How Rejection Can Make You More Successful at Everything

October 7, 2010

“Through my illness I learned rejection. I was written off. That was the moment I thought, Okay, game on. No prisoners. Everybody’s going down.”

Lance Armstrong

Rejection sucks.

So says Harriet Lerner, a clinical psychologist at Psychology Today who writes The Dance of Connection. Of course it does. Not only does it feel terrible in the moment, but it has a way of coming back to haunt us in the days, weeks, even years that follow it. We torture ourselves repeatedly, reliving our moments of humiliation. Some people, though, have a way of taking rejection in stride. A lucky few are seemingly immune to it – they just keep putting themselves out there until they get what they want. The truly courageous use rejection to motivate them, just as Lance Armstrong did.

Dr. Lerner speaks to our natural fears when we risk revealing our true selves:

“When we take rejection as proof of our inadequacies it’s hard to allow ourselves to risk being truly seen again. How can we open ourselves to another person if we fear that he or she will discover what we’re trying desperately to hide – that we are stupid, boring, incompetent, needy, or in some way deeply inadequate?

The fear of rejection becomes understandably intense when it taps into our own belief that we are lesser than others – or lesser than the image we feel compelled to project.

Rejection is a fast route back to childhood shame.”

How Rejection Benefits Us

1. It makes us high.

Despite our very normal trepidation, most of us subject ourselves to rejection repeatedly. It’s really the only alternative to shutting out life entirely. Rejection from an academic institution or potential employer sucks of course, but there is perhaps no worse pain, no more personal torture, than that of romantic rejection. A recent study at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine used MRIs to study the brains of those suffering romantic rejection. Surprisingly, they found that during periods of strong feelings of romantic rejection, the brain’s reward and addiction centers showed increased activity. Specifically, dopamine production was higher in college students who were dumped by their partners but were still intensely “in love.”

“Romantic love, under both happy and unhappy circumstances, may be a ‘natural’ addiction,” said [neuroscientist Lucy] Brown. “Our findings suggest that the pain of romantic rejection may be a necessary part of life that nature built into our anatomy and physiology. A natural recovery, to pair up with someone else, is in our physiology, too.”

I don’t know if it’s comforting to realize we’re actually designed to feel this way, but most young women are familiar with the feeling of an unrequited crush being considerably more worthwhile, even entertaining, than utter disinterest in any particular male. As Mr. Bennet said to Lizzie about her sister Jane in P&P:

Poor Jane. Still, a girl likes to be crossed in love now and then. It gives her something to think of… and a sort of distinction amongst her companions.

2. It motivates us to do better.

The Albert Einstein study didn’t reveal differences between men and women, which surprised me. Both men and women experience rejection, but men suffer romantic or sexual rejection more frequently and more publicly. That means more humiliation, adding insult to injury. How could there be any reward in that for males?

Macleans published an article by Jane Switzer on The Benefits of Rejection, attributing the lack of female entrepreneurship to less experience with sexual rejection:

“Why are there still so few female entrepreneurs? According to one MIT researcher, the answer is simple: it all comes down to sexual rejection. Chizoba Nnaemeka, of the MIT Entrepreneurship Review, says women aren’t as practised as men at being turned down. As such, she says, they don’t learn some of the skills required to strike out on their own in business, such as “confidence and optimism, sales and marketing, resilience, and trace amounts of desperation.” To pursue romantic relationships, after all, is to risk repeated rejection, much like trying to raise significant amounts of capital to finance a start-up.”

Nnaemeka doesn’t attribute the difference to biology, but rather to the fact that men tend to take rejection less personally, perhaps having become more accustomed to the experience. Males chalk up rejection to poor preparation, which motivates them to work harder. Women tend to get stuck in a cycle of self-doubt, seeing rejection as confirming a lack of ability on their part.

Clearly, there is some kind of reward mechanism at work in the brain – it may be that the pain of rejection makes future success more likely. But how? What are the benefits of rejection, and how can we tap into them without suffering a lot of additional “practice”?

How We Can Harness the Positive Power of Rejection

1. Accept the inevitability of rejection in life.

You don’t need to me tell you that everyone experiences rejection. Often the people who you think “have it all” are people who have endured more rejection than most. What sets them apart is their ability to use rejection to propel them forward. Their world view does not permit self-pity.

John Rowlinson, a life coach, explains why some people seem able to brush off rejection so easily:

“A confident person realizes that rejection is simply a part of the risk of living and that, in order to grow spiritually, we all have to take the occasional risk and step outside of our comfort zone. They don’t take rejection personally and often view it as a flaw on the other person’s behalf as opposed to feeling badly about themselves. In other words, they think it’s the other person’s loss.”

2. Embrace your personal rejections.

When you are rejected, don’t sit around wishing you could turn back the clock. That would only put you in a position of experiencing the rejection all over again. Don’t wish you’d never asked for what you wanted. That would just leave you wondering. You needed to be rejected, so that you can get on with what comes next in your life. Plus, there’s only so much self-pitying any of us can stand. I wrote a post a while back about surviving a breakup, and laid out how it works. After all the ice cream, the crying on shoulders, the endless analyses, the hygiene break, you will get sick of your own misery:

After a little while, you will get bored of all of the above. You will be crying your eyes out in your dark room, and you will catch a glimpse of the time. You will say to yourself, “Oh, look, Lost is about to come on.” You will wander over to the TV in the PJs you have been wearing for 72 hours, and you will turn it on. And at some point in the next hour, for just a moment or two, you will forget. And the healing has begun.

