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Mastering Failure and Rejection (Part 1 of 3)

It's not misfortune itself that defeats you.

The Problem Defined

Below are a few quotes that define what, to me, represents the wrong attitude toward failure and rejection:

"You put yourself on the line as a performer, and when people reject you, it's a personal rejection." And, "Everything is a rejection of you, not your product, or your script, or a cosmetic. It's you." (Morgan Brittany)

"When there's no chance for failure, there is opportunity for success." (Arthur Tugman)

"There's no way I'm going to put this kid in the movies, because of the rejection. It's so hard as an adult, so why set her up to feel that bad as a child?" (Rosanna Arquette)

No question but that failure and rejection sting. And this sting can be--at least in the moment--excruciatingly painful. Yet it's really not possible to go through life without such adverse experiences, so strenuously attempting to avoid them is ultimately as foolish and self-defeating as it is futile.

What this three-part post will focus on is, in the present part, examining the problems not so much inherent in failure and rejection as in your counter-productive reactions to them; in part 2, exploring all the positive ways you can deal with such discouragements and letdowns--so that your immediately upsetting experience can actually pave the way for success later on; and, in the 3rd and final segment, presenting quotations from Confucius onwards to suggest the timeless wisdom of seeing disappointments and defeats as detours along the frequently circuitous road to success. . . . And, in this sense, I should add that I've long believed that the one thing more important than success is "mastering" failure. And, paradoxically, this fully coming to terms with adversity might just be the greatest success of all.

But first a question. What exactly do these two deeply intertwined terms--failure and rejection--have in common? What, that is, do they both mean? While neither word really needs defining, it's still essential to emphasize that--conventionally, at least--each carries the most unfavorable connotations. And, in fact, it's curious just how frequently these two terms are uttered in the same breath--not only because there's so much overlap between them, but also because each typically brings up similarly worrisome doubts we tend to harbor about ourselves.

It's not very likely that in growing up you were "conditioned" to view failure and rejection positively, as opportunities for learning, growth, and change. And without such encouraging family counsel, odds are that each of your encounters with adversity was, subjectively, experienced as shutting down opportunities, as pushing you right back to the starting line--definitely worse off than before. For now you felt worse . . . worse, that is, about yourself.

The most unfortunate thing about failure and rejection is that if you're like most people, you're apt to take such incidents personally (like actress, Morgan Brittany, above). And such self-disparaging interpretations are likely to drive your mind back to whatever discouraged, defeatist ideas of self you may, however unconsciously, still be holding onto. Moreover, blaming yourself in such situations can't help but bring to the surface your most anxious concern: namely, that you may not be good enough.

What commonly happens when you fail at something, or are rejected by someone, is to verbally beat yourself up. Or--whether in your head, or in person--critically attack the person or circumstance that (partly to help you feel less bad about yourself) you hold responsible for your misfortune. But either way, reacting in such knee-jerk fashion to events that didn't turn out as you'd hoped prevents you from evaluating them constructively-and in a way that would help you both to learn from them, and move beyond them.

The main thing is that, initially, when you've failed at something or been rejected, your ego is likely to throb with pain. And such heightened distress may well prompt you to enlist your defenses to anaesthetize the blow. It may be that the person you wanted to pursue gives you a clear message that your interest is not reciprocated. Or that you weren't offered the job you believed you'd interviewed so well for. Or that the project you'd worked so long and hard on ended disastrously. But unless you can learn how to take such setbacks in stride, they're likely to hinder you from moving forward. Inwardly smarting from such experiences, you may decide--defensively--to do all you can to protect yourself from future indignities.

The unfortunate outcome of attempting to keep your anxiety at bay and make yourself less vulnerable to life's many frustrations is that you'll wind up pretty much leaving your goals behind, as you move toward the self-protective stratagem of indefinite procrastination. Or, you may decide not to take on the challenge--whether it be a person or project--at all. And, again, what stops you in your tracks is fearing further disappointment, others' disapproval or rejection, or (if you're overly critical of your work and so afraid you may not be able to finish perfectly what you started) your anxiety about meeting your own (excessively high) expectations.

The problem, of course, is that once you give up trying, you can't ever succeed. The same could be said about self-assertion. If you're to stand a fair chance of getting what you desire from life, it's crucial that you let others know about your wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings. Otherwise, how can you ever hope to be understood, empathized with, or assisted by them in your attempts at personal fulfillment? But if you're governed by fears of failure and rejection, you may well (again, defensively) adopt a passive, passive-aggressive, or aggressive stance toward those around you--which, predictably, will hold you back from saying or doing what, in the end, would most likely elicit their support.

Finally, the worst thing about taking failure and rejection personally--and as a result shying away from life's challenges--is how it affects your self-esteem. For, sooner or later, adopting such a pessimistic stance compels you to conclude that your negative encounters with reality connote something irredeemably negative about yourself. And denigrating yourself this way can't help but solidify a most unfavorable self-image.

Here's a large variety of statements you may come to believe about yourself--or assume your life has already confirmed about you--if you regularly take failure and rejection
too much to heart . . . or, I should say, too much "to ego":

• "I'm not worthwhile," "I'm a disappointment," "I'm incapable," I'm inadequate," "I'm incompetent," "I'm inferior," "I don't measure up," "I can't do anything right," "I'm stupid," "I'm a loser," "I'm hopeless," "I can't succeed," or-at its extreme-"I'm shameful," "I'm contemptible," or (if you really get carried away with such self-abuse) "I'm a bad person."

With such seriously compromised self-regard, whatever suspicions you may have about yourself as being, essentially, a fraud might also lead you to such negative, "non-deserving" beliefs as:

• "I don't deserve love," "I don't deserve respect," "I don't deserve to succeed"-or maybe even, "I don't deserve to be happy"; as well as such self-derogatory beliefs as "I deserve criticism," or "I deserve disapproval (or rejection)."

And, in yet another realm of self-denigration, you may (however unconsciously) conclude:

• "I can't trust myself," "I can't trust my judgment," or "I can't trust my authority."

The end result--again, not related so much to your actual experiences of failure or rejection but what, self-deridingly, you've made of them--is that you're likely to decide:

• "I can't afford to be vulnerable," "I can't get what I want," "I have no authority," and "I'm powerless (or helpless)."

I realize the above characterizations may possibly seem exaggerated, maybe even ludicrously so. But I did want to stress that the consequences of turning away from life's challenges--which, by definition, always involve a certain risk of failing or being rejected--can potentially carry immense personal costs. Not fully engaging with life for fear of encountering yet additional disappointments--determining, that is, to avoid "at all costs" anything that could be emotionally unsettling--ultimately can entail far greater costs than risking the possibility of defeat.

Note: Part 2 will suggest how to effectively "reframe" failure and rejection so that they no longer constitute such difficult obstacles to your personal growth and success. It will also deal with building resilience and developing a deeper belief in your capabilities. Finally, Part 3 will highlight a variety of famous quotations, from Confucius to the present day, which eloquently underscore the different points made in the first two parts.

--I invite readers to follow my reflections on Twitter.

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