The Search for ‘Good Enough’: Recovering from Failure and Rejection

Person in business suit sits on park bench on autumn day looking at papers Failure and rejection conjure powerful feelings of pain, shame, humiliation, and more.

Recently I realized I struggle with perfectionism. Fear of failure and rejection, for me, bring up feelings of insecurity, not being good enough, and disappointment. I find myself procrastinating on new projects or personal initiatives. I seem to be “studying,” “researching,” “thinking,” and constantly “talking” about what I’m going to do instead of taking action. I find that I stall and tell myself “it’s not good enough”; that way, I can avoid all the uncomfortable feelings associated with failure and rejection. Because let’s face it: they feel terrible.

Yet, in the education and business worlds, concepts of failure and rejection are often glorified. We hear messages (and I say them too) about “learning from failure,” “fail early, fail often,” and “rejection is just a turn on the path to success.” Blah, blah, blah. People can spout clichés all day long, but they don’t make failure or rejection feel any less awful.

As an entrepreneur, life coach, and therapist, I live in the gray/ambiguous world of hurt and confusion. Day in and day out, I work with men experiencing failure and rejection. In this article, I want to share common scenarios of failure and rejection; why they hurt so much; unhelpful ways we respond; and ideas for how to recover and accept “good enough.”

5 Common Examples of Failure and Rejection

  1. The job search: Employment searches are fraught with rejection. Imagine applying for 30 jobs and never hearing back. Or making it to a second round of interviews and then getting the dreaded “thanks, but no thanks” email.
  2. The old college try: You started your first semester at college and struggled with the transition. Maybe you were placed on academic or behavioral probation. Either way, you’re back in your parents’ basement and life seems pretty bleak.
  3. Can’t kick the habit: You give up on trying to stop or curtail habits that are negatively affecting your life, such as overeating, drinking too much, watching porn, or playing video games.
  4. Mental health disappointment: Mental health and emotional issues seem to be dominating your life. When the depression or anxiety won’t let you get out of bed, try something new, or complete a goal.
  5. Broken trust: You’ve been vulnerable and put yourself out there in friendships, romantic relationships, or in business … only to feel dismissed and/or betrayed.

Chances are you can identify with one or more of the scenarios above. So, if failure and rejection are so common, why do they hurt so much? Why do we want to curl up in a ball and never try again?

Because, sometimes, failure and rejection feel like death.

5 Reasons Failure and Rejection Are So Painful

  1. Adaptation: Rejection triggers the same fears that come along with getting kicked out of our family, tribe, or society. We are socialized and wired to avoid that, so we are naturally super sensitive to feelings of loss.
  2. The brain: Feelings from rejection and failure are on the same neurological pathway as physical discomfort and danger. In other words, the brain registers the physical and psychological pain the same.
  3. Repetition: When we think about it, we feel it again. Where physical pain is mere memory, we often re-experience and feel the psychological and emotional pain over and over again.
  4. Distorted thinking: We make it worse with irrational/distorted thinking. The stories we tell ourselves can be as harmful as they are inaccurate. Automatic negative beliefs such as “I’ll never succeed” only exacerbate our mood.
  5. Shame: Shame manifests when we internalize rejection and failure as part of who we are. For example: “I have failed because I am a failure” or “I deserve to be rejected because I am not worthy.”

5 Unhelpful (Negative) Responses to Failure and Rejection

At its core, perfectionism is about fear of failure and need for acceptance. We often don’t finish or even start so we can avoid the anxiety and possibility of being hurt.

  1. Procrastinating: At its core, procrastination is generally about fear—of failure, of criticism, etc. Putting things off that we want or need to do may temporarily stave off pain, but it usually only makes things worse. Not that you didn’t know that already.
  2. Perfectionism: At its core, perfectionism is about fear of failure and need for acceptance. We often don’t finish or even start so we can avoid the anxiety and possibility of being hurt.
  3. “Half-assing”: Not fully committing to something may actually increase feelings of anxiety and regret. In many cases, regret comes from looking back and seeing we didn’t give it our all.
  4. Avoiding: Watching hours of Netflix and YouTube, overeating or using substances, or pretending nothing happened tends to only increase the negative impact of failure and rejection.
  5. Bucking up: “Get over it.” “Man up.” These idioms do not give space to process and understand failure/rejection, nor do they allow us to process and apply lessons learned.

5 Steps to Recover from Failure and Rejection

  1. Stop the bleeding: The first step in healing is triage; determine your priorities and start with the largest threat. If there are things making your situation worse, then those are your priorities.
  2. Mourn: Let yourself feel all of the feelings, experience thoughts, and understand the impact. Give yourself time to address and “sit” in the pain, frustration, hope, etc. By “give yourself time,” I mean it: Carve out 5 to 10 minutes in your daily schedule to silently reflect and explore the emotions.
  3. Practice remorse over regret: Regret is a painful process of ruminating over what you “should” have done. It may increase anger, shame, and anxiety. Remorse involves admitting your mistakes and taking responsibility for your actions (what you can control).
  4. Forgive (yourself and others): Once we start to separate our mistakes from our identity (we are not our failure), we can start to take ownership of our situation. We can apologize for mistakes/wrongs, take action to make things right, and start to “let go” of failure/rejection.
  5. Learn and adapt: Reflect. Question. Process. Learn. What went well? What went wrong? What would you do differently? What could you control and what couldn’t you control? Is the failure/rejection permanent or can you try again? Was the rejection/failure part of something or was it the whole thing? Then adjust, evolve, and update your approach. This might be a good time to pivot (change course or direction while firmly grounded).\

Conclusion

Failure and rejection stir up all kinds of unpleasant feelings. Understanding why they’re painful can help us form productive responses and move toward recovery and healing. If you struggle with failure and rejection and want nonjudgmental guidance, contact a licensed therapist.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Scott Treas, Life Coaching and Therapy, therapist in Littleton, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 4 comments
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  • Mika

    Mika

    October 11th, 2017 at 11:45 AM

    I need to share this with my husband. He recently lost his job and the new job search has been very frustrating for both of us. Living off of unemployment benefits is definitely not all it’s cracked up to be. Sure it is a little bit of income but nowhere near what we have been used to and it makes him feel terrible even though in the long run losing the job was probably a good thing for him. The environment was toxic but at least he had that job, felt like he was contributing and providing and I know that right now he is not feeling that way at all.

  • frank

    frank

    October 12th, 2017 at 11:09 AM

    In so many ways we have all been made to feel like the effort isn’t good enough at all if you don’t make it to the top. I know that there are people who are against every kid getting a trophy in sports, they don’t believe in the A for the effort, but I am a firm believer that giving someone this confidence when they are young is only going to encourage the to want to achieve even more once they get older. Disappointment goes along with life and they need to be taught that too, but I don’t know when we got into the mentality that if you aren’t number one, it wasn’t even worth it.

  • Cricket

    Cricket

    October 13th, 2017 at 12:17 PM

    When my long term boyfriend broke up with me last month I was just devastated. How could he leave me when we had been together for so long? I felt that shame and rejection and have had a hard time shaking the belief that this is all about me, that I am the one that did these terrible things that drove him away from me.

  • Delia

    Delia

    October 16th, 2017 at 7:48 AM

    We have been so upset with our son over flunking out of college after two semester and having to move back home. He is more than capable of doing the work but he got a little more caught up in the social aspect of things than he probably should have and his grades suffered as a result of that. We love him and only want him to do well, but even though I have not shared this with him it is pretty disappointing to us that he is now enrolled at local community college. I guess we just always expected so much more from him, and now here he is doing what he swore that he would never do.

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