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Will Professional Rejection Break You, Or Make You?
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Will Professional Rejection Break You, Or Make You?
Professional rejection stings as much as a first-date snub. Whether you were passed up for a promotion, didn't get the job you applied for, or received a negative review from your boss, no one wants to feel the disappointment and confusion of being let down.
For some of us, getting overlooked for a job or promotion paralyzes us indefinitely; the thought that we weren't good enough is so powerful that it thwarts our potential. And that's an enormous shame. After all – "Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently," said Harrison Ford.
If rejection is something we all face, why do we take it as such a personal blow instead of as an opportunity to grow? Why are we left feeling inadequate and unable to push onward?
Let's delve a little deeper into the psychology of professional rejection and figure out how to cope with it – and hopefully, move on with renewed vigor.
The Science of Rejection – a.k.a, why it freaking hurts
You might think that professional and social rejections are two different experiences – and in some ways, they are. Being rejected by a love interest affects the relational part of your life, while a job rejection affects your work situation.
In terms of emotions, though, a lot of the same ones are targeted.
Research shows that regardless of who rejects you – whether it be an employer, a crush, or a colleague – your brain has similar responses (fear, sadness, anger, defeat). Rejection also activates certain areas of the brain associated with physical pain (like when you stub your toe).
So, why does this happen? What are the psychological reasons behind our rejection-aversion?
We Feel Inadequate
Often, rejection hurts us because we believe it reflects on our worth as people. Dr. Michelle Pizer, an organizational psychologist interviewed for Fashion Journal, explains it like this:
"[We need] to be validated for who we are, just as we are… Rejection tells us that we’re not okay as we are."
When a potential employer emails us to say, "We've unfortunately decided to take things in another direction," our instinct is to wonder what's fundamentally wrong with us. There must be some way that we fall short as an individual.
But, as Dr Pizer says, "...there’s a difference between who you are as a person, and your perceived ability to do a job well." If we could only separate our professional success from our worth as people, we'd stand a better chance.
But of course, that's not our default. It takes practice and conscious deprogramming to separate our intrinsic value from our success (or lack thereof).
We Feel Threatened
After the feeling of inadequacy sets in, we feel threatened by our competitors. Who got the job over me? What do they have that I clearly don't? What made them stand out against me?
It's a fallacy, of course, because our rejection isn't irrevocably linked to the person who was chosen instead of us. They could be better suited for this particular job, but it doesn't mean they're a superior human being or that we couldn't do amazing things in other areas.
Still, our perception is often clouded with these irrational threats and ideas – and to us, we need to become the person who was chosen in order to move forward. But that instinct comes from a place of misunderstanding.
We Feel Disappointed
Finally, we realize that the job or promotion we've been drooling over has slipped through our fingers. It's easy to get attached to a particular job and all the possibilities it brings – and when those dreams are dashed, we feel a deep disappointment.
You might've had grand plans of moving to a new city; maybe you read the company reviews and preemptively fell in love with its culture. You might've even felt a calling to the job that transcended a paycheck.
And when all of those dreams are put on hold, it's hard not to feel a loss. You mourn your expectations, and you can't help but question why things didn't go as planned.
Our disappointment reflects an idealistic version of the world – one where we always get what we want and where nothing stands in our way. But we have to be resilient enough to accept what isn't meant for us.
More than that, we have to treat these losses as opportunities rather than setbacks. That's the only way to stay afloat.
Why Being Rejected Is A Good Thing
Now, hear me out – I know that it sucks to miss out on a job opportunity. I know it's a pain to send application after application. Trust me, I've been there.
Worse still is when you spend a few futile weeks wondering if you'll get some good news, only to never hear back from the company at all. There's no denying the toll it can all have on your energy and self-esteem.
But here's the thing: if you aren't ever rejected, it probably means you aren't trying. How can you miss the hoop if you never throw the ball to begin with? How can you come fourth place if you never sign up for the race?
People who face rejection after rejection are – more often than not – the ones who are trying and putting themselves out there. It's a sign of ambition and drive, not failure. You may not be getting the job you want this time around, but each 'no' brings you closer to the 'yes.'
