The application I’d submitted to join a leadership development program was not accepted. Unfortunately, the rejection email had landed in my inbox a few hours before I was about to give a speech. While I wasn’t devastated, my confidence was a bit shaken. Rejection stings.
Here are two tools I’ve discovered to become more resilient and bounce back after failure.
1) Do some “shame laundering”
While my initial instinct was to keep what felt like an embarrassing rejection to myself, I decided instead to build it into the speech I was about to give to a room full of millennials. I wanted to echo Melissa Gibbs’ reflections from earlier in the conference program. With both vulnerability and candor, Gibbs talked about her career and our often flawed perception of success.
She described the ways people can feel pressured as leaders or as “successful” people to have it all figured out, when in fact, everyone is making it up as they go.
The author Anne Lamott writes, “Never compare your insides to everyone else's outsides.” In sharing our own challenges and failures, Gibbs and I were both deliberately sharing our insides.
In some ways, that willingness to self-disclose was a deliberate choice, and in other ways it’s my default. After knowing me for a short time, licensed psychologist Heather Blier came up with the term “shame launderer” to describe me.
Blier explained that a key element of shame is that it’s secret. Because of my willingness to be vulnerable and share personal stories, people feel comfortable digging deeper into their own experiences. She speculated that my openness and affirming approach gives them permission to feel their emotions and share their experiences, which helps them process their shame.
Blier explains, “Shame has power as long as it is hidden or secret. By having you bear witness to our experiences, shame loses some of its power.”
This aligns with the perspective of emotional intelligence expert Mike Robbins who says that the mantra of shame is, “There’s something really wrong with me”. If we share our personal embarrassments and hardships with one another and actually become vulnerable, suddenly we see these experiences as universal. You’re not broken!
Next time you experience a failure, consider shame laundering with a trusted friend. The benefits of are twofold: first, you’re taking away your own shame’s power by talking about it. Second, in connecting meaningfully and vulnerability with another human, you’ll both feel less alone.
2) Reset your expectations: failure is totally normal!
A few months ago, I was frustrated with business development, feeling destabilized every time I lost a bid. My coach gave me this sales advice: you should be losing 50% of your proposals, otherwise you're not putting yourself out there enough.
I had been internalizing each rejected proposal or unreturned email as an indication that there was something wrong with me or the product I was selling. My coach’s way was definitely better.
I needed to reassess the rate at which I should be failing.
A few years ago, Princeton professor Johanne Haushofer published his Failure CV, which lists many of the jobs, fellowships, and funding he didn’t receive. He writes about how failure is often invisible, while successes are readily seen and promoted. He believes this disparity leads people to incorrectly assume that things usually work out for him.
When people experience their own failures, they attribute it to something inherently wrong with them, rather than seeing failure as a frequent occurrence for almost everyone.
As I read the rejection letter before my speech, I saw that I hadn’t been chosen, which was particularly painful, as many respected colleagues and friends had been admitted to the program.
One of my close friends had nominated me, and in a way I felt more embarrassed telling her I was rejected than the room full of millennials. That embarrassment disappeared when my friend shared that she hadn’t been accepted the first time she applied either. As I talked openly about my rejection, multiple alums of the program shared similar stories.
Even for many of the people who had been successful at this specific endeavor, failure was still a part of their story.
If you see rejection or failure as a normal part of the process and one that’s ok to talk about, it becomes less stressful.
Besides, just in the act of putting yourself out there, you become more resilient. The risk or actual experience of rejection still stings, but you can use the experience as a tool to strengthen your resilience muscles.
The rejection from the leadership development program was easier to bear in that context – it was just part of my resilience workout.
Next time I face rejection or failure– and there will always be a next time – maybe it’ll sting a little less.