Rejection is never fun, and it’s unfortunately a fairly common experience in the world of work. It comes in a variety of forms—like when we get passed over for a job or promotion, when our boss dismisses our ideas, when a client turns down a proposal, or when our colleagues exclude us.
Rejection can make us feel like we’re not enough. Not qualified enough. Assertive enough. Competitive enough. Cool enough. And we may experience shame and self-doubt as a result. Sometimes that shame and self-doubt will cripple us, making it seem impossible to complete another application, try again, or attempt to make friends. Other times, it might launch us into fight mode, motivating us to dig in and double down on our efforts to get noticed or feel accepted.
A recent experience of rejection made me spiral for a few days. I had been asked to submit a proposal for an academic conference—something I hadn’t done in years. Over the course of a few weeks, I cobbled together a proposal highlighting one of the findings from our recent research. Even though my academic writing chops felt a bit rusty, I felt pretty good about what I submitted.
Then the rejection came. My proposal wasn’t accepted. And to add insult to injury, some of the feedback was downright brutal. My initial response was to become defensive. I quickly created a mental list of all the reasons the reviewer was wrong and ignorant of the type of research we were doing. Then I calmed down, looked at the feedback again, and determined that some of it was actionable. But then there was that comment that went toward the jugular—“not scholarly enough.” That’s the one piece that kept me reeling—to the point of making me doubt my calling, wonder if anyone in academia would ever accept my work, and consider changing careers altogether.
It may sound a little extreme, but sometimes rejection can hit us where our armor is weak. It can pierce our hearts and make it difficult to get up and keep moving forward. So how can we rebound from rejection? I’d like to offer three ways.
Remember Your Potential
I read an article in Harvard Business Review on hidden workers—those people who are seeking jobs and dutifully filling out online job applications only to be screened out by employers’ resume-screening algorithms. The authors contend that these algorithms, which are designed to make the hiring process more efficient, can actually make the process less effective because it can overlook qualified people.
I’m pretty sure I’ve fallen prey to these algorithms on more than one occasion. But the problem wasn’t my lack. The rejection wasn’t about my not being enough whatever. It was about the algorithm’s (and thereby the employer’s) inability to see my potential. Seeing potential—in an idea, in a person, in a relationship—isn’t easy. It takes time, wisdom, and careful consideration. I get wanting to make hiring processes more efficient. Screening candidates’ applications one by one can be grueling. But noticing potential is worth it.
Think of a seed. It can be incredibly small—the size of a pinhead. But it can produce enormous bounty because of the living potential within. Back in the spring, my dad and I started tomato plants from seeds, and now some of my vines are nearing 8 feet tall and are filled with fruit that’s slowly ripening in the summer sun. It’s amazing to think that something so mighty began with something that could be so easily overlooked.
So if you’re feeling rejected this season—whether from submitting a dozen job applications with no callbacks or sharing your ideas and receiving feedback that they’re not good enough—consider remembering your potential. Maybe the rejection you experienced has nothing to do with your lack. Maybe it has everything to do with your hidden, overlooked, undiscovered potential.
Remember Your Calling
Rejection in the world of work can make us seriously doubt our calling. I remember long seasons of job searching that resulted in utter frustration because I could not get an interview no matter how many applications I submitted. Had I misunderstood my calling? Did God create me and give me the gifts and experiences he did to do something entirely different?
When I started doubting my calling and wondering if I needed to change careers because of the rejection I recently faced, I had to remind myself of one particular aspect of my calling—my current job description. My job is to do research that’s anchored in the real needs of marketplace leaders and to use the findings to create resources that will help them in their everyday life, work, and leadership. While I bring the rigors of academic research to my work, at the end of the day, I’m not called to serve those in academia with this particular project. And so it’s okay if some people in academia don’t find it scholarly enough. The work still has value, and I’m still being faithful to what God has given me to do.
However vague our sense of calling is, we can use it as some sort of north star to guide us in deciding what faithfulness looks like from one season to the next. But rejection can cause us to lose our bearings. So we need to pause, quiet the voice of rejection, and listen to the voice of God. We need God to remind us of our calling, to get us back on track.
Remember You’re Not Alone
We’re not alone in our experience of rejection. Once I was invited to apply for a job because two different people recommended me for it. I thought surely, I would get an interview. But I didn’t. And neither did about 250 other people. Other people are experiencing or have experienced similar types of rejection. Maybe they just don’t talk about it much because it’s too painful or they feel ashamed. Perhaps we can normalize talking about it so that we can empathize with each other and share in one another’s pain.
God also accompanies us in rejection. In fact, God has experienced rejection. 1 Samuel 8 recounts the story of when God’s people rejected God as their king. God had led them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, but they wanted a human king instead to lead them into battle. And Jesus experienced rejection throughout his earthly ministry. Isaiah 53:3 foretold, “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.”
God can empathize with us in our rejection. God knows the sting, the pain, and the grief. And God can comfort us in our moments of hurt. Perhaps we can spend time in prayer, bringing our rejection to God and lamenting over it.
We need all three of these practices to help us rebound from rejection. We need to remember our potential as people created in the image of God to do good works (Ephesians 2:10). We need to remember our calling, that God has a purpose for our lives that transcends the rejection we face (Romans 8:28). Look to Jesus who stayed on mission despite all of the rejection he encountered. And finally, we need to remember that we’re not alone. God has given us one another and himself to help us find empathy, strength, and comfort in our moments of need.
Beloved, rejection is terrible. And it’s a significant source of work-related pain. But it doesn’t have to destroy us. The three practices above can help us strengthen our armor (and our resolve) so that we can be resilient and find courage for the days ahead. Rejection will come again, but we can withstand it.