I got a rejection recently. This was not a shock, to be sure; I've gotten many and I will get more. I've almost begun to expect them. Nonetheless, even when I anticipate rejections they still make me feel awful. After I read the email, I thought through my reaction and pinpointed an uncomfortable feeling. I was embarrassed.
For those of us who go up for highly competitive opportunities on a regular basis, the danger is not merely that we will face disappointment. It is that disappointments will accumulate in such a way that we start believing something is wrong with us. When we audition or apply, we allow ourselves to consider that we might succeed. In other words, we hope. The feeling of embarrassment seeps in after bad news when that nasty little thought, "I'm not good enough," echoes back, "and I should have known better than to think I was." For me, the most challenging part of coping with rejection is resisting the temptation to turn around and call my hope foolish.
Say I get a rejection from one company after sending a recording I was proud of. I'll start to worry that something was wrong with the recording. Maybe I shouldn't be proud of it. Maybe I shouldn't use that recording again. Maybe, in fact, there's something wrong besides just the recording. Is something wrong with my sound, my presence, my body? My judgment? This shame spiral leaves me doubting myself, struggling to practice, and wondering if I should even bother. When we feel shame and embarrassment, our instinct is to hide. Think of hands flying up to cover blushing cheeks.
I can't name how many times I've heard advice like, keep knocking on doors until one opens. The message here may be one of resiliency, but I also think we should bear in mind that someone owns the doors we're supposed to knock on. The doors were made by people and systems according to pre-existing models of power and success — they aren't just there. Secure the yearlong YAP contract! Win the major competition! Get the fellowship! Know the important people! Sing the romantic lead! Publish the book! Because of how regularly these models are reinforced (in schools, professional settings, among friends and online) it's an uphill climb to divorce yourself from the notion that chasing them is the only way to validate your gifts.
Maybe even more crucially, we should empower ourselves to consider whether or not the thing on the other side of the door is something we ultimately want. In the case of my recent rejection, I had pondered this question at length before receiving the news. While I was open to the opportunity, I wasn't sure it was quite the right fit. Clarity of this sort will not prevent us from experiencing shame, but it can help us make space for our feelings, speak about them, and begin healing.
It can also help us get a clearer picture of what we do want. Even when a rejection suggests a need for improvement, we can empower ourselves to determine the conditions and urgency of that need. We can recognize that feedback is often geared toward making us more competitive (or more useful) in certain spaces. We can consider that those spaces aren't the only conceivable ones, and maybe not even the best ones for us. Finally, we can begin to recover a sense of hope that sees beyond spaces and opportunities that already exist to dream of what else could be.
Doors remain closed all of the time, and it can be tempting to believe we're trapped in a hallway of perpetual failure. But embarrassment is a distraction. It both stems from and reenforces the notion that we can't be valuable unless some person or place assigns value to us. It insulates the notion that we need fixing, and it makes us afraid of hope. To mistake any instance of rejection for proof that something is wrong with us is to give people who own doors dominion over us. It assigns them as the ultimate arbiters of what is good, and there is no such authority under the sun.