- Rejections hurt because they dampen hope, threaten self-worth, and raise questions about purpose.
- Rejections are seldom part of zero-sum games, as one "yes" outweighs multiple "no's."
- There are multiple potential silver linings in getting rejected.
I have been rejected so many times that I have lost count.
Internships, jobs, scholarships, Master's degree spots, a children's book, journal articles, seminars, and let’s not forget friends and dates. In fact, when I wrote this post, I had received three major rejections within seven days: One from a major psychological journal, one from a university regarding a postdoc position, and one from a potentially lucrative client regarding a seminar on stress and resilience.
It would seem that I collect rejections like other people collect stamps or vacation pictures. Of course, I don’t and being rejected hurt every single time. And yet, there is some value to rejections that I hope to point out here.
Before I get into that, let's talk about why rejections hurt.
Why rejections hurt
First of all, rejection is often linked to hope. In order to be rejected, we begin with a goal or an invitation. At the end of this action lies the hope of a better future—a new job, a date, entry to a select group. When we are rejected, that hope, in its particular shape, dies. “One door closes,” as the saying goes.
The second reason rejections hurt is that many of us have internalized the belief that we are worthy when we achieve things and when we perform. When we fail or don't reach our goals, we often feel less worthy. This nagging feeling that comes from the belief that we are not good enough is shame.
Third, rejections hurt because they can dampen our sense of purpose. Assume you want to be an actor. You take classes, go to auditions, and hear "no" every single time. Even the most enduring among us would eventually have doubts if this was truly our path.
As Brene Brown (2018) writes, shame is the fear of disconnection. And this brings me to the fourth and final reason why rejections hurt so much. Being rejected can lead to feelings of being lonely. An extreme version of rejection is ostracism when an individual is expelled from a group. Research shows that ostracism triggers the same neural pathways as physical pain (namely, the dorsal region of the anterior cingulate cortex, see Lieberman & Eisenberger, 2005).
Zero-sum games and getting rejected for the right things
Before I talk about potential upsides or lessons of getting rejected, let me make a couple of general observations.
First, rejections and acceptance, "no's" and "yes's," are not like a soccer match where you have to score more points than your opponent. In life and in our jobs, one "yes," at the right moment, from the right opportunity, can make up for 100 "no's."
Harry Potter was rejected by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury picked it up. In On Writing, Stephen King tells the story of how he pinned every rejected letter on a wall. By the age of 14, the nail could no longer support the weight of his rejection letters and the installation came crashing to the floor.
Second, let's talk about what we get rejected for. Are you getting rejected for the right things? What matters to you?
Getting rejected for things that you really want to do is better than getting rejected for things your parents or other society wants you to do. Also, it pays to remember that not all endeavors are equally worthy. Perhaps gathering 100,000 Instagram followers isn’t the best way to measure your success.
And finally, never getting rejected may be less than ideal.
If you never get rejected, you are likely deep in your comfort zone and personal growth rarely happens. If you hear "yes" at every single career stage, you probably did not reach high enough. If you never hear "no," chances are you did not take many risks (or you are just exceptionally talented, lucky, or both).
The benefits and lessons of getting rejected
With these remarks out of the way, what can we learn from getting rejected?
1. In a career (and dating) context, rejections are a feedback mechanism.
If we knock on enough doors and sometimes hear "yes" and sometimes hear "no," we can learn how the market of supply and demand currently values what we have to offer. Knowing exactly where we stand can provide us with insights for better decisions.
Do we need to improve or do we just need to roll the dice some more? If we are lucky, rejections come in more words than a simple "no" and offer some kind of reason why it was a “no” this time. If you don't hear or see this reason right away it might be a good idea to ask.
2. Rejections can build resilience.
If we go through life smooth sailing with nothing ever going wrong (or perhaps our parents shielding us from adversity), we don't learn how to cope with setbacks. The first rejections usually hurt the most, but as we go through life hearing some "yes's" and "no's," it becomes easier to cope with the "no's."
If we can learn to view ourselves as individuals who are worthy of love and belonging regardless of our achievements, it becomes easier still.
3. Rejections can build character.
Hearing "no" every now and then can help us stay grounded and develop humility. If we have a growth mindset (Dweck, 1999), we can find motivation from rejections to try a bit harder as our abilities are not fixed in time but change with effort and strategy.
4. Rejections are obstacles on the way to success.
When we follow our passions and dreams, we are often trying something difficult. If it wasn't difficult, it wouldn’t feel as important or worth doing.
Because what we are doing is hard, we are going to fail. We must walk through the "no's" to get the "yes." If J. K. Rowling had given up after getting rejected twelve times, there would be no Harry Potter. Instead, she said she would try "until every single publisher turned her down..." fearing that that might in fact happen. In this way, rejections are necessary or at least a byproduct to succeed.
Rejections feel like a punch in the gut or like the sting of a bee. The important thing is that we learn to try again and not get discouraged. Good luck.
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts. Random House.
Dweck, C.S. (1999). Self-theories: Their Role in motivation, personality, and development (1st ed.). Psychology Press.
Lieberman, M. D., & Eisenberger, N. I. (2006). A pain by any other name (rejection, exclusion, ostracism) still hurts the same: The role of dorsal anterior cingulate cortex in social and physical pain, in: Cacioppo, J. T., Visser, P. S., & Pickett, C. L. (Eds.), Social neuroscience: People thinking about thinking people (pp. 167-187). MIT Press.