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Emotional alchemy: Change your experience of creative rejection

Learn how to deal with rejection and turn negative experiences into creative growth

Illustration: Lucia Pham

In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” The quote highlights the power of perspective. And centuries later, it’s still as relevant as ever.

It invites us to think about how we deal with challenging experiences so we can reframe them more positively. As the academic year draws to an end, we’re entering the uncharted territory of life after graduation. New beginnings mean dealing with the unknown. To make it easier, we want to discuss how to be resilient in the face of rejection.

Rejection: The primal human concern

Dealing with feelings of disappointment and rejection is an inevitable part of life as a creative. From negative feedback to unsuccessful projects to failed interviews, it seems like our career paths are full of potential rejection (and potential heartache).

Why do we care so much about rejection? Why does it send us into such a negative emotional spiral? Turns out, our brains are just wired that way.

In his TED article Why Rejection Hurts So Much, psychologist Guy Winch explains: “Evolutionary psychologists believe it all started when we were hunter gatherers who lived in tribes. Since we could not survive alone, being ostracized from our tribe was basically a death sentence. As a result, we developed an early warning mechanism to alert us when we were in danger of being “kicked off the island” by our tribemates — and that was rejection. People who experienced rejection as more painful were more likely to change their behavior, remain in the tribe, and pass along their genes.”

As Winch explains, rejection is there for a reason. If we actually let that feeling sink in and experience the pain, we will be more likely to change our behaviour and save ourselves. Rejection is there to help us develop and grow. That’s the positive outcome of rejection. The “when-life gives-you-lemons-make-lemonade” type of response. But that’s not always the case. What happens when we find ourselves unable to use rejection as a way forward and instead just wallow in self-pity? In other words, why do we sometimes take those lemons and just soak ourselves in their acidic, sour juice?

Here’s Winch’s answer: “Unfortunately, the greatest damage rejection causes is usually self-inflicted. Indeed, our natural response to being dumped by a dating partner or getting picked last for a team is not just to lick our wounds but to become intensely self-critical. We call ourselves names, lament our shortcomings, and feel disgusted with ourselves. In other words, just when our self-esteem is hurting most, we go and damage it even further. Doing so is emotionally unhealthy and psychologically self-destructive yet every single one of us has done it at one time or another.”

In other words, it’s our own internal dialogue that makes rejection so painful. Which brings us neatly back to our friend Shakespeare: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” If what he claims is true, then all we need to do in order to feel better about rejection is to just change the way we think. Is it really as simple as that?

Positive psychology and learned optimism

Not all of us are born with the same emotional skills. Some people will be more resilient and adaptable than others. But we can build on those skills. At least according to Martin Seligmann, father of positive psychology.

Positive psychology has gained a lot of traction over the last two decades with Seligman being one of the first to begin research in this field. He began by questioning the basic premise of psychology focusing his research on wellbeing, accomplishment and strength rather than unhappiness, failure and sickness.

In his research, Seligman argued the benefits of positive psychology. He said that genetics shape mood and personality but only in part. According to Seligman:

  • Human beings can change and improve

  • Individuals have signature strengths that can be identified and employed

  • Positivity improves health, work, creativity, and relationships

  • Happiness requires effort

  • Optimism is a learned skill

If you think that’s a bit simplistic, you’re not alone. Positive psychology has attracted criticism as well as praise. Researchers from other fields believe it’s dangerous to emphasize personal happiness at the expense of systemic social change and to ignore potential mental health issues in lieu of positive thinking. Even so, embracing some of the basic ideas positive psychology has to offer can help improve your daily experiences as a creative — and as a human being. We’re not here to suggest that all negative emotions should be brushed aside. We’re here to help you understand when and where reframing your thoughts can be useful.

An emotional (and practical) guide for dealing with creative rejection:

  1. Turn down the volume of your inner-critic Tempting as it may be to list all your faults in the aftermath of rejection or to chastise yourself for what you did “wrong” — don’t. It’s good to review what happened and think about what you should do differently in the future. However, try to separate fact from emotion. Whenever negative thoughts start creeping in, notice them, recognize them for what they are (a useless loop), and wave them goodbye.

  2. Connection, connection, connection Remember the way our brains are wired, always wanting us to belong? After rejection, our primal-brain makes us feel destabilized. That’s why it’s important to restore feelings of connectedness. Remind yourself you’re appreciated and loved. Try to grab a drink with friends or make plans for dinner — anything to make you feel grounded and not alone. Another great idea to help you feel connected is doing something for others: helping out a friend who needs a favour, volunteering for a cause close to your heart, offering your design skills for a charity. All of these will get you out of your own head, and make you feel connected to a greater sense of purpose.

  3. Do not compare yourself to others In moments of rejection we are at our most vulnerable. Avoid the very common mistake of comparing yourself to others in those very delicate times. Now is not the time to scroll Instagram and LinkedIn and fall into the famous trap of “everyone has their life together but me”. Remember that everyone experiences rejection. Yes, EVERYONE! We just don’t post about it online very often. Don’t believe that this only happens to you because it’s simply not true.

  4. It’s part of the process Creative careers aren't linear. Remember that rejection isn't an obstacle to your development, it’s actually an essential part of it. Rejection is a form of redirection. It can often uncover truths that we’ve not been paying attention to. Try and assess the reasons for rejection and adjust accordingly, identifying your strengths and weaknesses. It will make you a better creative.

  5. Take your time Give yourself permission to feel sad. Making space for unpleasant emotions is an important step in being able to move forward, so allow yourself the time to grieve your loss — no matter how big or small. How much time is enough? It’s very personal but you’ll notice by yourself when the time is up. You’ll begin to feel new emotions, ones that allow for optimism to surface again.

Change the scene

If it’s your creative side that makes you feel insecure at the moment, do something that will bring back your confidence and esteem in other walks of life. Go for a hike, cook something new, paint a wall or reshuffle the furniture at home. Anything that will get you into a different mindset to gain some perspective.



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