When Rejection is Protection
Stories inspired by no.
I was seventeen the first time it happened.
For months beforehand, I lived inside a fantasy, pouring all my hopes and dreams into what seemed meant to be. Then one day, I arrived home to discover a most unwelcome surprise — a small, thin, envelope bearing the logo of my first-choice college. They regretted to inform me that I’d been rejected.
I can promise I regretted it more.
Technically, that wasn’t my earliest brush with rejection (there were plenty of unrequited crushes to thank for that) but it was the first time I allowed an external judgment to crush me. To make matters worse, it felt like everyone knew.
Every fall, our school hung a huge map on the wall near the front office. Whenever a member of the senior class was admitted to a college, a little construction paper flag bearing their name and future school, appeared. Anyone who entered the building couldn’t help but see it — as well as gather round, point, and gossip.
As the weeks rolled by, the map filled with my classmates’ pennants, dozens of tiny flags bursting forth like a field of menacing triangular wildflowers. Whenever I walked by, I’d avert my eyes and hold my breath, hoping my own good news might be just around the corner. As we neared the end of the school year, I was the last member of the graduating class without a single flag.
Twenty years later, I’m still haunted by that map. I’m sure it was meant to be encouraging, a celebratory moment for those with something to cheer. But that doesn’t erase the part where it was also insensitive — added pressure during an already stressful period. I wish I could go back and tell baby me that it wasn’t personal. But like so many lessons, that would take time.
Some people have a healthy relationship with rejection. They acknowledge that they took a chance, something worth commending. They use it as an opportunity for growth. They solidify their resolve, march back out there, and try again.
At least, that’s what I’ve heard. Because I am not one of them.
Rejection is a part of life, along with its cousins failure, disappointment, and criticism. A 2021 study reported that the average job seeker is turned down by 24 jobs before hearing a yes. A typical day on the dating app Tinder sees over 1 billion profile swipes and 12 million matches — that means hundreds of millions of rejections that no one ever sees.
We are told that every mega-success is often preceded by years of invisible rejections. Oprah was fired from her first TV job, as co-anchor of Baltimore’s 6 o’clock news. The Beatles’ early career was marked by a series of failures, including being dismissed by the leading record company at the time. Stephen King received 30 rejections for his debut novel, Carrie, before it found a home (and a $2,500 advance) at Doubleday.
You cannot please everyone — not at home, not at work, not in life. But that doesn’t stop us from trying.
When it comes to sharing creative work, it’s especially impossible to find universal appeal. As a writer friend always tells me, the only way to guarantee a neutral reaction is by putting out work that is so safe as to be boring. And no one benefits from that.
Of course, the very same friend who dispenses this wisdom is understandably irritated when someone gives her books a less than stellar review. We lob the same advice back and forth, repurposed reminders about subjectivity and not taking things personally.
“Can you imagine if people were given the option to review the art in museums?” I joked.
“One star. Perhaps I’m missing something, but it was a blob.”
“Impressive, but red is not my color. Three stars.”
“Two stars. I mean, I feel like I could have made this myself?”
It’s so easy to see objectively when criticism is aimed at others. How I would hate for my friend’s massive accomplishment to be tarnished by the opinion of a complete stranger! But how do we adopt this clarity within our own situations? How do we let the words roll off us and keep on going?
I once worked at a company where an executive loved to employ the phrase “Rejection is protection!” Over and over, this maxim floated down the hall, a reminder that when things don’t work out, it’s often for the better.
Didn’t land a big client? “Rejection is protection!” Someone else got the gig? “Rejection is protection!” Sometimes, the protection is implicit. Other times, it’s harder to see.
A number of years ago, I shared one soul-crushingly bad date with a lawyer who, after mansplaining the highlights of my own neighborhood to me, opined on how to write a novel, an area in which he had lots of practical experience. (Sarcasm.) “I’ll tell you how to write a good book,” he said. “It’s just about sentences. Words and sentences. It doesn’t matter what happens in the story. No one cares about that.”
The night ended early and without fanfare. I returned home, grateful to never see or hear from this person again.
The following evening, I was out walking my dog when a message popped up.
“Heya Caroline! You seem like a super cool lady, but unfortunately, you’re not for me. Sorry to say I didn’t feel a romantic spark. Best of luck out there!”
Sometimes, rejection is without a doubt protection, but it is also superfluous.
Whenever I find myself grappling with hard feelings over some external judgment, I always think back to Brené Brown’s Netflix special, The Call to Courage. At one point, she talks about seeing the initial response to her viral TEDx Houston talk on vulnerability. As soon as the video was posted on YouTube, the view count exploded. Unfortunately, so did the comments.
“You can study shame, yet you are never prepared,” she says, before recounting some of the more vicious messages. “There was everything I had feared my whole life.” At first, she retreated to her couch, with Netflix and a generous helping of peanut butter. But later that day, she stumbled across Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote about daring greatly, which changed the course of her life:
“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
Choosing courage over comfort is not the easy path. But if you wish to live in alignment with the stuff that moves you, it is often the only way. Perhaps, when viewed through this lens, we can come to see our failures, criticisms, and rejections as positives — experiences we have in common with the likes of Oprah and The Beatles and Brené.
It can be hard to trust that things will work out when they’re still in the process of working. But safely in the distance, I often think about how grateful I am for the roads I couldn’t take. Thank goodness for the schools and jobs and dates that led nowhere, but helped me stumble, eventually, upon the right ones.
Sylvia Plath — whose novel The Bell Jar was rejected by American publishers and originally released under a pseudonym — once said, “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” I’m still learning to see the good in rejection letters. I may never love bad reviews. But I am accepting, slowly, that not only is it impossible to know what runs through the minds of those who pan us, it’s also none of our business.
Whatever you attempt — and whatever the outcome — may the pursuit be its own badge of courage. And may the unfolding path be its own reward.
Between a Rock and a Card Place is made possible and sustainable by reader subscriptions. If you value my work, please consider becoming a subscriber. It would be very much appreciated.