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Can Rejection Make You Resilient?

By: Liza Kotar

I walked out of the glistening elevator into the waiting room. The sun felt brighter, shining through the perfectly clean windows, on the 42nd floor of this downtown Seattle skyscraper. The silver reflections of the neighboring buildings, sleek office space, and bright, modern décor combined to make any conversation feel a little more serious and corporate. I felt the energy of efficiency and productivity in this dustless waiting room. As I walked through the halls to my interview, I felt smaller and smaller as the meeting rooms seemed to grow larger in size.

At last, the perfectly manicured recruiter opened the door and two head honcho ladies stared at me. Usually, I love interviews (yes, it’s true.) I relish the thrill of answering unexpected questions, thinking on my feet, creating a connection with someone I just met, and learning more about an organization.

However, something about head honcho lady No. 2 made me uneasy and intimidated. After a few calmly answered questions, I was asked to describe a time I led a team initiative effectively. For no rational reason, I froze. Suddenly, I realized I had continued talking but I had no idea what I just said or why I was still speaking. The rest of the interview was equally awkward, and I walked out defeated.

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Needless to say, I knew a rejection was coming. Rejection is one of those things that hurts because we care. If we are emotionally invested in a response or see it as a reflection of our achievement, rejection is an unwelcome outcome. However, after a great deal of thinking (and perhaps some over-thinking), I began to realize that I could change how I felt about the rejection. However, this process was certainly not instantaneous.

Most people fear rejection, at least a little bit. This is why being rejected often controls or informs our reactions and responses. In other words, sometimes we avoid risk for fear of rejection, and sometimes we avoid the chance to grow just merely to not be rejected again.

I do not want this fearful attitude for myself, and I definitely don’t want it for you. Seeking career advancement from a place of worry or unworthiness is a recipe for self-destruction.

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So, how do we re-frame this way of thinking? Rejection, although painful, can be really seen as just extremely useful information. You may feel valid pain as a response to being rejected because rejection can awaken some painful insecurities and fears. There is something we can do, however, to use it to our benefit.

If we see rejection as information, rather than a personal attack, we can create informed responses rather than irrational reactions. For example, when I got the rejection notice from head honcho lady No. 2, I realized that I had been given the information that: this position was not for me at this time. That did not mean I cannot land a position like this, but rather, it was not the right time, place or setting. In fact, it allowed me to explore a position more well-suited and with more career development opportunities.

This can be applied to so many types of rejection—professional and personal. We are getting new information when we get that letter that says “you were among many other qualified candidates, but…” It means we need to look at different doors and stand at the forefront of the unfolding future. Sometimes, when I get bogged down and come to a standstill, I like to think, “I wonder what this will open up in my life.” I am finally able to move forward with this future-oriented thinking—I am opening new pathways.

Someone wise told me recently, “If you don’t accept this challenge right now that’s being sent to you, you’re rejecting that growth.” Information is being thrown at us every single day, sometimes in the form of “rejection” or “failure,” but I think it’s really being thrown at us as knowledge and opportunity—we just need to step through that doorway.

The pain of rejection is often a result of how we label the problem.

As Americans, we love to diagnose. We love labels. Think about it, how much does the label of a product influence your grocery shopping? Or, how much satisfaction do you get when you can diagnose your crazy relative—“oh she’s just a narcissist…”?

When we apply this type of labeling to rejection, we short-change our growth. In other words, we actually restrict ourselves from seeing the opportunity in the situation. If we do not get the job or promotion that we want, we may tell ourselves it is because we are not organized, intelligent, or motivated enough.

Maybe that has a degree of truth. However, we could adopt a growth explanation instead of a fixed explanation. What I mean by that is—we can change the outcome by creating an explanatory style that opens pathways instead of pressure. It is not that we should not identify issues, but how we define them makes all the difference. When I saw that I had a plethora of new opportunities ahead of me, rather than focusing on a single rejection I automatically changed my perspective to see that this is just a moment in time that will contribute to my growth.

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On the one hand, we do need to identify and address any problems that exist. On the other, if we steep ourselves in heavy and negative labelling, this does more harm than good. We miss out on seeing someone in their fullness, with all their nuances. What I am suggesting is a holistic view with a realistic optimism.

So, the next time you are going through a trying situation, it’s better to redefine it in two ways:

  1. Make it a temporary definition instead of a permanent one. We lose sight of hope when we define things as fixed vs. temporary. For example, I am not organized enough to get promoted as a permanent definition of a problem. Instead, we can say, I am learning how to create more organization that suits my personality and advances my career. This is a good reminder to find systems that will help me develop.
  2. Look for the opportunity. For example, instead of saying “I am always making mistakes” you can say “I am always finding points of growth.” I am not saying to purposefully be bad at what you are doing and continue making mistakes, but by adopting a different mindset, you’ll release the pressure of perfectionism and find more confidence in your work.

Resilience is applicable to all aspects of our lives, but when it comes to being a resilient employee, it is reflected in our mindset regarding work and the workplace. By creating healthy responses to rejection and cultivating positive language towards ourselves and others, we can increase our resiliency and the resiliency in those around us. By changing a problem into a challenge, we can open up pathways to growth and transform stress into potential.

About the Author:

Liza Kotar is currently an international resilience researcher for the Fulbright program. She focuses on continuous improvement processes at Seattle Children’s Hospital and coaches individuals to develop a resilient work-life balance. She is dedicated to cultivating resilience through organized, inspiring programs, courses and content on her website - learningresilience.org.

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