Let’s face it most of us take rejection badly.
I am no different, in that I take things personally. We know that when we first learn something, we’re usually bad at it. We also understand that we get better with practice and that it takes up to 10,000 hours if author Malcolm Gladwell is right to master a skill. (Although the psychologist on whose original work his observation was made disagrees.)
We get the theory. But it does not always translate when we most need it: at the moment of a rejection.
We get a rejection (a missed promotion, no second date, a failed business case) and it leaves us feeling awful and filled with self-doubt: we are still just not good enough.
But what if we could turn this on its head?
What if we were brought up not just to accept rejection as a part of life, but also to actively seek it?
Imagine that as an author you were taught that before you could publish you had to show least a 100 rejections.
That would change things.
You’d be chalking them up. Every time a rejection letter came in the mail you’d get excited: wow, 50 rejections, only another 50 to go. Getting another submission out straight away.
Instead, most writers I know hit the couch, licking their wounds for months before daring to try again: oh dear, oh woe, why me?
That’s not to diminish the value of self-pity, in my experience feeling the full impact of a disappointment is a far more effective strategy for processing and moving on from it than pretending it has no impact.
But we can waste a lot of time, especially if we are on the slow-to-recover scale of the equation.
And while I know my analogy is far-fetched, I want to show that how we respond emotionally to rejection is (in part) influenced by how we believe things ‘should’ be.
For many that includes the idea that we should be successful and that we should achieve that success fast.
Now I am not for a moment suggesting that rejection can’t be harmful.
Humans are social creatures who need to belong and it’s important that we experience at least some degree of validation to get a sense of our own efficacy.
The famous psychologist Maslow believed that the need for love and belonging was fundamental to human motivation and psychological health and I agree.
Harlow’s disturbing experiments on severe deprivation show it has devastating impacts for development.
Studies also show negative consequences for children who are socially rejected; fortunately this can be mitigated through intervention.
Resilience training in the workplace is similarly beneficial.
But we cannot become dependent on the acceptance of others because it simply does not happen all of the time.
Even those who genuinely love and support us have their bad days.
Rejection is a part of life.
It’s also important to remember that we do not all respond to rejection in the same way.
In his book Emotional Styles of the Brain (one of my favourites last year) neuroscientist and psychology professor Richard Davidson says we have different emotional styles that can be traced to our brain signature and that impact the way we deal with stress.
Davidson says the pathways in the cortex and amygdala (parts of the brain) determine the speed with which we recover from adversity.
But even though these default responses are wired into us, the brain’s ability to reorganize means that with time, effort and practice you can change your emotional style.
The other important outtake of Davidson’s work is that we should not presume that because we respond to an event in a certain way, that everyone else feels the same.
Responses differ; this has been well established by the science and accepting it is a powerful step for developing empathy.
Let’s try and look at rejection differently.
Not as a punishment or a determinant of our self-worth or even a pre-wired emotional pattern over which we have no power.
Is it possible to anticipate it as an exciting opportunity, a chance to re-pattern thinking or take our skills to the next level?
That’s not necessarily easy but since rejection is inevitable it could be useful.
So how might we go about it?
I think consciously working rejection and resilience into the weekly practice teaches us to expect it and reinforces that there are many ways to deal with what life throws at us.
Here are some ideas:
- Write down a good idea that you have – then write three reasons why it’s a bad idea. Now take those three reasons and reject them in turn. This process teaches us that there’s rarely a wrong/right (I am not talking about technical solutions here) and that there’s value in every approach.
- Is there a celebrated author, singer, actor, entrepreneur you don’t like. Reflect on that. There are millions of others who feel differently. It’s about personal preference.
- Send yourself a piece of work before you pass it on (to your boss, editor, friend) with the following instruction: you must find three flaws in this piece before you share it. This will encourage you to become your own critic without that turning into incapacitating self-judgement.
- Sway to the left. Sway to the right. Sway to the left. Sway to the right. Or take a yoga class or play squash. For those of us who learn physically the lessons around flexibility or moving forward by stepping sideward can be valuable.
- This one is from Davidson but it’s an old Buddhist technique – for five minutes visualize someone you know who is suffering—an ill neighbor or a friend struggling in a marriage–and on each inhalation, imagine that you are taking on that suffering. On each exhalation, imagine the suffering is transformed into compassion, which will help ease the person’s pain.