What Rejection Does to a Writer—and How to Recover

Filed in When Writing Is Hard by on January 16, 2017 • views: 2539

Grow a thick skin, they say.

If you’re going to be a writer, you gotta toughen up. People are going to criticize your work. Agents and editors are going to reject you. Readers will impale you with bad reviews. Publishers will turn their backs if your sales are lackluster.

Rejection awaits at every turn, so you might as well get used to it.

Yeah. Well. Good luck with that.

Because when you get into the science of it, you realize that “getting used to it” is near impossible. The brain tends to register rejection in much the same way as it does physical pain.

We’d never tell someone to “get used to” having a black eye or a broken arm.

That means that for most of us, just “toughening up” isn’t going to work. Instead, we need to learn real coping techniques we can use to get through the pain when it happens.

loneliness-rejection-discouraged-2Rejection Hurts

Writers know the pain of rejection. We experience it at various times throughout our lives. Even seasoned writers will tell you that they’ve learned to deal with it—but they won’t tell you that it doesn’t hurt.

That’s because it’s near impossible not to feel pain when we’re rejected. In a University of Michigan study, researchers used advanced scanners to track chemical releases in the brain. They already knew that when a person feels physical pain, the brain releases natural opioids to minimize those pain signals. Could the same thing happen when someone feels emotional pain related to rejection?

The answer was “yes.” When participants experienced emotional pain related to rejection, the brain released opioids. The largest effects were seen in the same areas of the brain that respond to physical pain.

This isn’t the first study to find this connection. Others have shown similar results, with rejection activating the same regions in the brain as those involved with physical pain. In a 2011 study, for example, researchers found that rejection and being burned by hot coffee created a similar response in the brain.

Rejection has also been linked to increases in anger, anxiety, and depression, and found in some studies to reduce performance on intellectual tasks (who can think clearly after a rejection?), as well as poor impulse control. In fact, one study found that a rejection experience caused people to score lower on subsequent IQ and decision-making tests.

People who regularly experience rejection actually have weaker immune systems. If you’ve ever gotten sick after a string of rejections, now you know why.

Worse—it’s harder to recover from emotional pain than physical pain. We remember it more clearly, and tend to dwell on it longer. Just try to remember when you were physically hurt. Your brain will likely resist cooperating. But if you think back to an emotional hurt, the brain will flood you with the same icky emotions you felt the first time around.

That means a rejection can remain in our psyches, affecting our entire beings far beyond the initial event, wreaking havoc on our self-esteem and derailing our future efforts.

It’s clear when you look at the research that rejection is painful, difficult, and damaging. There are some that seem to cope with it better than others, though.

What’s their secret?

rose-rocks-rejection-2Some People Experience Less Rejection Pain than Others

In one of the studies above, researchers noted that some participants, when rejected, actually released more opioids in the brain than others. Who these participants were seemed to depend on certain personality traits.

Researchers had asked the participants to complete a questionnaire before the study, and they found that those who tested high for “resiliency” were the ones who produced more opioids in response to the emotional pain of rejection. The more opioids released, the less likely participants were to say they were in a bad mood after the rejection.

After another similar study, researcher Eric Wesselmann Williams, PhD, of Purdue University, said: “What differs is how long it takes to recover, and how one deals with the recovery.”

How do we develop this resilience? That’s a whole other post, but one way is by experiencing rejection, soothing ourselves to get over it, and experiencing it again. Over time, we become more adept at dealing with it.

That doesn’t mean we’ll get to the point where it doesn’t bother us at all, but we can get to the point where it doesn’t affect us quite as seriously.

no-rejection-sign-2How Do You Deal with Rejection Now?

To figure out what you can do to ease your own pain of rejection, it’s important to first take stock of how you respond, now.

Do you nurse your wounds and then regroup, setting your mind to trying again with the next submission? Or do you lash out in angry words at the editor or agent? Do you hire an editor to see where you can improve your work, or do you throw up your hands and bad-mouth those who hold key positions in the industry?

Those stupid people. What do they know?

Think back to when you received your last rejection and take note of how you responded. Realize that anger and lashing out can lead to more destructive behaviors down the road. Psychologists have found that those who respond this way are more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and self-destruction.

Next, review the following tips, and choose a few to try next time around—because you can’t give up. There has to be a next time.

7 Ways to Get Over a Rejection

Scientists have found that because of the way the brain responds to rejection, there are a few things you can do that you may not have thought of before. Along with those are a few tried-and-true methods that writers have used over the years.

1. Take a couple Tylenol.

Because the brain actually registers emotional pain as physical pain, pain relievers can help, at least in the short-term. In one 2010 study, researchers found that participants who took an over-the-counter pain reliever reported fewer hurt feelings after rejection than those who didn’t.

friends-women-fun-cell-phone-22. Connect with good friends.

Here’s where your writing friends, or just your good friends, can come in handy. They can encourage you and offer emotional support, which can soothe hurt feelings and help you get back on your feet more quickly. Positive social interactions have also been found to release “feel good” transmitters in the brain.

3. Exercise.

When you feel emotional pain, your brain releases opioids, but how you feel is related to how many are released. If you’re still feeling pretty hurt, exercise can really help because it causes the brain and body to naturally release more opioids. Going for a jog, or brisk walk, or even pumping a bit of iron can help further relieve that emotional pain.

4. Put it in perspective.

It feels like your work—your talent—was rejected. It’s hard to shake that feeling, but remind yourself that everything in the writing world is subjective. It could be that your story just didn’t find the right editor or agent.

