Last week, I had to deal with rejection, which has been a bit of a reoccuring theme of late. Of course, you won’t be rejected, and feel the complementary pangs of disappointment if you don’t put yourself out there in the first place, so there’s immediate consolation in the action act and the effort behind it (assuming the effort was there and is something you are proud of.) However, I thought it would be helpful to catalog my other related emotions to try and examine how I can capitalize on being rejected, learn from it, and use the process of rejection to reach an ultimately beneficial outcome.
Being a somewhat naturally cynical person (to the extent that one can be naturally cynical), my first reaction is often one of utter resignation – of course it didn’t work out.
In order to sufficiently devote myself to the efforts entailed behind the attempt in the first place, there’s always some level of delusion, and my first impulse is to identify that delusion and augment it: “Of course I didn’t get it. What was I thinking to delude myself into thinking I even had a chance at getting it? The types of people who are bestowed these types of opportunities come from x (wealth, intelligence, world-saving) backgrounds, and you’re not it. In fact, you knew that before the delusion set in, yet you still went forward with the herculean efforts behind the attempt – what is wrong with you?”
Despite well-meaning (and mostly correct) consolation from friends and family, in these initial moments I find myself inconsolable, and retreat into solitude (and sleep, if it’s a particularly crushing blow).
Once I break out of the resignation phase, I find that I transition into a state of resilience, and usually revert into future planning mode: “Okay, that didn’t work out. You never really solely planned for that, did you? So what’s next? How are you going to move forward from this? What steps are you going to take (right now, not later) to build from this and continue the ascent?”
Notice that this resilience appears (and feels) a bit belligerent, almost like I’m thrashing / flailing around to try and remove the film of rejection from my body, and relying on external efforts (and the reactions of others, through my efforts) to move forward and graduate from the resignation step.
3. Denial by “othering” / contrasting
I’m not sure if I have a perfect word for this. As I continue to reflect on the efforts, the doubt, cynicism, and skepticism associated with putting myself out there lead my mind to a place of individuality, of defiance towards conformism and my own personal, distinct journey. The famous Groucho Marx quote comes to mind: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”
To manage the feelings of rejection, I lean into this individualist streak to contrast and “other,” or separate myself from the successful: “They’re conformist, I’m not. They fit into a neat box, I don’t. They’re formulaic and boring, I’m not.”
While this act goes a surprisingly long way towards me feeling better, I think it denies the very real fact that I wanted this opportunity, and would have been plenty happy to have received. It. This denial temporarily takes me off my own personal path, and takes a bit of time (if not active re-centering) to overcome and move forward from.
This one is the hardest to admit, but is undeniable.
As I think through my efforts, and the gatekeepers or barriers preventing me from realizing these goals, I proceed into anger, cursing others for standing in the way of my dreams, and even sometimes going so far as to plan my revenge / redemption: “How will I prove to that society / group / committee / person that I was worthy all along, that they were wrong?”
Inherent to this reaction is a feeling of entitlement: “I deserved this opportunity, maybe even at the expense of others. I worked harder. I put in more effort, and wanted it more. This is unfair, unjustified, and I will right this myself, without the help of these gatekeepers.”
Obviously, this anger is not the most productive line of thinking, but it does serve to motivate me, to get myself back on the horse and end the period of self-doubt and depression.
5. Sunk Cost
The last thought that oftentimes permeates in particularly random pangs is the sunk cost behind the effort(s) that I devoted hours / days / years to, at the expense of leisure, or furthering other pursuits, and I won’t get this time back.
I think this is a fairly normal feeling for anyone who feels somewhat ambitious, and is willing to sacrifice to achieve that ambition, but allows those periodic moments to creep in: “Was it all worth it? Isn’t it all meaningless, anyways? Wouldn’t I be better served doing things that really matter, like spending time with family and friends?”
This feeling is the one that reoccurs most often, strikes at seemingly random moments, and is sure to put a damper on whatever I happen to be doing or thinking about at the time. In these moments, I try to remind myself that the obstacle can be the way, that it’s not all about realization of a particular goal, and that growth and learning comes from all experiences, especially those that involve effort and being outside of my comfort zone.
The Need for Reflection
The one component of this process that’s noticeably missing is the act of reflection and analysis – the active process of attempting to impartially evaluate (or soliciting the help of others to assist in the evaluation) where misteps were made, where you may have went wrong, and how to take corrective action in the future to ensure success down the line.
Of all the post-rejection steps, I think this is likely the hardest one to see through, as it is likely the most effort-intensive and emotionally laborious. After a particularly heavy rejection, the last thing that I want to subject myself to is effort that will potentially yield more pain.
I think this exercise has been a helpful reminder of the wisdom to be gained from revisiting the “scene” of the rejection, and posting this conclusion here is a useful first step in holding myself accountable towards this pursuit, regardless of the hairy or scary truths that emerge as a result.