We all know that sinking feeling of being rejected. The phone call or email that says, ‘Thank you for applying, but unfortunately…’
Even worse is seeing that look on someone’s face as they deliver the news personally, perhaps trying to couch it in praise and encouragement – do try again next time – but there’s really only one word we hear, and we hear it loudly.
Every kind of rejection hurts. As social animals we’re wired to avoid rejection from our tribe in order to survive. We’re meant to experience intense discomfort when others shun us. But when we’re rejected for our art, our creative output, the pain has a particular sting, especially when the work in question – our writing or singing or acting or painting – comes from the deepest core of our being and our sense of self. The more we care about the work, the harder the rejection hits. Sometimes we don’t even know how much we wanted something until we’re told we can’t have it.
In the moments straight after receiving a rejection, it’s tempting to deny reality and pretend we don’t feel the blow. Or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, to give in to despair and decide to give up our art.
But real artists know that dealing with rejection is part of the artistic life and needs practice in and of itself. Some artists even make a habit of trying out for things they know they won’t get in order to harden themselves up to the inevitable “nos”. It’s not a bad idea. The ability to sit with discomfort is one of the essentials of any kind of growth – whether you’re building physical muscles or building a career.
But first things first. Tending to our wounds, then putting ourselves out there again, is part of a spiritual learning opportunity we’d rather not have. Here are some first aid strategies for navigating the pain.
Nine strategies for artists who’ve been rejected
1. Cry – or at least feel the feelings
Feelings want to be felt. They insist on it. After the initial rejection hits, you may feel numb and disbelieving, and it may seem like a good idea to keep that numbness going with drugs or alcohol. But letting the feelings happen, in all their ugly, sodden, primitive reality, is actually a healthier option. If you can do it in private or with a trusted confidante, you may want to punch your pillow, hug your teddy, scream at the gods. It can feel cathartic to let your three-year-old self have this tantrummy moment. Or, if you’re wanting a more “adult” experience, go for a run, a workout, a dance or a sing to heavy metal. Let your body process the impact of this real shock and disappointment.
2. Wait – sleep on it and let time do its work
The first night is the hardest. The next morning may be pretty rough too, like the morning after a death, as you look at the dreams that have died with that “no” and slowly adjust to the new idea of your future without the hoped-for thing. You won’t be publishing your novel with that publisher, or spending that prize money on a deposit for a house. You won’t be travelling to France for that residency, performing in that longed-for role that was made for you, or directing that film with the funding you were counting on.
But time really does help. Trust the process and let the hours take you slowly into your new reality. Don’t rush yourself to feel better. It’s OK to wallow… for a few days, anyway. It’s OK to feel bad and sad and maybe even angry at the injustice of it all. Why did somebody else get the thing you wanted? Don’t hate yourself for feeling resentful, rageful, jealous. It’s normal and you don’t have to act it out or suppress it.
3. Connect with your inner circle
Now’s the time to call on your coven of close creative colleagues to help you recover equilibrium. It may be your writers’ group, band members or your mentor. Fellow creatives will have their own tales of failure and disappointment, and stories of recovery. Tea and sympathy all round, and the eternally nourishing words of comrades who agree: “It sucks!” It helps to be held in the safe embrace of those who understand the particular kind of rejection you’re dealing with and how it attacks your sense of self-confidence. If you aren’t lucky enough to have such friends, now’s the time to resolve to make some. Even loners need some kind of community.
4. Learn – ask good questions
Once the raw emotions have cooked a little, it’s time to get analytical about the rejection you’ve experienced. Was it really personal? Was there something you might have done differently to get a different result? Was the opportunity even a good match for you? If appropriate, you may want to ask for feedback, but be prepared to hear more hard things. Don’t discount the role of luck, but also try to take responsibility.
It sounds trite, but rejections can be blessings in disguise, even if those blessings are just the fact that we improve our work, our processes and our endurance for next time. What can you learn from this pain? What improvements and changes can you make?
5. Get philosophical, get stoic
‘The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.’ So said Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome (161 – 180 AD). Known as “the Philosopher”, Aurelius wrote lots of advice to himself in his journal (another great practice for dealing with rejection) and his musings are now the best-selling book, Meditations. Michael Caine has espoused a similar sentiment, under the maxim: ‘use the difficulty’.
Stoicism is all about perseverance, endurance and wisdom – using hardships to become better and stronger. It’s probably not wise to throw stoic sayings at someone who’s freshly smarting from rejection, but when you’re ready for it, stoicism provides bracing comfort and inspiration for those who’ve been rejected. Here’s another saying from another Stoic, Epictetus, who was born a slave: ‘Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.’ Which brings us to action…
6. Take action, start moving
Even small steps can have big results when it comes to recovering from rejection. Whether it’s going back into a document and correcting some typos or turning up for another audition, physically taking action moves us out of the wallowing phase and back into the world we want to be a part of. Go on, enter another competition, write an email, or just pick up the phone for a brainstorm with a fellow artist. Shifting the focus away from what you can’t control back to what you can is part of recovery.
7. Use your emotions to create new work
Strong emotions are the stuff of life and the fuel for powerful art. You may not be ready to be grateful for the pain, shame or anger caused by your recent rejection, but you may be able to use these emotions to seed new work. Rejection puts us in a powerful position of “not knowing what comes next” and it’s from this space that we edge forwards into discovery. That old ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ lyric about freedom being ‘another word for nothing left to lose’ is actually true in reverse. Take some risks now. Why not?
8. Create a ritual to let go of that thing you lost
This may seem like going backwards in the process, but here’s the thing: rejection can sting long after the initial blow. Recovery is circular, and just when you think you’ve got over that failure – say, missing out on the lead role in the high school musical 20 years ago – you find yourself sobbing like a baby when you see an echo of this in a movie.
A conscious letting go and a putting to rest of the hoped for opportunity is always a healthy thing, even if it sounds silly and witchy-woo. Author, interviewer and blogger Madeleine Dore is endlessly fascinated by the creative process. She has written at length about the trials of creative disappointment and rituals for dealing with rejection. Below are a few of her ideas and some of our own. We are creatures who need rituals for birth and death, and we should never deny that rejection of our work can sometimes be experienced as a small kind of death:
- Light a candle. Write your lost dream on a piece of paper and burn it.
- Take a bath or a cold ocean swim and baptise yourself clean of the grief.
- Throw a rejection party.
- Start a rejection jar and collect your rejections as signs of your courage.
- You could bury something in the garden or, even better, plant a seed and watch it grow as you invest in new artistic projects.
9. Share and be generous about your failure
This one’s for later down the track, and only when you’re good and ready to talk about what’s happened. Generosity of spirit, together with recovery, means we can share the tales of our creative rejections to help those coming up behind us. Talking about the ways we’ve failed in the past is an act of humility that benefits everyone, exploring the ways those missteps or disasters shaped us and taught us – the dark nights when we wanted to give up, but pushed through. Don’t just give the happy endings either – “My manuscript was rejected 50 times, but now it’s a best seller.” We also need stories like – “My manuscript was rejected 15 times and it’s still in the bottom drawer. It was a dud. Or maybe a flawed masterpiece. But I let it go and I went on to make other things.”
Rejection hurts. There’s no quick fix or spiritual bypass to avoid that fact. None of us are immune. And unless we never try anything new, and keep our work in the dark, we will all hear “no” many times in our lives and careers.
But whatever you’re feeling as you face recent rejection – no matter how intense it is right now – remember that no feeling is final, this too shall pass – and all the other clichés that are clichés for a reason. They’re true.