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Coping with Rejection and Other Setbacks

1. A Serious Rejection

I’ve been a professional writer for decades, and while editors sometimes send my work back for revision, it’s been a long time since a piece was rejected outright. Well, recently it happened, and big time. The rejection itself was cruel – the editor not only critiqued the article itself, but the ideas underlying it, and in pretty harsh language – and, moreover, the essay in question was one I was really proud of, and had labored hard on.

To make matters worse, I had been “courting” this publisher (a liberal blog) for more than a year. I also thought that if they ran my piece it would not only give me huge credibility, but huge exposure – possibly even a career breakthrough. So there was a lot riding on this particular submission.

And, to top it off, this rejection came on the heels of a bunch of other professional and personal ones. So, taken all together, it was a depressing scenario. I actually wrote a friend/mentor a very depressed note in which I described the situation and wondered “whether I’m on the right path.”

2. Coping Philosophies

In a moment, I’ll share with you the actions I took to cope. But first let me share with you the three principles underlying those actions:

1) Objectivity. Even in the depths of despondency, I still strove for as positive, or objective, a view of my situation as I could. In the same depressed note in which I questioned my path, I also wrote that, “I am making improvements in all of the areas noted.” That objectivity is very important both on its own merits and because it provides a nucleus of hope that is empowering.

2) Took the situation seriously. I think the best thing I did was not to underestimate the urgency of the situation, or its potential to undermine me. I therefore took immediate strong steps to counteract the debilitating shame it caused.

3) Used the “boomerang.” This is a technique from Carolyn See’s excellent book _Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers_, in which she suggests responding to a rejection in an empowered way, such as by writing a note to the editor thanking her for considering your piece. _Acting_ empowered helps you _feel_ empowered, and counteracts the shame.

3. The Actual Coping

Now, here are the actions I took:

When I first read the rejecting email, I felt a vague disappointment, but the full impact of the rejection hadn’t sunk in. I mostly felt a sense of detachment or dissociation, which is a protective strategy. I almost never feel this way in my professional life, any more, so this indicates a very bad situation.

A few minutes later, I was less detached, and able to recognize both the partial accuracy and inappropriateness harshness of the criticism, as well as the fact that I had “failed.” Then I did start to feel shame: I actually got sick to my stomach.

I resolved to work hard to combat my feelings of shame and disempowerment. First, I boomeranged: I wrote back to the editor and thanked her for her feedback, and noted that it must have been a difficult note for her to send. (She actually shouldn’t have sent it at all, but called, given our professional relationship and the content of her communication.) I did briefly rebut a couple of her points, but that wasn’t the main part of my note. She wrote back thanking me for my “graciousness.”

I was still left feeling bereft. (This is when I wrote the depressed note – it would have been better to call my friend, by the way, but he was out of the country.) I had no idea what to do with myself. The dogs, perhaps sensing an opportunity, started clamoring to go for a walk, although they had just been out two hours earlier. Not knowing what else to do, and figuring that at least someone in the household ought to be happy, I took them out for a long walk. It was freezing out, and the walk didn’t really help my mood, but it didn’t hurt, either.

Then I did my daily errands, but as I made my rounds, I spent about $50 extra on treats for myself – food, flowers, some fun office supplies. Some people might see that as irresponsible or escapist, but to me a treat is just that – something you wouldn’t ordinarily do. It doesn’t have to be about money – a luxurious bathtub soak or puttering around in the garden can work just as well – but often, spending a bit of money does help, provided you don’t break the bank.

Treating yourself during times of crisis sends the message that, despite the failure, you are a good and worthwhile person. This is crucial because people who let their failures define them often are too afraid to take risks, and wind up with a procrastination problem or block. (It’s also important to treat yourself when things are going well, by the way - treat yourself as often as possible!)

Later that same day, I was boosted when another writing project – less important, but still worthwhile – was better received.

Around 11 p.m. that night, I started writing this essay. Classic, empowered boomerang: writing well _is_ the best revenge.

The next day, I remained disappointed but was able to mostly continue with my ordinary work as if nothing had happened. I also began to feel what I consider a healthy resentment over the harshness of the rejection. Later, I was to write the editor about that – stating my truth - and her boss graciously called and acknowledged his organization’s mistakes and apologized. At that point, the issue was truly in my past.

4.The Lessons

When I was younger and lacked strong coping skills, a rejection like that would have set me back months or even years. I think the key thing I have learned is to prioritize coping with setbacks, because if you don’t cope, the consequent guilt, shame, and disappointment can remain “unprocessed” and fester. Many people, either because a setback is too painful, or because they underestimate how undermining it has the potential to be, make the mistake of trying to ignore their painful feelings and push on with their work.

Also, if you tend toward negativity, you may make the common mistake of “over-blaming yourself.” Keeping an objective viewpoint in which I took responsibility for my own mistakes but did not assume responsibility for the mistakes as others, also helped me recover.

It helped enormously that the editor’s boss called me and took responsibility for his employees’ mistakes and apologized. Unfortunately, there are many people in the world who won’t do that. But even if you are blamed unfairly – especially if you are – you should strive to be very clear and objective in your own mind about, (a) what you did wrong, (b) what you didn’t do wrong, and (c) what others did wrong that contributed to the situation; and try very hard not let others foist their mistakes onto you. Friends and mentors can be very helpful in this regard, which is one reason you should consult them as soon as possible after a serious setback.

I’ll have some more to say on the important topic of coping with setback later. Meanwhile, I hope this essay has been useful to you. If you’ve got questions or are struggling with your own setback experience, feel free to email me at lifelongactivist at yahoo dot com.

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