4 tips to quit taking rejection so personally

*Note:  The featured image is a partially blurred screenshot from an email informing me that a manuscript I recently (notice the date) submitted got rejected.   

I cried the first time a paper of mine got rejected.  I sat at my kitchen table and actually cried.  I also cried the first time I applied for an award I genuinely thought I deserved and didn’t get it.  Truth be told, I cried after several papers got rejected and pretty much every time I applied for an award I didn’t get.  Until fairly recently, that is.  When I realized that none of it is a personal attack on myself or my abilities.

A while back I told you to read The Four Agreements.  Have you done it yet?  Why not?!?!  Part of the book is about personalization – and that speaks to me (and probably you, too, if you also identify as a rejection-crier).  It’s so easily said – don’t take it personally.  Well okay, but how the hell do you actually do that?  It feels SO DAMN PERSONAL.  It feels like someone is sitting there telling you you’re not good enough.  Your writing isn’t good enough.  Your experiments weren’t good enough.  You don’t have enough publications.  But, whether you realize it or not, nothing anyone else ever does or says is ever about you.  Even when they say it is, it’s not.  So here are four things to keep in mind when you find yourself taking rejection personally in science.

  1. Try to put yourself in their shoes.  Think about a time you were mad at someone for something trivial.  Eventually, maybe after some yelling or crying, you came to the conclusion that you were mad about X but freaked out about Y.  What about all those times you said something negative about a stranger’s appearance?  The stranger did nothing – most likely you said those things to feel better about yourself or to get a laugh from some buddies and, therefore, feel better about yourself.  Even when someone says something really mean that hurts your feelings a great deal – if you dig deep enough, the matter is really about themselves, not you.  Anger stems from fear and we’re all afraid of something.  Whether it comes out as jealousy, pettiness, over-achieving, attention-seeking….it all stems from fear.  Fear that you aren’t worthy and that you aren’t good enough.  Realizing how often you project these fears on others helps you realize that others are projecting theirs onto you.
  2. Make it a habit.  Not taking things personally has only recently become a regular thing.  At first I had to walk myself through the thought process to arrive at “it’s not about me”.  And I don’t take breaks.  Even when it hurts or annoys me to death, I make myself walk through the steps until it became second nature – and even then, I still have to do regular check ins to remind myself.  For example, I was dealing with a difficult colleague.  It seemed like every time we talked it turned into an argument and the arguments rarely went anywhere.  They were circular and illogical and never ended up resolving anything.  After some (calm) digging, it came out that they were terrified about grad school.  I made it look so easy and they just couldn’t understand how I didn’t spend my days freaking out.  How could I just breeze through every loophole without incidence?
  3. Quit making assumptions.  First off, I didn’t.  I am honestly surprised my body still produces tears.  I thought for sure I depleted my lifetime supply during my MS.  I’m also fairly certain that half my muscle tone is purely from anxiety attacks (Body by Stress).  But all those happened behind closed doors.  So this fellow student didn’t ask questions and didn’t seek help – but instead took my apparent ease as a personal attack to indicate that they weren’t strong enough to handle it.  My reaction was then taking their insecurities as a personal attack on myself and having an overly difficult time dealing with them.  We were both make many assumptions about each other without ever talking and it resulted in completely unnecessary stress and anxiety.  Had we both asked simple, clarifying questions, and focused on ourselves and not how others were apparently attacking us, we would have been much better off.
  4. Recognize that everyone is looking out for themselves.  This extends to your advisors, mentors, professors, students, reviewers, award committees and so on.  I hear so many students beating themselves up because their advisor tore apart a rough draft of their thesis.  They think their advisor hates them.  They think their professor is trying to get them to leave the class.  They think they’re being told they’re not good enough to be a scientist.  Those track changes that make you think you should just change your default font color to red  – they’re meant to make you a better scientist.  That reviewer who tore your pub apart – they’re also trying to make you a better scientist (except that damn reviewer 3, they’re just jerks).  When you go out “into the world” as a professional, people will ask you “who did you do your MS/PhD with?” and “what department did you come from?”  Whether they recognize and verbalize it, your advisors and mentors are concerned with how their students reflect back on their abilities as a scientist (there’s that darn fear again).  Nobody wants to be represented by someone with poor grammar and dangling participles (my personal favorite).  They want to put good students into those positions.  They want people to know that they were a good mentor.  You are that proof and you are their legacy.

So you see, even when it feels like the whole world is dragging you down, it’s still about them.  And the quicker you figure out a way to brush off rejection and move on, the happier you’ll be in science.

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