As Mr. Bennet said, rejection makes you the center of attention for a bit. Indulge in that. Nurture yourself and ask the people close to you for support. Then stop it before you bore everyone to death and invite more rejections.

3. Learn from rejection.

The best thing about rejection is that it can help you get better. Sometimes we’re rejected because we didn’t prepare enough. Other times we are rejected because we are not attractive to the other person. Whether you’re learning how to polish your game or that you’re wonderful as you are, there’s always something we can take away from a rejection experience. You may never know that you’re skinny and he likes ’em curvy, or that you remind her of someone she’d rather forget. You don’t need the specific reason – it’s not helpful. What you need to know in your bones is that you are not right for all markets. You’ll stumble into many dead ends along the way, and you’ll think you know what is best for you, but you’ll be wrong.

Remember that when a person says, “It’s not you, it’s me,” they’re usually right, even if they don’t know it. Lerner points out that a rejection often says as much or more about the person turning you down:

“You may even believe that the person who does the rejecting is automatically superior to the person who is rejected. Relationships are not some sort of bizarre competition in which the person who gets out first, refuses to attach, or suffers less is proclaimed the winner. Rejection can reveal just as much and often more, about the insecurities and fears of the person doing the rejecting.”

4. Give thanks for the bullets you dodge as a result of rejection.

Barton Goldsmith, a psychotherapist in California, says he was the strikeout king of college dating. Many years later, even with success, positive feedback and a thicker skin, he is still sensitive to rejection. It always stings.

“It has been said that “rejection is protection,” which means that you are probably better off not having this person in your life. Truth is, you can’t really want someone who doesn’t want you. Most people pursue those who reject them because it’s a challenge or they just can’t take no for an answer. I think it’s a waste of time — and why would you even consider hanging out or working with someone who isn’t 100 percent on your team?…Even if you’re still reeling from a recent rejection, you must be open to what is around the corner. And chances are it could be much better than what just left.”

This is the same point that Greg Behrendt made in He’s Just Not That Into You, when he advised women: “Don’t waste the pretty.”

It’s emotionally counterproductive to pine for what we cannot have, and it also wastes a lot of time. You can make something good happen for yourself if you get out there and get better at sensing a good match.

5. Take the initiative.

Steve Pavlina has a very successful blog called Personal Development for Smart People. In his book of the same name, he says:

“People often take circuitous paths to their goals to minimize the risk of rejection. For example, they’ll send out feelers through their social network to try to determine in advance whether their requests will be accepted or rejected. The idea is that if they can sniff out a negative response in advance, outright rejection can be avoided. If a positive result seems guaranteed, then action can be taken with minimal risk.

There’s really just one problem with [this approach]: it’s stupid...It’s weak, dishonest, and manipulative. People who go out of their way to avoid rejection only weaken themselves in the long run. They expend enormous amounts of thought and energy trying to manipulate circumstances…If you want something, ask for it. Accept the risk of rejection, and summon the courage to ask for it anyway. If you get turned down, you’ll survive. You’ll learn from the experience and grow stronger. If you don’t get rejected,  you’ll achieve your outcome in the shortest and simplest way possible. When you risk rejection, either you get what you want or you build some courage. Either way the outcome is positive.

There needn’t be any embarrassment if you simply accept the outcome instead of resisting it…take solace in the fact that you successfully exercised your courage. Don’t worry about rejection, just accept that it’s going to happen now and then.”

I’m a firm believer in Saying What You Need to Say. It feels great, even when you know you can’t get your way. There is comfort in being authentic, and known. You can hold your head high afterwards, not cringe in humiliation.

Conversely, fearing rejection means giving away your personal power (Livestrong):

“It’s the act of giving to others more power than I give to myself over how I feel about myself. What the others say or feel about me is the determinant of how I feel about myself. I am completely at the mercy of others for how happy or sad I will be. My self-satisfaction and belief in myself is in their hands. Fear of rejection is the abdication of power and control over my own life.”

6. Choose Actions in Accordance With Your Values

If you fake it in some scene where you don’t belong, you’re not going to make it. You will be sniffed out as an impostor and you will be rejected, repeatedly. Peer pressure is built on the power of fear of rejection.

From the Livestrong site:

“Fear of rejection is the underlying process in the power of peer pressure that grabs hold and makes people act in stereotypic, “pop” culture, counter culture, punk, hipster, preppie, yuppie, and other styles. They crave recognition and acceptance from the reference group with whom they want to be identified.”

The worst outcome when you’re pursuing goals that are not congruent with your personality or objectives is when you manage to go along and get along. Embracing actions outside your true nature will have you living in constant fear of detection, and you wind up spinning an intricate web of denial, rationalization and cognitive dissonance just to survive. That’s quite a toxic cocktail, and it’s not possible to be truly happy in your life with that strategy.

Be true to yourself. If and when that causes you to be rejected, give thanks. When you are not rejected, you’ll know that you have found your people, your home.