“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt
It’s not about you. It’s about them. It’s their loss. Don’t take it personally. It doesn’t mean anything.
Well-intentioned people have told me these things many times to soften the blow of rejection. And I wanted so badly to believe them, but how could I?
When someone doesn’t want you, it’s hard not to take it personally. They don’t want you. It must mean something about you, right?
When five college theater programs rejected me, when guy after guy ditched me, when countless potential friends avoided me, I thought for sure it meant I wasn’t talented or lovable.
I beat myself up, put myself down, and wished I could be someone better, someone people wouldn’t so quickly write off.
I tried to reframe it, to consider that it really had nothing to do with me. I knew this thought was supposed to comfort me, but something told me this wasn’t right—and it wasn’t my low self-esteem.
Eventually, I was able to look beyond the simplicity of black-and-white thinking and recognize a beautiful grey area.
That grey area was the key to bouncing back from rejection. It was the key to learning about myself. And it was the key to changing how I showed up in the world, and how I experienced it.
In the grey area, rejection sometimes is about us, but not about our worth.
In high school, I had tremendous potential as an actress and singer. I got cast in lead roles plenty of times, received abundant praise for both my dramatic chops and my comedic timing, and represented my school choir at a national competition.
I had talent; I know this now. Still, with the benefit of hindsight, I also know that my college rejections did mean something about me.
I didn’t take care of myself back then. My throat was constantly hoarse due to aggressive bulimia. And I was terrified of judgment, which made it difficult to be present and throw myself into my monologues.
But none of those things meant I was untalented or unworthy. They meant I needed to be kinder to myself, to strengthen my confidence, and to grow as a person and performer.
As a teen and in my early twenties, I had a lot to give in relationships. I was compassionate, good-hearted, and loyal to those I cared about.
I was lovable; I know this now. Still, with the benefit of hindsight, I also know that my inability to sustain relationships and friendships did mean something about me.
I frequently looked to others to fill gaps in my self-esteem. I obsessed about myself while blinding myself to their needs. And I was clingy, insecure, and unwilling to heal the pain that caused me to focus all my attention on winning their approval.
But none of these things meant I was unworthy of love. They meant I’d experienced tremendous pain and I needed to heal and learn to love myself before I could truly love or be loved by others.
Some rejections really weren’t about me—like when a casting director was looking for someone older.
Most times, there was a lesson for me in the rejection, some area where I could learn and improve. But the lesson never had to do with my worth as a person—only about my potential for growth.
This isn’t a mindset I adopted quickly or easily.
For years, I hated myself when I failed or it seemed people didn’t want me. Even the tiniest rejections would push me down to a dark, dirty place of “There’s something wrong with me.”
And it was awfully tempting to stay there. In a way, it felt safe. It was a place where I could hang out without getting shut out.
In accepting my inadequacy, I was free to shut down and avoid future rejections. What was the point of trying when I knew I was the problem, and there was nothing I could do about it?
If I plain and simply wasn’t good enough—if I was intrinsically unworthy of all the things I wanted—then I could stop putting myself in a position to have this disheartening truth confirmed.
Or, perhaps even more depressing, I could lower the bar on what I wanted so that it aligned with what I believed I deserved. I could seek out jobs that dissatisfied me, men who looked down on me, and friends who devalued me.
Because that’s what happens when you conclude that you’re unworthy and undeserving—you find people and situations that confirm it.
Like I did in my mid-twenties, when I casually dated a man who said I was lucky he spent time with me because I wasn’t really a great catch (while torturing myself by living in NYC but not auditioning because I thought I wasn’t good enough).
I know now that I am good enough. I deserve so much more than I once settled for, despite all the rejections I received. And I have a light I can share with the world, if I choose to kindle it instead of stifling it.
In a way, I’m grateful for those rejections. They enabled me to identify areas for growth, to develop confidence while making progress in those areas, and to tame the cruel, critical voice inside that hurts far more than anyone else’s rejection.
We all have a voice like this, and it has a knack for getting louder right when we need compassion the most.
When we’ve failed to achieve something we wanted, it likes to obsess over all the reasons we probably shouldn’t have put ourselves out there.
Really, it’s trying to keep us safe by discouraging us from putting ourselves in a position to be hurt again. Just like our friends are trying to protect us from pain by telling us it really isn’t about us.
But safe isn’t a place where we learn or grow. It’s not the key to feeling alive, engaged, challenged, or proud of the way we’re showing up in the world.
To feel those things we have to first tell ourselves we’re worthy of those feelings—no matter how much room we have for growth.
We have to tell ourselves that we can achieve more than we think, but we are so much more than what we achieve.
We have to live in that grey area where failures and rejections provide information, but not confirmation that we’re not good enough.
I’m not always open to that information. On days when I’m feeling down on myself, it’s tempting to interpret “no” as “no, you don’t matter.”
Even those days are opportunities, because I get to practice telling myself, “Yes, you do. Now prove it. Keep learning. Keep growing. And keep showing up, because you have so much more to give.”