Rejection stings. There’s no way around it. Whether it is rejection from a love interest, a job, a creative pursuit or a friend, there’s nothing quite like the punch in the gut you feel when something you’ve proposed or offered is dismissed.
Rejection is something that’s frustrated me throughout adulthood. I don’t remember the point that I crossed from being a child who threw herself into everything with abandon, without a care of being rejected, to an adult who was reluctant to put herself in any situation that might result in a ‘no’, an ‘unsuccessful on this occasion’, or a ‘thanks but no thanks’. Maybe we all go through this, maybe it’s the first blow of romantic rejection in our late teens that make us pause and think ‘this is not a feeling I want to return to’, resulting in a more cautious approach.
For me, rejection shares a bed with self-doubt and caring too much what others think. They are the worst kind of threesome. We’ve all had those moments at work where we’ve kept an idea to ourselves in case it was dismissed by others. I’ve definitely moved myself swiftly out of the path of romantic rejection if I anticipated it coming towards me. There’s been questions I haven’t asked, requests I haven’t made, suggestions that stayed in my head, for fear of getting a no.
This refusal to put myself forward certainly stems from discomfort around what others will think. Even complete strangers. I’m the sort of person that would squirm at the idea of negotiating a price on something, in case my counterpart gave me a straight, firm no. Even if I would never see that person again, I’d rather take that higher price than risk looking like cheap.
However, a few things recently have made me view rejection in a more positive light. I’d even go as far as to say that in the last year, I’ve realised that rejection is something we should run towards, not shy away from.
The biggest and most personal of these was the fact that I was dumped. My partner of several years decided that I wasn’t the right person for him. There are few things harder in life than unfolding yourself completely for another person and then have them mull it over for a couple of years and think ‘actually, now I’ve had a proper look, I’m going to pass’. But there it was. He moved out and we never spoke again.
If you had told me months before this occurred that it was going to happen, I would be mortified, inconsolable, I wouldn’t have thought that I’d survive such a harsh rejection of my whole self.
But in reality, I felt OK. I had moments of sadness, loss and moments of panic (we were in the middle of a lockdown and I now lived alone). But in terms of the blow to my confidence that I was expecting from the rejection, I felt very little. I found that I liked myself a lot more when I was out of the relationship and this meant I didn’t feel the sting quite so personally. The relationship had run it’s course. I hadn’t failed because it didn’t last forever, nothing does. I didn’t feel rejected because the break-up wasn’t about me. It was freeing to consider that sometimes things just end and I didn’t have to take it all so personally. I was able to separate my sense of self worth from what happened. As a result I emerged from the breakup with an overwhelming sense that whatever happened, I would be fine.
My view of rejection was also shaped by various things I heard over this period. The brilliant podcast How to Fail with Elizabeth Day is chocked full of wisdom, there’s something wonderful to takeaway from every episode on there, but I kept going back to a conversation with Elizabeth and her guest, actress Vicky McClure. Vicky talked of her audition failures, of which there were many. I remember being amazed at how resilient she must have been, continuing to go to the auditions after every rejection, brushing it off and starting again with the next role. I thought ‘there’s no way I could do that’. But I admired it. I admired the fact that she didn’t like it, but didn’t take it personally, that it was simply that she wasn’t right for that specific part, nothing to do with her as an individual.
Developing that kind of attitude in the face of rejection is a true gift. It builds a resilience that very few of us can access, if we continue to concern ourselves with what others think. It exhibits a faith and a confidence in the self that is beautiful and refreshing. The podcast reminded me of something a friend, who works in a top London drama school, told me years ago — it isn’t always the most talented actors that make it big, it’s the most persistent. You can have all the talent in the world but if you go to 3 auditions and get 3 rejections that crush your self-esteem and stop you from going to anymore, then no one is going to know your name. On the flipside, you might just be good, but if you keep going to audition after audition, if you keep learning from the failures but never internalising or personalising the feeling of rejection, you’re probably going to get a break.
This doesn’t just apply to acting of course. One of the big things I’ve done during lockdown is write a novel. I put in a huge amount of effort and clocked over 130,000 words. The next step is to send out the manuscript, to find an agent and then a publisher. The idea of being rejected makes me queasy. But rejection will undoubtedly be part of the deal if I want to get somewhere with this endeavour. We all know the story about Harry Potter being rejected 12 times before JK Rowling got a publishing deal. Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie was rejected 30 times before being picked up. 30 letters saying ‘no thanks’ and he kept going. Both authors believed in what they’d created. They believed the publishers who said that their stories were ‘not right for us’ and tried somewhere else. They were rejected over and over but kept going.
