When I was 6, women in Iran lost their right to sing or jog in public. Just as this war on women was becoming our new normal, we found ourselves in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war. It lasted eight years. The impact of losing loved ones, the threat of missile strikes and the struggle of food shortages all added to our daily stress.
Many people became resigned and despondent or angry and irritable. At the same time, though, I watched a group of remarkable women who seemed to thrive under the hostile conditions. I observed their ability to become scrappy and use all the resources available to live. Faced with food rations, they experimented with new recipes. Faced with fear, they strengthened their inner comedian, telling jokes and making us laugh until our eyes watered. Inspired by these women, I wanted to learn to turn stress into fuel, too.
When I became a writer, it occurred to me that perhaps one of the most abundant “stress fuels” in life is rejection. Building and maintaining relationships was essential for our survival as a species, so humans evolved to fear rejection. I don’t know how prevalent rejection was 10,000 years ago, but if we look at our lives now, we can find it everywhere: on the playground, at school dances, job hunting, dating. And if you are a salesperson or entrepreneur, or have a career in the creative field, your rejection quota can increase exponentially.
Rejection is so painful that many people stop taking risks altogether, feeling like their efforts are for nothing and their goals are unachievable. The good news is there are practical ways to alleviate the pain of rejection and even use it as an ally in practicing well-being:
1. Improve your emotional granularity.
Making nuanced distinctions between emotions makes us more resilient. Through developing and maintaining emotional granularity, we can gather more data on how to adjust our behavior to circumstances. The bigger our palette in describing emotional concepts, the more nimble our responses become when faced with difficulties, including the pain of rejection.
Reading fiction and learning foreign words for emotions are some of the ways we can improve our emotional granularity. There are also emotional intelligence tools to help us build a larger palette through the regular practice of emotional self-awareness.
- Mood Meter helps you expand your emotional vocabulary and regulate your feelings.
- Inside Feedback builds self-awareness with check-ins, journal entries and measured progress.
- Emotion Wheel lets you track your feelings so that over time, you will be able to see your emotions, feel them and respond appropriately.
2. Perform a rejection ritual.
Rituals have been part of human existence for thousands of years. According to research, rituals reduce anxiety and improve confidence.
After receiving a painful rejection, you can take a page from one of my writer friends and begin a rejection ritual of treating yourself to a smoothie and a small plant. She’s lost weight and her office looks like a lush greenhouse.
A more powerful approach is gathering a community of peers, as our ancestors did, to join you in the “ceremonies.” Ideally, you receive so much support and encouragement from your friends and family that by the end of it, you actually begin looking forward to your next rejection. In this age of isolation, bringing people together not only benefits the recently rejected, but everyone involved.
3. Maintain a basic body budget.
When we anticipate bills, we put sufficient funds in our bank account. This helps us maintain financial health. Similarly, the body continuously predicts expenditure and uses available resources to match those predictions. Those of us with better body predictions are more equipped to deal with adversity, such as the distress of rejection.
Some of the most obvious steps in sustaining a healthy body budget are getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising. Think of a good night’s sleep, a nutritional meal or a workout as a generous deposit in your account. These healthy habits help balance chemical secretions affecting emotions, so when you receive that rejection letter, phone call or, worse, silence, your body is prepared for the withdrawal, to respond to the pain of rejection. Spending time with people you enjoy, meditation and laughter are other ways to fortify your account.
Of course, there are times when we cannot control our circumstances. That’s when the women of my childhood decided to change their perspectives instead. They transformed the food ration lines into poetry meetings, made the basement into a makeshift comedy club during air raids and sang while cooking. When the heartache and frustration became too much, they cried, teaching us that shedding tears makes our souls lighter.
By changing your perspective, you can change your relationship with rejection. Think of it as a workout. Sore muscles don’t stop us from exercising because we have learned to categorize the discomfort as a “good pain.” Similarly, we can see a “no” as part of the journey to getting a “yes” from even a better source. Rejection, then, becomes a good indicator for the number of risks we take in life. We build our rejection muscles, and in turn, rejection rewards us by making us more enlivened, engaged and resilient.
This article was published in March 2018 and has been updated. Photo by @jsdaniel/Twenty20