Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Mastering Failure and Rejection (Part 2 of 3)

What, exactly, is the upside of failure and rejection?

In Part 1 I discussed the various consequences of letting your fears of failure and rejection control you. This second part will suggest how you can control--or better, master--the emotions typically associated with these two negative outcomes, so you won't be deterred from taking full advantage of whatever opportunities life offers you.

Before you seek to change your attitude toward failure and rejection, it's probably best simply to allow yourself to feel the full intensity of the emotions that follow in the wake of major disappointment. For before you can alter these negative feelings (whether they be embarrassment, humiliation, panic, anger, depression, or despair), you first need to get in touch with them--as the initial step in accurately linking the emotion you've experienced to the underlying beliefs requiring modification. You can't really revise your thinking about something till you're able to grasp just what your emotional reaction was to it--and what exaggerated, or otherwise irrational, thoughts engendered these emotions in the first place.

It's only human to view, reflexively, what happens to you as saying something about you. We are, after all, meaning-making animals. But this assumptive thinking isn't necessarily true. In fact, the personal meanings you extrapolate from outward events are mostly untrue. So if somebody refuses your love, you may instantaneously feel as though there's something about you that's not lovable. But, realistically, how could your lovability hinge on a single person's preferences? As in "beauty is in the eyes of the beholder," I once met an exceptionally good-looking man who confessed that he could only be physically attracted to a substantially overweight woman. Whereas we typically assume that men prefer women with hourglass figures, this example demonstrates that even "models" of feminine pulchritude aren't immune to rejection.

Although you may never have given it much thought, in almost all instances, another person's rejection says more about them than it does you. Someone might reject your overture of friendship simply because they don't have the time to add anyone else to their social circle. Or they might even be intimidated by you because they regard you as better looking, more intelligent, capable, or accomplished

than they are. Similarly, if you're not offered a job you applied for, it might not indicate at all that you were inferior to the other candidates but, rather, that you were seen as overqualified for the position--or too young, too old, too aggressive, not aggressive enough, etc. etc.

So even if your immediate reaction to rejection is to feel powerless, crestfallen, or despondent, once you can accept the other person's rejection as probably signifying little more than their right to choose according to their own biases and tastes--as opposed to indicating something defective about you--you can begin, emotionally, to recover from it. And if, being scrupulously honest with yourself, you conclude that you really were responsible, say, for a relationship's demise--whether because you were excessively dependent, overly demanding, or because of bad, inconsiderate behavior generally--you can still turn their rejection to your ultimate benefit. For you can use it as an opportunity to determine just what in your behavior may seriously need to be worked on.

Failure can also be perceived as an occasion to reflect on your role--or lack of one--in influencing a situation that turned out poorly. You may, for instance, assume you're not smart enough because you failed at a particular endeavor--unaware that only two percent of those attempting such a project before you ever succeeded. And, because of your pessimistically negative conclusion, it may never occur to you that your failure can actually propel you forward, since it's helped you to rule out what may first have needed to be ruled out, before trying other alternatives. Additionally, you should realize that even when you do something perfectly, success is rarely guaranteed. Which is precisely why it's so important not to let a failure--which, in almost every case, is best considered a setback--actively discourage you from undertaking additional efforts to achieve your goal.

I frequently tell my therapy clients that the reason virtually all pencils have erasers on one end is that all of us make mistakes--and somehow pencil-makers (needing to stay in business!) seem to grasp this a lot better than sometimes we do. "Normalize" your mistakes and they'll no longer have anywhere as much control over how you see yourself. Certainly, there's no shame inherent in doing something wrong--just as the shame you may lay on yourself after experiencing failure or rejection is self-inflicted. Without your (tacit) consent, others simply don't have the power to guilt or shame you. That power resides solely within yourself. It's you alone that makes the final verdict.

My main point here is that when you can hardly stop reeling after an episode of failure or rejection, you're looking at things from the perspective of a battered ego. It's not so much that you need to change: it's, frankly, your weak ego that needs to be strengthened. Otherwise, you'll continue to see external events as threatening in a way that can't but help stunt your initiative. And so it's vital to consider that the other person's unfavorable decision--or the situation that turned out contrary to your expectations--may, personally, have very little to do with you. To assume differently is something like concluding that a talk you gave must have been deadly dull because one person in the audience fell asleep while you were delivering it. But how could you ever know whether that person was up all night with a colicky baby? Or was, for that matter, narcoleptic (?!).

So, in the face of rejection or failure, what exactly should you do?

After looking at the situation directly--and not flinching from its immediately potent sting (but not letting the emotional pain deter you either)--you need to see it for what, objectively, it is. Which typically is nothing more than a temporary setback, or detour, delaying your forward progress. But delay isn't defeat and you don't need to (mis-) interpret it as final, or "definitive." True, it may spell the death of one particular alternative, but there are almost always other choices--even if they're not yet on the horizon. In fact, to the degree that you've ruled out the viability of one possibility, that failure or rejection can even be seen as a partial success, since it's "succeeded" in eliminating something that (for all you knew at the time) might have worked. It just didn't, that's all.

