"I still struggle with rejection," a colleague confided in me recently. She was explaining a variety of career choices including why she has bounced back and forth between being self-employed and getting a W2 job for almost a decade.
The comment really struck home, as rejection has been hard for me to deal with as well. In fact, after my tailspin from experiencing multiple traumatic events in 2016, every time I was rejected I felt like I was being stabbed in the heart.
The wind would get knocked out of me and I'd lose my enthusiasm for work and sometimes even life. It made doing the things I needed to do as an entrepreneur particularly gruelling and exhausting. Rebounding was a time-consuming and demanding endeavor.
I've worked with many leaders that also struggle with rejection.
I remember when a beloved employee quit my client's company. They left for completely personal reasons. But still, my client felt the sting of rejection.
It was the second employee she had lost in just two months and she felt devastated by it. We had to work through the negative stories she was telling herself - that she was failing as a leader before we could move into processing what she was going to do about the newly vacant position.
And that's really the crux of the matter. The way we experience rejection correlates with the meaning we make of it.
I have a friend that shrugs off rejection like a pesky fly. Sure, it bothers her for at most 90 seconds. But than her inner dialogue shifts her into equilibrium.
Her self-talk goes something like this, "It's ok. Can't win them all. Getting no's is just a part of getting to a yes. Hey, look, I'm one step closer to a yes, sweet! What's next on the to do list?"
When I first learned that it was possible to feel rejection without thinking the world was going to crumble around you I thought for sure I had entered an alternate universe. And my friends that can shrug off rejection like it's no big deal were aliens from another dimension. So naturally, I wanted to understand how this was all possible.
I have a hypothesis as to why some people struggle with rejection and others role with it that goes beyond just personality differences or changing your mindset.
You see, my friend who takes rejection in stride grew up with parents who emulated positive self-talk. They were able to remain calm, composed and emotionally available despite having four ragtag kids running around. She experienced true unconditional love; she was always accepted by her parents no matter what.
My upbringing couldn't be any more different. It was chaotic and emotionally turbulent. Meteorologists are more capable of predicting weather patterns than I could know what type of mood my emotionally unstable parent would be in on any given day.
What's more, I was routinely rejected if I wasn't happy, positive, upbeat, and smiling. Any negative emotions were not tolerated. Expressing anger was a one-way ticket for exclusion and isolation. Criticism was the currency of love. And my acceptance or belonging within the family unit has never been a given.
As children, we adapt to survive the circumstances we were raised in. When we are routinely faced with the threat of rejection from our family unit, we instinctually fear for our safety and well-being. And we learn how to cope so we avoid the threat. After all, we cannot survive on our own.
So, it makes sense that myself and others struggle with rejection professionally, as adults. For many parents, rejection is a widely accepted tool for controlling undesirable behaviors. Unfortunately, such an approach comes with heaping servings of shame, blame and criticism that become our inner dialogue.
"There's something wrong with me. I'm broken. This is all my fault. I'll never be good enough."
When the initial hurt of rejection is felt, we are quick to engage in a harsh, self-effacing story. The meaning we ascribe to the rejection threatens our sense of safety on a deep and visceral level.
So, it's no longer a matter of having hurt feelings. The rejection becomes a symbol for being incapable of surviving in this world. That causes our primitive brain to go into hyperdrive. What can you do when you've tried and failed in this manner besides double down on self-blame and criticism.
It's no wonder so many of us struggle with rejection as adults when we spent much of our childhoods fearing it from the very people who were supposed to love and keep us safe no matter what!
Now, I'm not here to write about parenting, but suffice it to say - there are ways to draw boundaries without fueling narratives around fear of rejection.
My therapist encourages me to reparent myself. And that's what all of us who struggle with rejection are invited to do. To love the wounded parts of ourselves that are frozen in the grips of rejection as though our life depends on it so we may separate the past from the present.
That's not to say we suppress the feelings of hurt. We acknowledge them without fueling them. And that's precisely where the story we tell ourselves comes in.
If you also struggle with rejection allow me to offer an alternative narrative, "It makes sense that you're feelings are hurt, rejection hurts. And you are worthy of love and belonging just as you are. You are more than enough just as you are. You are safe. You will get through this because you have what it takes to."
Then take care of yourself. Refuel your inner battery to make sure you have the capacity to go out there and try again. You win some, and you lose some. Neither of those define your worth, that's inherent. Possibly the hardest part is believing the simple truth that you are worthy and you matter just as you are.
Did this blog post speak to you? Then share the love and forward it to a friend! You might just be sending them the very message they needed to hear today.