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How to Handle Rejection

How to find the positive in a pink slip or critical words. Rejection can help you reinvent yourself.

Fired Up: What Happens if You Get Canned by Woody Allen?

Actress Annabelle Gurwitch was overjoyed when Woody Allen cast her in a play in 2003. "I thought I would be Woody's next muse," she says. "I started to hear Gershwin tunes wherever I went."

But when rehearsals began, it was clear that the role wasn't right for her. Allen put it this way: "What you are doing is terrible, none of it good," "Don't ever do that again, even in another play," and finally, "You look retarded." After a week, Gurwitch was let go. "I was so depressed," she says. "I thought I must be a terrible actress."

She snapped out of self-pity mode, though, when she started talking to others about their experiences getting fired. "People told me stories even more humiliating than my own, and I really laughed." She wrote it all up in a one-woman show, which then became a collection of essays and a documentary, both called Fired!

Gurwitch now appreciates how rejection can allow you to reinvent yourself. She also understands the importance of creating your own opportunities to do what you love—rather than waiting for others to invite you. The huge response she's received from readers and viewers has brought her even more satisfaction. "Getting fired is a great reminder that you are more than your job."

The Good Critique: It's an art form that everyone needs.

Students who enroll in the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago are asking for a lot of rejection; much of their training comes in the form of formal critiques. In session after session, work is pinned on the wall for teachers and classmates to pick apart.

It's an art form in itself. "We tell the freshman, 'We are talking about Mr. Red Square and Mr. Blue Square, not you. Your piece may be no good—but it doesn't mean that you're no good,'" says Paul Coffey, head of the graduate and undergraduate divisions. Students must trust their inner critic, must be willing to experiment with their ideas, and yet at the same time incorporate others' reactions to their work. Professors prod students to specify why they don't like a particular piece, to explore how it works in formal and political terms, and to share their emotional reaction to it.

The best critique, Coffey says, is steered by the student in the hot seat. "I was having problems executing this idea," she may say. "How could I have conveyed it better?" With defensive barriers down, the student can hear the feedback on a higher level. "When classmates tell a student he needs to get a little more reckless with his painting technique, it resonates and he may realize he needs to take more risks in his personal life, too."

7 Reality Checks

If you anticipate rebuffs and overreact when they occur, you're operating under the influence of cognitive biases and false beliefs. Here's how to straighten out your thinking.

  1. Expect Rejection

    Belief: Everyone should like me, and if someone doesn't, it's a catastrophe.

    Reality Check: Inevitably, some people will not like you. "I tell people to ask themselves, 'What are all the things I can still do if so-and-so doesn't like me?' " says Robert Leahy, psychologist and author of The Worry Cure. "The answer is always that there is nothing they can't do."

  2. Learn from Playground Politics

    Belief: Popular people never get turned down.

    Reality Check: What distinguishes the popular kids in the school yard from the less popular ones is not the number of rebuffs they get, but how they handle them.

  3. It's Not Always About You

    Belief: Slights reflect poorly on me and everybody will remember them.

    Reality Check: Someone may snub you because you remind him of an old friend with whom he had a bitter falling out, or because he's about to be evicted and is in a state of panic. Even if your behavior is the problem, other people won't likely notice or remember.

  4. The Thing They Hate May Be The Thing You Love

    Belief: There must be something inherently wrong with me.

    Reality Check: You may be disliked because someone disagrees with the very values you cherish.

  5. Learn to live with Shades of Gray

    Belief: People should have only one feeling about me—either they accept me, or they don't.

    Reality Check: It's natural for others to feel ambivalent about you. You may do or say something that a friend doesn't like, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't also love and respect you.

  6. Avoid the Overthinking Trap

    Belief: If I keep chewing on my worries, I can figure them out and I will feel better.

    Reality Check: When you are ruminating, your snowballing negative thoughts crush your ability to come up with good solutions to your problems. First distract yourself with a pleasant activity such as meditating or gardening, says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, author of Eating, Drinking, Overthinking, and then take concrete action to improve your situation. If you're worried about getting fired, ask for some feedback and change accordingly.

  7. Don't Rush to Judgment

    Belief: If I think I've been dissed, I should immediately seek reassurance from and/or confront the offender.

    Reality Check: Most explanations for others' behaviors are quite benign. Give people the benefit of the doubt, or you may push them away with your desperation or hostility.