Defeated hopes offer you the opportunity to recalibrate--to reload--to rethink why and how something didn't turn out as you'd anticipated. Take the popular business adage: "ready-fire-aim." Feedback is often crucial to success, so you can only aim so much if what matters most in the moment is to get feedback. Whereas those who fear failure and rejection can "aim" indefinitely in their attempts to avoid further disappointment, successful individuals--choosing to be pro-active rather than to procrastinate--are much readier to risk failure than what might be a valuable opportunity. (To temporarily change the metaphor, for them it's better to "strike while the iron is hot," even if they subject themselves to a burn, than--self-protectively--wait till all is calm and safe.) When successful individuals miss their target, well, they just re-aim--knowing that with each successive shot, they're likely to get closer to the bull's eye. Each miss is calculated not in terms of failure but progress.

Consider, for example, this wonderful quote from Thomas Edison on his many, many abortive experiments that ultimately led to the invention of the light bulb: "I have not failed," he proclaimed, "I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Here is failure reframed as a lengthy, and ultimately successful, process of creative elimination. Invention isn't usually a single-step process--and neither is success.

If you think about it, life provides you with an almost endless number of do-overs. Both failure and rejection need to be seen as reminders of this--as in "practice makes perfect"--or, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Ultimately, it's how you cope with failing or getting rejected that determines whether each setback brings you ever closer to your goal. Once you can see such disappointments for what they really are--hurdles that all of us must surmount if we're to succeed--then you won't retreat simply because the outcome of your behavior remains in doubt.

Edison could only have failed in his electrical quest by giving up. What he did do was endure (or "triumph over") an enormously ambitious, multiple-step process to finally bring his invention to (er-) light. Each "mis-step" provided him with additional information, so that--bit by bit--he was able to make the final correction . . . and so the light bulb.

It reminds me of the line in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream: "The course of true love never did run smooth." And, in general, neither does the route toward success. Many times your right path can't be understood till you've taken a few wrong ones. Perceived in this manner, the wrong path--indirectly--is intrinsic to the right one. For the right path is commonly obstructed by detours that need to be located and traversed before the right one is even recognizable. It's wise, therefore, to consider personal mistakes as prerequisites to discovering the solution that's finally right for you. Making mistakes, then, is simply the way you pay your dues for later success.

Persistence is the key here. Or, more precisely, I should say that believing in yourself is the key. For it's hard to persist at anything if you're not convinced that, sooner or later--and by dint of your own efforts--you'll succeed. (And this, incidentally, is what psychologists call "self-efficacy.") Once you're able to firmly believe that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to, eventual success isn't just possible: it's probable. As long as your self-assessment is reality-based, it's simply a matter of not retreating in the face of failure but instead soldiering on. And what, ultimately, enables you to sustain your efforts is a sustained belief in yourself. That, and persistence, sway the odds in your favor.

If in the past you allowed some immediate defeat to prompt you, prematurely, to give up on something, what's crucial now is that you cultivate your resilience. And you do this mainly by remembering, and then visualizing (i.e., making as real in your head as possible), all your past successes--all the things you've done right over the years. Your courage to go forward after failure and rejection can then be restored, as you bring into the here-and-now the positive mindset that accompanies such recollections.


To conclude, regarding every failure, every rejection, as a learning opportunity is the best way to avoid letting setbacks deter you from continuing toward your goals. Ultimately, disappointments have only as much power as you choose to give them. Once you can "befriend" your failures and rejections, they--paradoxically--can actually support your future efforts.

If, however, you define failure and rejection self-defeatingly, they'll continue to control you. And they'll even doom you to further disappointments because of the resignation that comes with such a pessimistic attitude. If, on the other hand, you can see such defeats as an inevitable part of life--as something you must learn to deal with courageously and creatively--you're hardly likely to succumb to them. Future obstacles can almost always be reframed as challenges; and once you've effected this transformative mental shift, that last defeat will become your next opportunity. What felt like "the end" can now become a new beginning. And--in affirming yourself in the face of failure and rejection--you will have truly mastered them.

Note: Whereas part 1 delved into the wrong way of dealing with failure and rejection, this present part has suggested far more adaptive ways of reacting to personal disappointments. Part 3--by far the shortest of these three segments--consists almost entirely of quotations. Collectively, these quotations say just about everything I've labored to articulate in the first two parts. Call them a kind of unusually eloquent SparkNotes version of the subject. I selected them not only because of their ageless wisdom, but also because they encapsulate "lessons" so vital for all of us to learn. Hopefully, reading them (and maybe even writing some of them down) will enable you to change whatever programming is, by preventing you from taking necessary risks, also keeping you from realizing your hopes and dreams.

---I invite all readers to follow my psychological musings on Twitter.

 

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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