Don’t allow yourself to assume you don’t have talent, or that you’re not good enough. It’s extremely easy for writers, in particular, to fall into a period of self-criticism. Don’t allow yourself to do that, as those thoughts will stay with you. It’s okay to feel hurt, but don’t let yourself make it worse with self-criticism.

sad-girl-rejection5. Accept your feelings.

Sometimes well-meaning friends can jump in a little too quickly with the “don’t take it personally” line. Yes, we’ve heard it before, and we want to buck up, but at the same time, of course we take it personally. It was our work. We slaved over it, poured our hearts into it, emptied buckets of time into it. A piece of us dies inside when it’s rejected.

Don’t expect yourself not to feel this way. Accept your feelings, and don’t think you have to sweep them under the rug. In fact, repressing your real feelings can make your recovery take longer.

“By feeling the pain of rejection,” says assistant professor of English at Western Carolina University Nate Kreuter, “rather than stifling it, we may better prepare ourselves to keep working toward our goals.” Allow the feelings to exist, and focus on soothing them.

6. Self-soothe.

If you had broken your arm, likely you’d put your feet up, relax, and allow yourself to rest and recover. We rarely do this when we’re emotionally hurt. Try to approach it in the same way.

Do something that feels good. Put on comfortable clothes, take a warm bath, spend time with a pet, go somewhere peaceful—think about what makes you happy and do it. You need to raise those feel-good chemicals in your brain.

You may even want to write down a list of things that will do the trick so they’re readily available the next time you need them. Then indulge without recrimination. Don’t worry about being selfish. This is the time you need to heal. Focus on helping yourself to feel better.

magnifying-glass7. Find evidence of your talent.

Rejection makes us question what we’re doing, so it’s time to fight fair. Gather all the positive comments you’ve received on your writing and review them. Everything your friends, teachers, mentors, editors—even rejections with positive notes written on them.

Don’t discriminate. Any positive comment will do. Remind yourself that there have been times in the past when someone did enjoy your writing. Use that momentum to continue.

Wait Until You Feel Better to Make Decisions

Once you start to feel better—and only then—you can take stock of what happened and start planning out your next step.

But don’t get in a hurry. Sometimes we think we have to dive right back in and send the manuscript out again, or get it to an editor, or rewrite it, or something. But decisions made when you’re feeling down are usually not good decisions.

Give it a day or two, until you’re feeling more confident again, and then you can trust that your plans for the future will be sound.

How do you get over rejection?

Kara Gavin, “Sticks and stones: Brain releases natural painkillers during social rejection, U-M study finds,” University of Michigan, October 10, 2013, http://www.uofmhealth.org/news/archive/201310/opioid-social?tidrss=research.

Kirsten Weir, “The pain of social rejection,” American Psychological Association, April 2012; 43(4):50, http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/rejection.aspx.

Pamela Paul, “Rejection May Hurt More than Feelings,” New York Times, May 13, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/15/fashion/is-rejection-painful-actually-it-is-studied.html?_r=0.

Guy Winch, “10 Surprising Facts About Rejection,” Psychology Today, July 3, 2013, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201307/10-surprising-facts-about-rejection.

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Comments (15)

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  1. Brian Wright says:

    A very real problem for all of us writers. I take solace in reading on comment forums how some writers saw 100 rejections for their query before getting signed to a six-figure book deal. We have to stick with it! Thanks for writing this!

  2. Fascinating, Colleen! I had never thought of taking an Aleve for rejection pain! But it does make sense, given the way our bodies react to emotional pain.
    I do have to laugh–an old fiance, who’s a sculptor, wasn’t famous when we were together. With every rejection, he’d say, “Those b**tards, and then laugh. He got over rejection REALLY quick. That’s always stayed with me, and makes me laugh to this day so I used it with each one. And laugh.
    Funny thing too–he’s now rich and famous. Lol

  3. This is fascinating — and so helpful! Lately I’ve been focusing on the evidence of talent approach — almost accidentally. In cleaning out files, I came across several of my published magazine and newspaper articles from 10-20 years ago, re-read them and thought, “Hey, this is good stuff. And I wrote it!” I’m going different directions with my writing now, but that evidence of past successes really lifted me out of my current rejection slump.

  4. Marina Sofia says:

    Three rejections in 2 days (1 for writing, 2 for jobs), so this is a very timely article for me. I instinctively chose a hot milk and honey drink last night (as if I’d read this already) and will now retreat to bed to read for a couple of hours with no pressure.

    • Colleen says:

      Ouch! I feel for you, Marina. Don’t worry—we’ve all been there. It will be different eventually. Don’t give up and glad you’re taking care of yourself. :O)

  5. Angela Noel says:

    Thanks for the post! I love the suggestions, particularly the “Find evidence of your talent” idea! I definitely feel a bit (or maybe a little more than a bit) low when I see the “Thanks, but no thanks” email. But, I’m starting to wonder what it would be like if I started throwing myself a “rejection celebration” instead of a pity party. The quote attributed to Edison,“I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work,” makes me think it’s possible to celebrate those rejections as ways NOT to get published and therefore positive. Probably won’t take all the sting away, but I love the idea of trying a different approach the next time my work is inevitably rejected. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Colleen says:

      Let us know if that approach works, Angela! Love your positive attitude, though I know with mine any attempt at celebration wouldn’t be authentic as I just had to get over the sting first. But maybe a soothing celebration?

      • Angela Noel says:

        I like the idea of a soothing celebration! I can’t tell you I’m looking forward to trying out a new mindset to approach rejection-mostly because looking forward to rejection seems super weird. But, I’ll share if I find a new approach works!

  6. Carol Roan says:

    Thanks so much for this post and the bibliography. I have been thinking about rejection and its relationship to survival and the fear mechanism, so this approach is very helpful.