Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

How to Cope With Rejection

Ask a writer

I am afraid that rejection and failure and disappointment are a regular feature of ordinary life, no matter how successful someone may be. Any set of circumstances in which one reaches out for something: acceptance, approval, the good opinion of friends and family—the good opinion of anyone at all-- there is the risk and, indeed, the certainty of rejection from time to time.

Rejection is so common, we do not usually stop to consider it as such. Only if someone is especially sensitive does a person think in terms of rejection if, for example, a friend chooses not to accompany him/her to the movies, or puts off texting back for a few hours, or chooses to walk to school alone, or forgets to extend an invitation to dinner until the last minute. Only someone especially sensitive takes offense if someone fails to laugh at an anecdote he/she has told. But there are such sensitive people. I spend considerable time in the therapeutic setting trying to convince patients not to be offended when no offense is intended. It is as if these individuals have their antennae out all the time waiting to react to the first sign of rejection. They are sometimes described as “high maintenance” friends because they are so difficult to reassure. But in certain circumstances a possible rejection is usually an active concern for everyone:

1. Applying for a job—or for a promotion.

2. Reaching out for a date. Or confronting the possibility of abandonment once in a relationship.

3. Submitting an artistic work for consideration.

4. Attempting to join a club of some sort or some other social grouping such as a fraternity.

5. Applying to a college or to a somewhat selective vocation, such as the Navy.

6. Running for office.

Pretty much everyone, no matter how self-confident, feels distressed when rejected in any of these settings. But some people seem to be crushed.

I remember a shy man who approached a woman in a bar and said something that happened to be true, but which seemed fake to the woman. He told her she reminded him of a movie star. The woman sneered at him and turned away. There was very little I could say to console him; and it took a year for him to get up enough courage to return again to a singles bar.

Perhaps everyone is alive to the possibility of rejection when approaching someone of the opposite sex. These are chancy encounters, likely to fail more often than they succeed; but they are, nevertheless, important. It is easy to overreact.

There was a student I knew casually at college who was always smiling. He was a bright and friendly guy who seemed to feel comfortable with everyone at Princeton, in a way that I did not, coming from a parochial background in New York City. I remember him tossing a football around and, on another occasion, sitting comfortably in a small class, speaking sensibly about some arcane subject or other. If I had been asked to describe him in one word, I would have said poised. I lost track of him during the years we went to different medical schools, but then we interned together. He was married by that time to an attractive and very bright woman. We socialized briefly, only to lose track of each other once again--and then, years later, once again come to know each other by working together briefly in a professional setting. We were both psychiatrists. He was running a large institution in New York City.

One day, at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, I said hello to him and noticed that he had grown a mustache. “What’s with the mustache?” I asked him. “It’s my separation mustache.” He explained to me when I looked at him quizzically that he and his wife had separated. I expressed the usual regrets. Then, after a moment, he grabbed my arm and pulled me into a corner of the room. “Fred,” he said in a whisper. “Do you remember when you were sixteen or seventeen and you were afraid to ask a girl out because she might refuse?” “Sure.” “It doesn’t go away!” he said, grabbing both of my lapels and shaking me. If this guy, who was good-looking, accomplished and poised was nervous about approaching women, then everybody was, I thought. But that turned out to be wrong.

About ten years ago a middle-aged man came to see me about renewing a prescription for benzodiapenes that he had been taking for years. I always discourage patients from taking these drugs every day as many do, not infrequently for years at a time; but except for undermining that person’s self-confidence, they do not represent a danger in small doses. So, I agreed to write the prescription and saw him at monthly intervals. I never quite understood why he got started on these drugs in the first place.

Although singularly unattractive—balding and about 40 pounds overweight and usually unkempt, he was remarkably undisturbed by the circumstances of his life. He seemed to be in a good mood all the time, although he got into trouble with the police every once in a while by pointing out to them various derelictions in their duty. His relationships with women were interesting, and instructive. Without bothering to spruce himself up, without bothering to comb his hair or in other ways concern himself with his appearance, he would approach any woman. He knew where “the best ones” hung out in Las Vegas, and he would go there and offer himself to one or another, and sometimes two at a time. I would not recommend this approach to anyone; but on occasion—more than a few occasions—it worked! “So, if they say no, so what?” he told me. “So the next one will say yes. I try to line them up so I don’t have to wait long for the next one to come along.” If he suffered any concerns about being rejected, it was never apparent to me.

But, perhaps he was one of a kind. The real experts in rejection are, of course, writers. I have belonged to various writers’ groups over the years, and, although they were clever, often witty, people who were capable of having a good time in each other’s company, it was like being part of a group of people endlessly trying to climb up a muddy hill together and watching each other slide back down again to the bottom. Some of these professional writers had papered their rooms with rejection slips. (which are very small, so that a great number of them are required.) Every writer consoles himself/herself with stories of famous writers who have had their acknowledged masterpieces (acknowledged later on—sometimes posthumously) turned down over and over again. There are simply too many such incidents to list here. (I used to keep such a list until I ran out of space.) Consequently, I have learned from writers what is required to cope with being rejected over and over and over again. There is a trick to it.

1. Know ahead of time what the chances are of a particular effort being successful. If the odds are long, that is not a reason for not trying; it is a reason not to be discouraged by failure. For instance, sending in a resume in response to an advertised job has been studied. Approximately two per cent receive a response. That is not an argument for giving up. It means that even if you have been ignored, there need not be anything wrong with your resume. It is a matter of the odds. Sending in a couple of hundred resumes shifts the odds in your favor. Similarly, like my patient who used to visit Las Vegas, if you ask out enough women, you will be successful occasionally. Keeping the odds in mind makes all the rejections along the way more tolerable.

2. Keep more than one iron in the fire at a time. Having a manuscript rejected by one publishing house is less devastating if that book is being considered at the same time somewhere else. Some writers spread themselves in all directions to withstand these upsets. If someone has been jilted, I recommend starting to date right away—even when that is not the inclination of many people who find themselves in that situation. An unsuccessful job interview does not feel so bad if another one is scheduled for tomorrow.

3. Finally, keep in mind that a rejection is not necessarily—probably not even usually—a reflection on who you are, what you have written, or the way you present yourself. People get turned down for every sort of thing for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with merit. Some members of the opposite sex will really be taken with you just as others will immediately turn away, for reasons that are not even clear to that other person, let alone to you. Also, don’t give up. My first experience with a literary rejection came when I was a freshman in college and sent in a poem to the Nassau Literary Magazine. It was their practice not only to reject undesirable material, but to mark the rejections. I got, as I remember three Ds and a C. I sent the same poem into the same magazine in my senior year, and it was published. Being published did not make me feel much better, I discovered. Those writers who are published eventually often come to the same conclusion.

(c) redric Neuman 2013. Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

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