This made me think about my own experience on the other side of rejection. I’m an HR Director in a high growth company. I interview between 5–10 candidates for different roles each week. Of that number, I usually only put 1–2 individuals forward to the next round. That means I’m responsible for rejecting a bunch of people weekly. In truth, I don’t think about this too deeply. I’m not rejecting them on a personal level, we have a specific set of criteria to match for each role and the candidate doesn’t fit against all of it. But if I was on the other side, if I was the candidate, I may well take this personally, internalise it and see myself as not being good enough. Thinking about this in terms of my job, my role as interviewer, has forced me to see that my fear of rejection is out of kilter with reality. Our rejecters aren’t analysing every inch of us and concluding ‘urgh no way’. Quite the opposite. They aren’t thinking of us at all, but themselves and their own internal criteria. Sometimes you tick every box, something you tick a few. It doesn’t matter. It’s not a reflection on you.
So how can we get better at embracing rejection? The vast majority of us aren’t actors going to auditions every day, but situations do crop up in every-day life that can throw us in rejection’s path.
Make a cheeky request
Ask for a discount. Request a free upgrade to first class. Question whether you can get an offer on something. The worst that can happen is the person you speak to says no. That’s fine. You don’t need to feel mortification at this. You’ll probably never see them again and they aren’t likely to give you a second thought. The best that could happen is that you get a great deal on something you’re buying, or you end up sipping champagne in the first class lounge.
Put forward your ideas at work
You have your job for a reason and people want to hear your ideas. Some will land, some won’t. If you’re considering the needs of your business, doing your research and prepping how you present your proposals, I’m betting more will land than won’t. But if you do all this and your manager still says no, don’t beat yourself up. There’s likely to be a reason behind it that you aren’t aware of. Seek feedback, dust yourself off and start working on the next thing.
Don’t shy away from romance
Romantic rejection is the worst. But if you look at it rationally, it’s exactly the same as any other kind of rejection. Take my interview example earlier. Just like an interviewer, a potential suitor has a set of criteria they are trying to find a match for. It may be vague, and they may not have a list of questions and checklist in front of them (if they do, make your excuses fast!) but it will be there all the same. You are not going to match the criteria for every date you go on. Just as every date won’t match your own specific set of requirements. Some people just don’t do it for you. That’s OK. But on the flipside, you won’t do it for some people either. If you accept this and be yourself, dating will be a lot easier.
The next time you meet someone you like, whether that be online, at a bar or in the gym, start a conversation. If they engage, ask them on a date. They can only say no. And if they do, you’re not a match. Don’t obsess over why that might be. Don’t assume that you must be lacking something. You have no idea why they’ve said no. Be happy that you’ve made someone’s day by asking. Leave the conversation where it occurred and go on with your day.
When you get dumped, and we all do, try not to personalise it so much. The other person thought you matched their criteria, but after a period of time, they discovered you didn’t or they found someone else who they thought was a better fit. I won’t tell you not to be upset by this, of course it hurts. But be upset about wasting time on this match or ignoring potential red flags or mismatches to your own requirements. Don’t make it about you not being good enough, you are.
Putting yourself in the path of every day rejection may feel counterproductive initially. If you’re worried about what people think, it’s going to sting. But if you take the view that it’s unlikely the individuals you are encountering are giving you as a whole person much thought, you are gaining so much more. The more we’re rejected, the more resilience we’re amassing. With that resilience we’re able to continually build the life we want, without being deterred when a ‘no’ comes our way. Remember that ‘no’ is never about you, it’s about the person giving it. I wholeheartedly believe now that the most successful people in life are not the most talented, but the most resilient. And becoming resilient means taking rejection in your stride.
A quote appeared before me yesterday that confirmed everything I think on this subject (in the brilliant weekly James Clear newsletter, by Artificial Intelligence researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky):
“If you never fail, you’re only trying things that are too easy and playing far below your level … If you can’t remember any time in the last six months when you failed, you aren’t trying to do difficult enough things.”
Rejection, failure, disappointment. We view these as negative words. But they come as a result of putting yourself out there, of trying something new, of giving something a go, of asking a question. If you’re doing all those things, you are doing something right, living your life, and if you keep doing them, those negative words will soon transform into success, recognition, accomplishment and satisfaction.