Five Tips for Handling Rejection at School or Work

by Naomi Watkins

It’s one of my most vivid memories from high school. I had recently transferred to a new English class and was immediately assigned an Upton Sinclair book to read with a written literary analysis to follow. I figured that I would do what I had always done–write the paper the night before and still earn an A. I’m not sure why, but this time, I decided not to read the book–perhaps it wasn’t interesting to me or I didn’t feel that I had the time to read it, but I relied on Cliffs Notes to write that paper (this was pre-Internet, people) and wrote a paper that seemed on par with the quality of previous papers I had written. I was incredibly stunned, then, when I received the paper back with a big C- scrawled at the top. The paper bled green ink with teacher questions and comments. My writing had never been scrutinized and criticized like that before!

We’ve all been rejected be it in love, in friendships, within our families, at school, and in the workplace. In school or work, maybe we…

  • Didn’t receive a promotion or raise
  • Were not assigned to a desired project
  • Didn’t get admitted to the school or program of our choice
  • Had our article/manuscript/book proposal turned down
  • Didn’t get yet another job after a successful interview
  • Lost a bid to a competitor
  • Had a coworker or boss take credit for our work
  • Were publicly criticized for a mistake
  • Earned an inferior grade on an exam or paper that we weren’t expecting

Rejections can hurt and be incredibly disappointing, especially when this rejection is a violation of our expectations or when this rejection greatly affects our plans or goals. Sigmund Freud said, “Sometimes when we are going through pains of rejection, it feels like a global conspiracy.” I can relate. I’ve been turned down for jobs even after job descriptions were specifically crafted for me. I’ve been flown out for interviews that I thought went well to never hear a yes or a no. I’ve had intellectual property taken and claimed as someone else’s. I’ve failed to receive applied-for grants and read horrible things written about me by anonymous former students. And the article based on my dissertation was rejected by several journals and re-written numerous times before it was finally accepted. I share all of this (and I could share more) to only point out that I am an expert at being rejected, but sometimes handling these rejections can be much trickier.

Recently I listened to an episode of the Invisibilia podcast entitled “Fearless” which explored the question of whether or not we could turn off fear. The hosts interviewed a man named Jason Comely who had been so gripped and paralyzed by the fear of rejection that he ultimately created a therapy for himself in the form of a game where the goal was to be rejected by a different person every day. He couldn’t just attempt to be rejected; he had to actually be rejected. Rejection, in this context, was success. He personally experimented with the concept for a year and then released it to the public as a game. He found that the more he got rejected, the less it stung and the more able he was to recover. He was no longer not acting due to the fear of possible rejection. It’s an interesting idea–and one that honestly scares me to put into practice, which is probably exactly the reason to do it.

But while I contemplate joining the rejection challenge, I have found some other ways to handle rejection. Some suggestions that have worked for me:

necessary step1. Allow for an appropriate grieving period and be kind to yourself.

It’s okay to be disappointed and hurt. Allow space and time for the loss. Sometimes I get impatient with myself and feel that a particular rejection shouldn’t hurt as much as it does. Take time to do things that you enjoy that are not related to the rejection. When I’ve had a manuscript get rejected, one of the best things I have done for myself and for that manuscript was to take some time away from it. Go on a walk or to a movie. Download a new favorite song. Visit a favorite restaurant. Get a pedicure.

2. Talk with (a few) trusted friends/family members/mentors.

It might be tempting to share your disappointment or rejection via social media or to talk to everyone you know about how you were unfairly treated, but both tactics could hurt you later on. Rather, find a few trusted friends, family members, or mentors who are willing to listen to details of your hurt and disappointment. They can provide comfort and perspective.

3. Try not to take it too personally.

I’ve been told to remember that the person who did the rejecting did so because something didn’t work for them. They were rejecting a request rather than rejecting you. In many work and school situations, we’re rejected in contexts where the rejectees don’t even know us personally. And from experience, it’s these more impersonal rejections that are easier to shake off. However, sometimes a rejection does feel (and maybe is) incredibly personal. Even then, it’s important to remember that there are additional factors that influence school and work decisions. Perhaps it’s a budget issue or there’s an internal hire or the magazine has already received several articles on a similar topic.

Success Iceberg4. Remember that you’re not the only one who has ever been rejected.

When we’ve been rejected, it often feels like we’re the only one who has had a similar experience. Remember my rejection list at the top? Most of the “greats” were rejected over and over and over again; however, we frequently do not hear these failure stories (especially when people are still alive). It’s successes that get recognized and most frequently shared, so it’s all-too-easy to compare our rejections to others’ successes.

5. Maintain perspective.

Don’t allow the rejection to control your future or view it as reflection of your self worth. It’s been helpful to me to remember that even Christ was rejected–and He was perfect! Knowing that He knows exactly how I feel helps me to pray to Him, which provides me new resolve, perspective, and strength.  Looking back on when I’ve been rejected, I can now see how these rejections have actually propelled me on new courses, have caused me to improve, or been blessings in disguise. I’ve also found it helpful to reflect on the eventual outcomes of past rejections, reminding myself that I not only survived them, but often came away stronger.

In hindsight that C- was one of the best things that happened to me; it caused me to work harder, to take seriously my teacher’s feedback, and to purposefully set about improving my writing. Even though we may understand that rejection is part of the process and an inevitable part of life, the fear of rejection can prevent us from doing what we want and need to do. It is what we do in response to the thoughts and emotions that come with rejection that determines how we feel about ourselves and the goal we’re pursuing.

One Comment on “Five Tips for Handling Rejection at School or Work

  1. For the first paper in AP English, I received the second-lowest score possible after largely being a straight-A kind of student. It was indeed shocking, but the excellent teacher mentored and pushed us to our potential. I went on to pass the AP examination and that class was one of the most important ones I had in high school to develop my interests, research skills, and writing.

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