“Wisdom is merely the movement from fighting life to embracing it.” ~Rasheed Ogunlaru
There were many things I wasn’t prepared for when it came to baby raising: the constant self-doubt, the vocal opinions of others, teething that never ended. But the real shock was when my ten-month-old daughter rejected me.
It is human nature to avoid rejection. Nothing is more painful than trying your best or giving your heart and being told it’s not good enough or unwanted. In my case, I went beyond avoiding rejection—I denied the possibility of its existence.
My childhood experiences led me to believe that rejection was the most painful outcome of any situation.
My biological father won custody when my parents divorced and told me that my mother didn’t love me. At the same time, his alcoholism and own painful childhood didn’t allow him to love me unconditionally.
My fear of rejection was so profound that fleeing the mere possibility defined every aspect of my life.
In my twenties I changed friends, jobs, and cities with the frequency of oil changes. I lived in eleven apartments in six cities on both coasts, I had three different careers, and I spent most of the decade single.
If I perceived that someone didn’t reciprocate my feelings, romantically or platonically, I would walk away. If work required that I move beyond my comfort zone or take risks, I would quit. I was out spoken and passionate, but unwilling to be vulnerable to the possibility of rejection.
My fear kept me small. I lived a mediocre life. Avoiding rejection started to suffocate me.
In my thirties, I found the courage to love and to declare myself a writer—two prospects that ensure constant rejection. It was worth it. I was confident that I was healed, until my daughter rejected me.
My sister-in-law comes to our house and watches my daughter two or three times a week; I remain in my home office but am unavailable.
Recently, when my sister-in-law tried to hand me my daughter she began to cry and didn’t stop until her aunt took her back. I was devastated.
She was doing to me what I had promised to never do to her. I expected this from a teenager, not my ten-month-old daughter. Not the infant that I had delivered without a single drug, nursed, made sure never had diaper rash, prepared all her food, smiled, loved, and cuddled.
This may seem like a small and insignificant event, but it opened a deep wound of pain and sorrow. The rejection felt like walking through high school in my underwear, having my boss humiliate me in front of the entire office staff, and being audited by the IRS—simultaneously. It was horrible.
I immediately wanted to withdrawal and cut myself off from the pain. Only this time, I couldn’t; a rejection had finally happened with the one person I couldn’t walk away from—my daughter.
Here is what I learned:
1. Feel the pain.
Do you feel rejected? Do nothing that distracts from the pain. Accept what you feel, exactly as it is.
In moments that I can’t physically escape, I turn to food. The day I felt rejected by my daughter I ate half a bag of chocolate chips and shifted the pain of my heart to my belly. After the bellyache was gone I was left with the pain (and the guilt of overeating).
For you the temptation may be something else: social media, sex, drugs, exercise, work—anything that moves the ache from your heart to somewhere else. Any one of these things can be healthy and enjoyable, but not at the moment you feel rejected.
In this moment, allow yourself to feel the pain of rejection.
2. Know that rejection is not about your worth.
My terror of rejection stemmed from my inability to accept how it made me feel. I would immediately judge my inadequacy and enter into despair. When it happened with my daughter my first thought was that she didn’t love me and I was a failure as a mother.
Feeling the pain does not mean that you affirm your worst self-assessments.
When you feel rejected, do you do what I do and tell yourself that you weren’t enough: kind, smart, pretty, funny (enough)? Do you review every potential error you made along the way and wonder what you should have done differently? Stop.
You will never be beautiful enough, smart enough, kind enough, funny enough, to avoid rejection, because rejection is inevitable. Everyone gets rejected from time to time. And even if you believe you did something that led to the rejection, the issue would be that specific action, not your intrinsic worth.
Rejection isn’t about who you are as a person. There is nothing harder to believe and nothing more important.
3. Challenge your interpretation.
If you allow yourself to feel pain and don’t spiral into self-criticism, you will be more open to alternative possibilities: maybe it wasn’t even rejection.
Most of the time what we perceive as rejection is something entirely else. Many people in my life have felt rejected by me, when in fact I was protecting myself from their potential rejection. My daughter’s pediatrician assures me that she was not rejecting me.
You might have been rejected for that job because they already have someone with a similar background, and they were looking for someone with new skills to add to the team.
You might have been rejected romantically because that person simply wasn’t ready for a serious, committed relationship.
We can never know what exactly was happening in the moment that we felt rejected; all we can know for sure is that nothing ever means that we are unworthy. And with that knowledge we can choose not to be defined by any one interpretation.
If we feel our emotions (pain, sadness, anger, whatever it may be) and don’t get stuck in negative self-assessments, then we can be open to other interpretations. It becomes less terrifying to take risks.
Embracing rejection gives us the freedom to be vulnerable and moves us to be gentler with ourselves. It increases our potential to love—others and ourselves.
If we push ourselves to feel, not judge, and challenge our interpretations the potential is great that our sense of self worth will grow and we will have the courage to risk what never seemed possible before.
This may mean that we will have even more rejection to embrace.
It is worth it.
Sad woman image via Shutterstock