I used to be horrible at rejection. I’d get a rejection letter from a job or a scholarship and I’d spend the next few hours curled up in the fetal position feeling miserable, crying, beating myself up. I should have spent more time on the application, I should have been a better person, I should have been smarter, I should have gotten better grades. No one likes rejection, although some people handle it better than others. But it’s not uncommon for rejection of any kind to leave us questioning our worth as human beings.
In the last week, I’ve been rejected from two of the jobs that I applied to. That’s not that many, but both were things I was extremely interested in and sincerely hoped I’d at least get an interview for. And yet I find myself completely unconcerned. Of course I still would deeply like a job sooner rather than later, and I’m a bit worried about my finances, but I didn’t get that stomach dropping feeling that I screwed up and will never recover.
It’s easy to imagine that I just somehow calmed down. I grew out of some of my anxiety, my meds are working better. But I think that discounts the real work that anyone can do to limit the panic that often results from rejection. I have just lived what could be considered a worst case scenario. I don’t have enough money to live on my own, I don’t have a job. There are times in my past that this would lead to a full on “I’m going to end up selling drugs on a street corner and living in a cardboard box” meltdown. But I know how this is going to end: I’ll go home, move in with my parents for a bit, furiously apply to jobs, take what I can get, and move on with my life.
My friends will still be there for me. I won’t be miserable because I still have a safety net, I still have the things that I love. The bottom has fallen out and I’m still standing. Now for most people this is not the ideal way to get past the failure fear. But you can imagine it. If you were to lose your job and your savings right this minute, what would happen? If you were to not get the job that you absolutely want and had to take something you weren’t thrilled about, what would happen?
In all likelihood, you’d survive. You probably have people to support you. And if you did have to take a shitty job, you might have other things in your life that could balance it: friends, family, hobbies. The shift of focus from “finding perfect career” to “building a family and home that I love” has completely changed my sense of rejection. My friends aren’t going to reject me if I screw up once. My family will probably never reject me. These human relationships are a far more solid basis for an identity and a safety net than a career or an education that doesn’t have a personal relationship with you. Personal relationships are what create safety for us: they keep the bottom from falling out because we’ve got some extra people hanging out with us who can catch us.
This metaphor has become far too cheesy, but the point is that each individual rejection no longer becomes about the whole of your future or your identity. It’s simply one piece of a life that has other elements to balance it. I used to think that I was amazing at seeing the big picture. I got a B on a test in high school once, and my mind immediately started following all the links to a prediction of utter doom: I wouldn’t get a good enough grade in the class which meant that I wouldn’t get into a good college which meant that I wouldn’t get a good job which meant that I would be homeless and die alone. Big picture, right? Thinking in the long term?
What I missed was that the big picture has to include all the elements of the picture: the fact that schools look at more than just grades, that I am a hard and dedicated worker, that even if things did go poorly I knew people who would help me out. The big picture is more than just a series of links in a chain to doom. It’s all the mitigating factors, the people you know, the backups you have in place, your resources and your resourcefulness.
So I’m not worried. I’m not worried that I’ll end up stuck in a career I hate because I got a few rejections. I’m not worried I’ll be living with my parents for years and years and all my friends will abandon me and I’ll die of starvation. Because I can survive some temporary nastiness and find new ways into the careers that I want. There is no singular right way, and not getting one of the things that I thought could be a right way doesn’t mean dead end. It means try a different route.
Maybe this whole “focusing on relationships and my identity” rather than focusing on accomplishments business is actually fairly effective. Whoa.