A guide to overcoming rejection in your career

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Whether you’re new to the industry or thinking about switching roles, it’s highly likely that you’ll experience some kind of rejection in your career. Regardless of what form it comes in – from unsuccessful job interviews, internships or even being ghosted on email – if there’s one thing we know, it’s that rejection happens to everyone. There are, however, ways to make sure it doesn’t get the better of you. To help, we’ve rounded up some advice for how best to deal with professional rejection.

How might rejection appear in your career?

Rejection is never nice, but it’s also a part of life. It can pop up in lots of different places – from relationships to jobs, collaborations to auditions; but wherever you come across it, there’s no doubt about it: it hurts.

Your career is no exception, and there are similar ways in which you’ll experience rejection in the professional world, because it really does happen to all of us. For example, you might be rejected from:

  • An internship or job
  • A commission, brief, pitch or project
  • A funding opportunity or application

But there’s also the unanswered email, meeting, training or event, a co-worker taking credit for something you did, or being made redundant. One of your ideas might have been overlooked or left unchosen, or your award entry might not have won. Then there’s professional ghosting, where not only have you been rejected for something, but that person hasn’t even bothered to tell you about it. Sound familiar? Keep reading!

Why does it happen?

It’s not always personal
The first thing to remember – and to never forget – is that it’s not always about you. There are likely a variety of reasons why you weren’t selected for a role or opportunity – maybe there were hundreds of applications, or the company you applied to hired someone internally. Sometimes, it’s potluck. But it doesn’t always mean that you (or your work) isn’t good enough.

The competition is tough
It’s also worth taking into account that the past two years have been challenging to say the least. And, if you’re an emerging creative, then you’ve probably felt some of the pandemic’s after effects: one being that the competition is as fierce as ever. An increased demand for roles has inevitably left many feeling disappointed and disheartened – especially if you’ve been rejected more than once.

Although it sounds like a cliché, sometimes things really do happen for a reason. In retrospect, you might also find that the opportunities you were rejected for opened doors to others that were a better fit.

Why does it feel so bad?

Rejection can knock your confidence and impact your self-esteem. Not only do you feel sad, but you can also experience a lack of energy. Ultimately, it can make you doubt yourself, your abilities and make you feel like you aren’t good enough. Plus, it can be doubly as hard to not take rejection personally if you work in a creative role, where your work, values and mission are intertwined.

Rejection is a real, literal pain
But more than this, rejection also triggers the same part of our brain that is activated when we experience physical pain, so even the smallest rejection can literally hurt. In fact, in this TED article, psychologist Guy Winch explains how this stems back to being hunter-gatherers, where the fear of being expelled from a tribe could greatly impact our chances of survival. It’s this that supposedly led to the development of an “early warning mechanism” that could alert us when we were at danger of being cast out – AKA rejection.

The tricky side of this is accepting that not everyone is going to like, or want to work with you. Which means that, often, rejection is a large pill that will need to be swallowed in order to move on. Easier said than done, right?

What to do next

So you’ve been rejected, what next? Again, it’s imperative to remind yourself that rejection is a normal experience and can be part of your growth. If you can handle it well, it will help you develop a thicker skin and benefit you more in the long run. After all, every “no” is one step closer to a “yes”.

If you find that you’re getting rejected repeatedly, however, it might be time to start asking yourself whether there are some patterns emerging, and what you can do to offset them. Below are a few useful ideas to consider.

🙅 Don’t ignore your feelings

No matter what happened – a job loss, an unsuccessful sale or ghosting from a potential mentor – allow yourself the time and space to feel down and grieve the loss. It can be as simple as taking a long walk or letting yourself just be angry or sad.

But try to keep this in check, too. As psychologist Guy Winch points out in this TED article, “The greatest damage rejection causes is usually self-inflicted. Just when our self-esteem is hurting most, we go and damage it even further.” Being turned down can mean we become too critical of ourselves, so try to avoid this spiralling into any negative self-talk.

Make some time in your day to celebrate your wins. It’s no secret that self-affirmations work a treat, so carve out some time in your schedule to focus on your victories. Try writing down your strengths and feel good about what you’ve accomplished!

💬 Ask for feedback

It’s always a good idea to ask for feedback when you’ve been rejected, whether that be from an interviewer or friends, family and mentors. This will help you to see the bigger picture and might give you a few areas to improve or work on.

While you shouldn’t over-analyse, it’s good to think about what you can improve on for next time. For instance, if you’ve just been rejected after an interview, why not think about the criteria you might not have met – like knowing a certain programme or skill. Now might be the time to learn something new.

You might even want to sharpen up your cover letter or CV, or freshly curate your portfolio. Getting a new pair of eyes on all of the above can help you make some adjustments – even the smallest tweak could make a big difference.

🌉 Stay persistent and don’t burn bridges

In a lot of cases, a no no isn’t as simple as it sounds; it could also be a case of bad timing or more of a “not right now”. You never know when projects might spring up again that you will be perfect for.

While you might feel sad or angry about the outcome, it can be beneficial to keep any bridges open. It’s always worth letting an interviewer or contact know you’re still interested in working with them in the future, should the opportunity arise. Why not follow up with a thank you note or email, or add them on LinkedIn or social media.

🧠 Look after your mental health

By far the most important nugget of wisdom is to keep track of your mental health and how you’re feeling. Experiencing rejection is a hard part of any journey, and it takes practice to be accepting of its unavoidable waves. Sometimes, it’s good to write things down, express your feelings, or even talk to someone about it.

If the mood remains low and persistent, then we can’t stress enough how important it is to seek help from a professional.

🤗 Lean on your community

Don’t forget to surround yourself with a support network and community that will help you thrive. Having a mentor, too, can make a huge difference in your confidence, as well as encouraging you to reach your goals.

✨ Do something different

Do something that will bring back your confidence and esteem. Why not take up a new hobby or interest or if you're in need of more financial security, take on a side job. It can be helpful to get into a different mindset to gain some perspective.

Rejection can teach you a lot about yourself. While it might sting at first, know that you can use this moment in your life to move forward with more wisdom. Besides, the more it happens, the higher your pain threshold will be.

So remain persistent, remind yourself what makes you great and build a supportive community around you. Whether you decide to reassess or tweak your approach, up-skill or try something completely new, being turned down doesn’t have to remain a negative experience.

Written by Creative Lives in Progress