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The year after I graduated from college, my days followed a familiar pattern. Each day, I woke up on my sister’s couch and opened my laptop to a color-coded job hunt spreadsheet: Yellow meant waiting to hear back. Red meant rejected, usually delivered in the form of a polite but curt email. Each rejection felt searingly personal, an indictment of who I was as a person, an artist and a journalist. Green meant “accepted,” though that color remained elusive.
I knew I wasn’t alone in the constant stream of “we regret to inform you” messages flooding my email inbox, but it sure felt like it — especially because my Twitter algorithm kept “suggesting” I “might be interested in” tweets from people who got the jobs I was just rejected from.
When I confided this feeling to my friend Andi — someone I’ve long admired for her own achievements — she expressed that she felt the same and added some reassurance:
“Behind each success you see from others is a slew of rejections, too,” she said. “It’s like a ghost résumé.”
The image has stuck with me ever since. Now, every time I see a job announcement on social media or read a résumé, I imagine the even longer shadow of rejections that hover behind it: The jobs that might’ve been, the roles they dreamed of that didn’t quite work out, the red-coded fields on a spreadsheet.
There’s a reason this specter of rejection hurts so bad — and sticks around with us for so long. This strong emotional reaction may have arisen out of an evolutionary need to be accepted by other humans and to identify threats to our sense of social belonging, Mark Richard Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, wrote in a 2015 article about interpersonal rejection.
In fact, a 2011 brain imaging study from the University of Michigan showed that social rejection triggers activity in the brain similar to physical pain, despite the fact that those same regions “are rarely activated in neuroimaging studies of emotion,” said the study’s lead author, social psychologist Ethan Kross.
Psychotherapist Elayne Savage said social and professional rejection are similar in both their impacts and origins. When we’re rejected professionally, socially or romantically, it often takes us back to times of childhood when we didn’t feel adequate. Understanding the source of that feeling can help us navigate it — and learn from it.
“When we apply for something and we get rejected, we feel invisible,” Savage said. “And that's an old feeling for people a lot of times. We’re not feeling seen, we're not heard, and that’s a problem that comes up in every kind of relationship.”
Despite the natural tendency to avoid these unpleasant feelings, there’s been a movement in recent years to normalize and even embrace rejection in all its forms — social, romantic and professional. Inspired by a viral TED Talk by Jia Jiang, the #rejectiontherapy tag on TikTok has over 23 million views, with users deliberately seeking out and reflecting on social rejection to confront their fear of it. In recent years, social media users have increasingly posted their rejections in an attempt to normalize it.
Savage, who has written two books about the subject and nicknamed herself “The Queen of Rejection,” said she often uses this approach with clients to help them feel less isolated in their experiences.
“What’s so hurtful about feeling rejected is feeling so alone,” Savage said. “So I try to help people realize it really is universal.”
In this same spirit, we asked our readers to share a professional rejection that’s stuck with them — and what they learned from it.
Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Taylor Stuck, 29, Huntington, W.Va.
“In college, I applied for an internship in my dream city, where my high school boyfriend also lived. Our long-distance relationship was very strained, and I had the thought, ‘If I don’t get this internship, I will break up with him.’ It then hit me that was a very silly reason to stay with a person, and I decided I needed to end our eight-year relationship. I broke up with him, which remains one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I didn’t get the internship anyway. However, I did find an internship at a place that would later hire me and set me on the path I am on today, including meeting my current husband. It really solidified listening to my heart and gut.”
Virginia Williamson, 56, Shelburne, Vt.
“In the spring of 1982, I lost a three-way race for student body president at my all-girls high school in Marin County, Calif. Ugh, so painful! Two girls, Monique T. and Edith H., advanced to the runoff voting. I was totally devastated, but here’s the funny thing: That loss was a gift! I was encouraged to run for another position, which is essentially a student leadership role for boarding students. That was a lot more fun for me and a lot less work! Once I saw the winner herd cats within the student council, I really felt like I dodged a bullet. Could I have done the job? Sure. But did I have a much better senior year without all the work of leading student council? You bet! And that’s probably when I started to realize that not getting something can be such a bonus in the end.”
Paisley Simmons, 26, Hampton, Va.
“In my senior year of college, I had three intensive rounds of interviews and a writing test for a Buzzfeed internship, and I still didn’t make the cut. It sent me into a spiraling depression. I waited tables for years, feeling like I wasn’t smart enough to do the work — even though the facts (my degree, writing capability and worth ethic) suggested that I was then, and I am now!
I actually ended up writing about the experience a year or so after it happened. As a society, we assign so much of our self-worth to what we do and not enough to who we are. Think about it: When we first meet people in person, we ask them what they do almost immediately after greeting. Online, many people’s bios start with where they work or go to school. My reaction wasn’t about anything that Buzzfeed did per se, but how we measure success communally."
Ashleigh DeLuca, 31, Philadelphia
“I was 23, fresh out of college and working at what I thought would be a dream job. My boss left after a year and the person who replaced them was a shrewd and cut-throat manager. They regularly told me they didn’t think I was good enough to work at such a prestigious organization. At first, I busted my butt to try to prove them wrong but eventually realized I would never win my manager over. I finally left, but I never forgot that manager. I thought of them often in my following jobs and it pushed me to always do and achieve more.
At some level, that manager wasn’t wrong. I was so fresh out of college, I didn’t know any of the many unwritten rules of office politics. I was green and naïve. Her rejection of me pushed me to always do better: Spend a bit more time refining a project, take a new professional course, ask for more feedback. And now, I have successfully started my own business. Sometimes I imagine meeting them now and telling them, yes, you may have been right about me then, but look what I have accomplished now.
Rejection is still one of my biggest fears, but I have worked hard over the last several years to build my confidence so I feel empowered instead of crushed in the face of rejection.”
Rachel Bernstein, 21, Los Angeles
“I was rejected from the University of Southern California when I applied straight out of high school — but they left the door the tiniest bit open by telling me they had a transfer program that might be a good fit. For the next year as I was planning for a transfer, I was terrified of getting rejected from something else. I taped up my rejection letter in my room and looked at it every single day. I actually ended up using it as motivation, and I’m graduating from USC this semester.
I actually think it was helpful to experience that sort of rejection, because I learned I was a lot more determined and persistent than I ever thought that I could be. This wasn’t my only rejection — as a writer, I always knew rejection was a part of the process — but this will forever be the rejection that formed who I am.”
Donna-Marie Lacey, 73, Victoria, Canada
“I lost my right leg to cancer in 1967. It was a very different world then. At my first job interview afterward, I walked into the room in a smart outfit. The gentleman conducting the interviews took one look at my prosthesis and said: ‘There is no need to come any further. We wouldn’t want you as a frontline worker with that,’ pointing to my prosthesis.
His rejection infuriated me. I was a 20-year-old woman and I decided then and there that I would never allow that to happen to me again without at least saying what I thought that day. I knew I had the skill set, I knew I could ace any job I took on. I started working with the War Amputees of Canada to change the mindset that young amputee women needed to ‘look good’ if they want to be hired. That interview — or lack of an interview — changed how I looked at myself. I always got any job I applied for from there on out.”