completely capable. The magazine or website that you submitted a story or article to could have decided that particular piece didn’t fit with their guidelines and brand.
Most of the time, the reason for rejection has little reason to do with you. This also helps ease the pain. Acknowledging outside influences reduces the ‘responsibility’ you feel for this ‘failure.’ Psychologist Guy Winch, Ph. D., claims that the rejection itself only inflicts about 50% of the pain, and our negative self perception does the rest.
Set the Course
Once you’ve figured out the things that are out of control, it’s time to focus on the things that are. Think about your actions, and consider different ways to act in the future. If your goal is job hunting, try rewriting your resume and researching interview tips. If your goal is dating, try different approaches to meeting and asking out people. If the goal is acceptance by a group or publication, research what they want in particular for their content.
It’s entirely likely your second, third, or fourth attempts will fail despite the change in tactics. The important thing here is to retain your own autonomy and power, to remember that you have the power to make a change and try something different instead of running in circles. Confidence to devise a new approach is worth exponentially more than giving up or not trying at all.
Go Forward, Without Fear
Rejection hurts, there’s no denying that. It can eat at your soul. It can make you feel invaluable, incapable, or unlovable. The good news is that the pain is not a flaw in your character, but a natural reaction that can be challenged and eventually overcome. Our modern world can fire rejections at you like a gatling gun, but with the right perspective and attitude, each little strike can make you stronger. Keep trying, it gets better. Eventually.
Oh, and if you were wondering, I said the word ‘rejection’ 33 times.