From Both Sides of the Couch

A therapist reflects on her time with patients, and her time as a patient.

Disappointment and Rejection Aren't All Bad

Experiencing rejection can help the sensitive soul build a thicker skin.

Recently on an online dating website I stumbled across a man whom I thought would be a wonderful match. We had many of the same values and shared many of the same interests. We live in the same city and are only a year apart. His profile was unusually well written and detailed for a man. (I find that typically men write two or three sentences if at all.)

I became excited and sent him a message that said that I thought we had a great deal in common, would he read my profile and I look forward to hearing from him. I waited. And waited. I logged onto the site and saw that he had viewed my profile. I waited some more. Nothing.

I was deeply disappointed but I didn’t feel personally rejected because he had never met me. Although I had worked hard at writing my profile and I felt it represented me well, writing is one dimensional—even with a photo—and no description will characterize me as well as a face-to-face meeting.

Writing and trying to get published has been the best experience for me as far as developing a thicker skin. From when I was a child I was always known as the “sensitive one,” the girl who would cry at the least provocation.

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When I was in the sixth grade, I went up to the blackboard to take the pass to go the girl’s room and the teacher Mrs. Shore stopped teaching midstream and said loudly to me, “Gerri, you go to the bathroom an awful lot.” I froze; I didn’t know whether to return to my seat or proceed out the door. Paralyzed, I burst into tears in front of the class. Pointing at me Mrs. Shore said “There she goes again the drama queen, Sarah Bernhardt.” I had no idea who Sara Bernhardt was but I knew she couldn’t be good so I cried even harder. Finally I  returned to my seat and tried to stop crying, reducing my tears to sniffles.

That incident has stuck with me not only because of the sheer mortification, but because it also exemplifies how sensitive I was. When I went home and told my parents what had happened that was the reaction I got. “You’re too sensitive.” I’ve believed that to be true ever since. Perhaps it was. Perhaps I was sensitive but not as much as was made out to be. I don’t know.

I receive many more rejections from publishers than I do acceptances. Some of them are form letters; a few of them are personal rejection letters telling me that my writing is excellent, but the piece doesn’t fit their needs right now. A very few even tell me how to improve my piece and ask me to resubmit. I don’t view the letters that fit into this last category as rejections per se. If a busy editor took the time to constructively criticize my work, then I view that as a way to learn from someone who knows what they’re talking about.

Many of my patients have been so traumatized by disappointment and rejection starting from childhood that they are paralyzed and have a great deal of anxiety about trying to change for fear of re-experiencing these events. I encourage them to talk about these incidents and their feelings that are associated with them. Sometimes, their emotions have been bottled up for decades. Sometimes they were labeled as I was—as sensitive, or as a baby, or as a wimp. And they took that to heart, carrying this negative label into adulthood. This tag may have affected their intimate relationships, their friendships and their performance in the workplace. It might have been devastating to many aspects of their adult life.

But at the same time, my patients grew to be comfortable inside it. “I am a sensitive person and I can’t change that. It’s who I am.”

I attempt to reframe my patients’ attitude of sustained sensitivity by exploring what it might be like to engage in an activity that they would be likely to succeed at—like completing a book they think they might enjoy—if that’s something they have had difficulty doing.

Then I praise my patient for his or her success and ask them what they would like to take on next, keeping in mind that small steps are best. If they don’t succeed, I still praise them for making the effort, then we talk about what got in the way. We talk about what he or she could learn from not being able to complete the activity at this time, and how they could apply that newfound knowledge to the next attempt.

The disappointment of Mr. Online-Dating-Site not responding to me still stings. But I will get over it and move on. Just as I keep submitting my writing to publishers, receiving rejections, I continue to submit knowing that I will get rejected again for this process spurs me to improve my writing.

The course of life events that led me to develop a less sensitive temperament also opened up my curious side and wonderment of the world around me. I don’t shrink or hide any longer; I am engaged with the universe. And I’m loving it.

Gerri Luce is a licensed clinical social worker who publishes under a pseudonym.

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