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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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).\
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.
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