Let me begin with a moment of transparency: I have been rejected more times than I care to count in the last three months. A professor I wanted to work with on Comps rejected my request. In a moment of intense vulnerability, I submitted two stories to literary magazines for the first time in my life and was rejected by both. I submitted an abstract to a conference at Princeton on the Black Impossible, thinking there could be no better place for my scholarly work on Black superheroes, only to be rejected weeks later. To rub salt in the wound, I also dealt with a personal rejection, which resulted in the dissolution of a long standing friendship.
And that is just in the last three months. If I go back further, the list of rejections might seem endless, peppered with deserted abstracts, denials from grad schools, and papers with biting feedback that, despite the grade, made you feel as if you had failed. I think of my rejections in grad school, my most spectacular failure was submitting three different blog posts to Black Perspectives, only to have all three promptly rejected within five minutes.
This list not an invitation to commiserate with me on my failures. It is not an invitation to pity me. It is an attempt to be transparent about a fact of graduate school: you will apply for things that you will sometimes not receive. You will be disappointed sometimes. And I am here to tell you that it is okay.
Fortunately, the list of triumphs outnumbers the failures for me. For every misstep, I found two more to guide me in the right direction. I have to believe that life is about balance, that even if I am having a season of rejection, it means that a season of “yes” is coming my way soon.
So, if rejection is inevitable at some junctures in your life, how best can we deal? One way is to be open about what you are going through. It may feel that the best way to handle it is to hide the rejection letter in a box under your bed and bottle up the feelings. Short term, that’s reasonable, but ultimately not sustainable. I’m not advising you run through the streets screaming that you’ve been rejected; however, it might be a good idea to let a few, trusted people in to share in your frustrations. Sharing your feelings will make you feel a little better and, if you have the kind of friends that I do, they are going to let you cry it out, but then hype you up and insist that you try again. Sometimes, just hearing someone say that they believe in you can go a long way. Seek out those who will support and encourage you, but also make a point to return the favor when they need the same from you.
If opening up to people is not your style, I still recommend you find someway to rid yourself of the negative feelings that come with rejection so they do not fester. Try having a long conversation with your pet, journaling it out, or writing a strongly worded letter and then tear it up.
Make sure you allow yourself some time to feel the sadness, to mope and to declare you will never write/apply/submit/create again. Watch a sad movie, eat a pint of ice cream, cry if you need to, but then when you are done and you are ready, tell yourself that you are going to be resilient and that you are going to try again. Ask yourself, what can I learn from this experience? Be vigilant in this process. For example, one of the literary magazines I submitted to offered me some positive and helpful feedback on my story. I took heart in the fact that there were aspects of the story that they liked, but that they also took the time to identity the features which weakened it. I can take that information and go back to the story and rework it. Even if I never submit it anywhere else, at least I know I will have made it a stronger story than it was before I first submitted it.
While I have placed a lot of emphasis on getting validation outside of yourself (leaning on friends and positive feedback), I implore you to also seek internal validation. Affirm yourself. For me, affirming myself was taking an evening off from everything, grabbing a journal and a pen, and writing a long letter to God and then a long list of things that I liked about myself. I wrote that I loved my hair, that I was an excellent writer, that I was smart, that was compassionate and a go-getter. At the end of the list, I reminded myself that even if these literary magazines or conference committees did not want some aspect of me, it did not make me any less of the amazing things that I listed. When I am feeling down, I come back to that list and even add to it, because it is such a beautiful thing to be able to lift yourself up.
Finally, the last thing that seems to help me is to have a mantra, a phrase, or a few, that you can come back to that consistently give you energy. For me, those phrases are: “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing,” (Audre Lorde); “Someone, somewhere is waiting to read my words;” and “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalms 139:14). Put your mantras somewhere you can always see them– on your mirror, next to your bed, on your desk, or in my case, on my body. (I have “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing” tattooed on my wrists.) Allow yourself to be moved by those words.
There is no magic potion for recovering from rejection. Dealing with rejection is an act of courage and requires extreme vulnerability, courage because you choose to be resilient and vulnerability because you made the radical decision to share a sometimes very private part of yourself with those who have the ability to judge you. It takes time and a willingness to be as kind to yourself as you would be to someone else in your position. Allow yourself to feel everything that comes with a rejection, but then be resilient enough to learn from it.
And most importantly: always, always try again.
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