My 10-Step Process for Handling Rejection

I waited 14 days only to get an email saying “We’re sorry, you’re item isn’t quite ready for …” insert destination here.  My latest design package was rejected because..well, it doesn’t matter, really.  Rejection hurts, no matter the reason.  Yes, a rejection for technical reasons is easier to take (a missing element, a bobble in the quality of the item, etc.) but my initial reaction is usually the same.  It usually starts with some silent swearing followed by a quick cycle of anger (how dare they!) followed by pompous posturing (Fine.  I’m just too good for these guys anyway.) followed by thinking about quitting (I’ll just do something else.) followed by depression (Why am I not good enough?) followed by a strong desire to crawl into bed and stay there for a week.  Yes, I actually go through that pretty much every time an idea of mine gets rejected.  And it doesn’t matter by whom: a new client, a marketplace, a friend or my wife.  In the past, I would stop after crawling into bed.  And I would almost invariably drop the project.  Really.  It took me years to build up a process for short-circuiting that cycle and moving on to acceptance followed by objective review followed by constructive rework followed by resubmission (unless the idea really wasn’t going to work for the current project).  

Here’s what I now go through in my head to make this happen:

1.  Realize I’m reacting in my normal pattern.
Identifying the pattern when not in the middle of things is key to this step.

2.  Accept that it’s okay to react like this.
Reactions are a normal part of me. It’s what I decide to do about them that makes the difference.

3.  Ask myself a question.
Do I want to continue reacting like this or would I rather turn this into a positive story in my life and resolve to move forward?

4.  Answer the question.  
Why is this a separate step?  Because there are plenty of times when I don’t want to answer that question and I simply default to stopping. Of course, by stopping, I’m choosing the first option in the question, but in my reactive state, I tell myself that I’m just delaying my response. It sounds weird but that’s how it goes sometimes.

5.  Review past successes and rejections.
As a part of answering question 3, I force myself to review past successes and rejections to see how I handled those.  In particular now, I focus on times where I decided to push through the pain and allowed myself to grow and thus turned a rejection into a positive thing and eventually produced a better design.

6.  Give myself permission and time to grieve.
When I decide to move forward, I give myself permission and time to grieve. Wait…this is just a design we’re talking about, right?  Yes, but it can hurt like something worse.  Maybe it doesn’t make sense, but emotions don’t always make sense.  They are what they are, and key to moving beyond the self-defeating emotions is recognizing and accepting them as a a part of me.  Once I’ve done that, I can begin the process of handling them and not allowing them to handle me.  I have to allow myself the space to go through my feelings, because they are real and they will block my path if I don’t give them their due.  These days I only give them a few minutes or hours, maybe a day occasionally, but not the weeks I used to give them.  

7.  Decide to accept the rejection and related criticism.
I do this to see if I can grow from it.  If I trust the source of the criticism, allowing myself to see my work through their eyes helps me grow as an artist by going back and reworking my design.  This is not an easy thing to do as I connect emotionally to my projects.  It may not be the best approach, but it is my way, and I must accept this in order to work successfully with myself.

8.  Review the rejection.
I sit down and reread the rejection as impassively as possible, trying not to react to the words. I try to see just what the reviewer is seeing and why they commented on it.

9.  Ask myself if the reviewer has valid points.
Sometimes criticism is on point and can help me grow, sometimes it is not and I need to stand up for my work and decide that I’m sticking with the original idea.

10.  Rework the idea.  
I take a fresh look at my design and try to see how it can be improved.  Sometimes it’s easy (change a bevel in the title to make it more readable, sometimes it’s difficult (make the design more “interesting”).  I have done this enough times now to know that when I rework an idea, the new result will outshine the original and I will be happier and more successful for it.  And I know from experience that when the new version is done, I’ll look back at the original and be able to see it more objectively.

Commit To Growing
This is where the real stuff happens.  I found a way to handle my standard reaction to rejection, a reaction that used to stop me dead in my tracks and kept me from growing as an artist and a person.  One other point here about pain:  pain hurts, regardless of the cause, and I know how I react to it now.  And the pain I’m experiencing at that moment always feels like the worst pain I’ve ever gone through.  At least until I allow myself to remember other times when I’ve been in pain and place the current pain in perspective relative to those other times.  Once I do that, and when I’m honest with myself, I see that the pain of rejection is really pretty minimal and there’s no point in allowing it to undermine my goals.  That gives me the strength to accept it and move on.  

How do you handle rejection? Do you have a process for doing so? What has worked for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Inside Ⓒ 2007 Robert See


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