An interesting article from Salon showed up on my Twitter feed this week, on the science of how and why rejection hurts.
Here’s a quote from it:
Humans are social animals; being rejected from our tribe or social group in our pre-civilized past would have meant losing access to food, protection, and mating partners, making it extremely difficult to survive. Being ostracized would have been akin to receiving a death sentence. Because the consequences of ostracism were so extreme, our brains developed an early-warning system to alert us when we were at risk for being “voted off the island” by triggering sharp pain whenever we experienced even a hint of social rejection.
Reading this made me think about all the different kinds of rejection we face in the modern era. Social media has given us a whole new arena to be rejected in. Ever posted a Facebook status and had nobody like it? Or been left out of an email loop at work? It’s easy to feel threatened–often needlessly. On the flipside, there is that cringe-moment when a friend or colleague blithely posts or says something that will elicit anger or disdain, and they don’t seem to notice. In my years working as a freelancer in different group scenarios, there would often be someone who seemed to lack that potential-rejection-radar. I’d witness an interaction and know it would be followed by conversations behind closed doors saying of the offender “he just doesn’t get it. And not getting it was a good way to not get an invitation to work on the next gig. In that profession, it really was like getting voted off the island, because it really did affect one’s prospects for earning a livelihood. One of the things that made those instances hard to watch, was that the group would almost never be honest to the rejectee about the reason for their rejection (maybe because we do feel rejection so acutely that we want to avoid it, even if it’s someone else’s). Without that information, it seemed the oblivious rejectee was destined to repeat his mistakes elsewhere.
So a faulty rejection radar can be professionally damaging, but there are other scenarios where being impervious to rejection can actually be an asset. As a writer, often the only path to success is to submit your work to many rejections in the search for acceptance. Stephen King talks about having a spike on the wall full of rejection slips. Desperate Housewives was rejected by six networks before being accepted by a seventh, and that wasn’t immediate.
This week an actress passed on a short film that I wrote, a production company passed an outline I helped create, and a literary magazine passed on two poems I submitted. It feels like a lot of rejection. But the truth is, I’m not being rejected enough. Because I’m not submitting enough. While I have a couple pieces of work out to a handful of journals (and by handful, I mean four), I have colleagues who tell me they send a single piece of work to dozens of journals. These are colleagues who are published, and who have ultimately won prizes with work that was rejected dozens of times. So while some with less confidence might go back to the writing-table, or even retreat all together, others will just run the gauntlet of rejection until they find the right audience.
So sometimes you have ignore those feelings of rejection.
But sometimes you need to pay attention.
The trick is know when to do which.