The Famous Rejects
When we get a rejection email in our inbox, it's interesting how our first thoughts are often self-deprecating. We feel inferior. Our confidence plummets.
But in those moments of humiliation, what if we were to reflect on some of the greatest rejects ever known?
I often think about poor Vincent Van Gogh, who – tragically – sold only one painting during his lifetime. He spent most of his life feeling quite inadequate. But if he hadn't painted his way through the many phases of his life, including the lowest points, the world would never have been able to celebrate his creative genius.
Then there's Carrie. It's probably one of Stephen King's most famous stories, referenced everywhere and adapted over and over. But what you mightn't know is that the manuscript was rejected – not once, but thirty times.
And what about Sir James Dyson? I'd never use a vacuum cleaner that wasn't Dyson these days, and I'm sure you’d agree they're the best in the biz. But Sir James Dyson spent 15 years having his designs fail and be rejected over and over and over again.
Warren Buffet was rejected from Harvard. Sallie Krawcheck was publicly fired from Citigroup. Tim Ferris sent 'The 4-Hour Workweek' to 25 publishers before being given a chance. Walt Disney, of all people, was told he lacked creativity.
See? When you suffer a rejection, you're really among the greats. But only if you choose to keep going.
How To Keep Going Like The Greats
Guess what? It takes no effort whatsoever to stop trying. That's why some of us end up stuck in a rut after being rejected; it's far easier to stop pushing.
But if you want the eventual reward – if you want a career worth having and a life worth living – the slow life isn't for you. So how do you beat the rejection blues and keep on going?
1. Learn How To Reframe
There's a very simple way to handle rejection, and it's to change your perception of events. If that employer turned you down, does it really mean that you're inadequate as a human being? Or is it more likely that you just didn't have the experience required for that one very specific role?
And to reframe things even further – you could say, "I'm not good enough for this role!" or you could say, "My skills are much better suited to a different role." Because it's true. Where you're lacking in one area, you're probably overflowing in another. It's just about finding the right fit.
2. Take Time To Process The Loss
I'm not suggesting that you keep your chin up at all times because it's human nature to feel disappointment and loss. Let yourself be disappointed. Let yourself grieve the loss of something you wanted.
I know a lot of people who thank their lucky stars for past rejections. Often, repeated rejections push us toward alternative career paths – like freelancing, consulting, and entrepreneurship – that give us more freedom than we ever imagined.
3. Get Feedback At Every Opportunity
Professional connections who reject you won't always be forthcoming with feedback, but there's nothing wrong with asking for it. You might be surprised at how willing people are to help.
For instance – if an investor shows interest in your company but drops out after seeing your proposal, actively seek out their feedback. What was missing in your pitch? What could you add or subtract from your strategy to give investors a more enticing deal?
4. Keep Your Self-Worth Separate
Your value as a human being isn't tied to how many job offers you get or how much investor funding you receive. Our professional lives have nothing to do with our innate value. I hate the way that society ties together success and worth, because it's damaging to the self-esteem of so many.
If your professional life feels like your only life, it might be a good time to ask yourself – are you striking a poor balance? It's good to be invested in your work, but don't ever let it become your identity.
5. Make Rejection A Habit
By this, I mean get into the habit of trying again immediately after you fail. Let it be your instinct to move straight from rejection to the next opportunity.
I often think of a cold water exposure analogy. If you live next to a lake and swim there every morning of your life, diving into the icy depths feels somewhat easy. There's always a slight shock, but you get used to it quickly, and the experience gets easier with each passing day.
If you spend years without immersing yourself in cold waters, though, the shock is far more intense – and if given the option, you'll probably avoid the experience altogether.
Taking professional risks is the same. The impact of rejection always stings a little, but it's much easier to bear if taking the plunge is your habit as opposed to your exception.
Rejection is a part of life, and it's especially prominent in the professional world. I'm no stranger to it. As an entrepreneur, you face rejection from all sides. But there's so much to be gained from taking the risk and absorbing the blow.
If I can leave you with anything, it's this: rejection does not need to be a negative. We've made it that way, and we're socialized that way, but it doesn't have to stay that way. Embrace the “no”s and take them for what they are – a sign that you're trying hard enough to make something of yourself.
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