How do we deal with rejection and why can it sting so hard? This is a topic worthy of a deep dive because we all get rejected at one point in our lives and we all reject others. What is a rejection? It is a negative response to a request or the dismissal of a desired outcome or situation. The more one is invested, the worse the rejection feels. The official Cambridge definition is as follows.
“the act of refusing to accept, use, or believe someone or something”Cambridge.org
The pain we can feel from a rejection can last a long time. And it can be felt similar to that of physical injury as shown by the research of the American Psychological Association.
“As researchers have dug deeper into the roots of rejection, they’ve found surprising evidence that the pain of being excluded is not so different from the pain of physical injury.”APA.org
Dealing with rejection
Dealing with rejection means dealing with an active refusal by someone else. We can find examples throughout our lives. In relationships with family members, friends, or romantic partners. The fear of being rejected can be so big that it stops people from acting or pursuing their dreams. There are many high-risk situations in which rejection is a plausible outcome. Going for a job interview, presenting your book to a publisher, waiting to be picked for a sports team, and we can go on and on. That’s why we need to examine what rejection does to us and how we can use it to improve ourselves. Stoicism isn’t a philosophy to ignore the emotions or influences that happen to us, but it finds ways to learn from them and become better people.
“It is the action of an uneducated person to lay the blame for his own bad condition upon others; of one who has made a start on his education to lay the blame on himself; and of one who is fully educated, to blame neither others nor himself.”Epictetus, The Handbook, 5
Blame no one
As we continue to learn how to deal with rejection, I’d like for you to keep this quote by Epictetus in mind. To remind yourself how to look at the rejection. It is an easy reaction to point the finger at the one rejecting us, but if we are making progress on our journey, we will be able to look at our own actions. One step further is to remove blame completely and then we can look at the situations with objective eyes and make the biggest possible growth. Even from something as painful as being rejected.
To move towards a possible rejection, we have to put ourselves in a vulnerable state. We are now in the hands of someone else and we have no way of being certain how they think about us. It’s like a fortified city opening the gates to an unknown entity. It could go well, but they could also enter and wreak havoc on our internal system. This happens in combination with our ego feeling confident enough, sometimes even over-confident, that what we are doing will get accepted. The more inflated our ego is, the bigger the pop if or when it gets crushed. We can learn to be a bit more realistic with our take on the outcomes. Epictetus shows us to make sure our wants and aversions are focused on what we can control. The opinion of others is not in that sphere.
Rejection isn’t always personal
Although we often feel rejection as a personal attack, it is still the opinion of someone else. We don’t know how this person came to this view. There are so many factors that can lead to a rejection. The problem is that our mind looks at our doubts and vulnerabilities to add reasons about why they rejected us. We make it personal and the more we take it to heart, the more difficult it is to let go. Most of the time, however, whether it’s a relationship or something at work, there are things that go on in the mind of the other party of which we are not aware. They might not even look at our proposal carefully or they are looking for something different and not see the value.
To get an example of that, think back to a time when you rejected someone. Was it based on the person or on ideas you preferred? It can happen that we are not the right person or that it’s not the right time. And it can happen that someone else was better than us, put more effort in, and fulfilled the task more to how they wanted. One important lesson to keep in mind is that it doesn’t all revolve around us. It isn’t all about you, which might be a difficult pill to swallow for some. But if we can learn to deal with this rejection, by understanding that we are not the center of the universe. Then it will be easier to move on from those other moments when someone chooses something else or someone else instead of us.
Learning from Rejection
What we take away from being rejected, tells us more about who we are. Our insecurities are highlighted by what we focus on. The degree of pain we feel also shows us how important it was for us. These are all data points on which we can start to reflect and improve ourselves on. If it was important enough for us to engage in it, then we shouldn’t quit at the first rejection. We need to assess what we can do better or find someone else to review our case. If we get turned down after a romantic proposal, then this wasn’t the person for us. Emotionally this will be difficult to accept, but in the long run, you’ll be able to see that it was so.
Rejection turns into failure the moment we give up. It doesn’t mean we should always keep going after the same thing, but we should keep our heads up high, reflect, and keep on going. Learning to let go and move on plays a big role. A small note, that when we move on, it should be sincere. We should be able to ask whether we are truly ready to let it go. Otherwise, there is more work for us to do.
The steps after Rejection
You have been rejected. It will not be the last time and you won’t be the only one dealing with it. The moment of empowerment lies in how you deal with rejection. It’s impossible to remove that first initial sting, but we can soften it by practice. What do you do when you get physically stung, by a bee for example? You take a moment to sit with it, breathe, and absorb the initial blow. Do the same with rejection. The more you get to practice, the shorter this pause will take. Then comes the important part; the reflection. Now it’s important to leave our egos outside of the room. We need to use critical thinking and evaluation to look at where we went wrong. Do not get angry with the side that rejected you. This is all about us, the growth, the pain, and the analysis.
We learn to take agency and responsibility for our actions. Look at how well you prepared for the interview. Did you go the extra mile to look your best? Did you apply for the job that suits you best? You should not ask questions full of resentment. They will lead you to a place of negativity. Look ahead, and find strength in the feedback you were given. The reason why successful people made it to where they are, is because they overcame rejection and kept pushing. This is your moment to set one step further to what you deem to be success.
Become the observer
In reflection, there is still the notion of our ego and emotion. If you can remove yourself from the situation and look at it from a wider perspective, you’ll be able to become even more objective. Try looking at your own efforts as if they were done by someone else. How would you judge them there and where do you feel this person could have done better?
You can look at the input from the one rejecting you and examine what impact this had on you. This is the information that will help you get ahead the next time you find yourself in a similar situation. That’s the true message of rejection. We can learn more by what we don’t want or can’t get, than by trying to figure out what we do want and pursue. It will help us narrow the scope of who we are and where our interests lie.
“When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard?”Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, Book 7.26
Dealing with rejection starts with not making it personal. It is only personal if you choose to do so. The rejection stands but you can decide which value it will have for you. Show compassion to those who make the judgment towards you or at least show it to yourself. This is a moment to take a close look in the mirror and face reality. You might not be as good as you thought, but you can get there. Use it as fuel to make those improvements to get to where you belong. Dealing with rejection is a big part of life and learning how to reject is the same. Be kind in both moments, to yourself in the first place and the other in the second. Kind, honest, and sincere.
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