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How to Stop Fearing Rejection and Start Learning From it

I’ve recently finished writing a book about my evolving relationship with an anxiety disorder. In it, I dive deep into my addiction to alcohol, my recovery, and my quest to qualify for the Ironman World Championship (have I told you about that?) while discovering that some of the most debilitating traits of anxiety can also be reframed into superpowers. 

For the past three years I have put my heart and soul into this book, braved the scrutiny of the editing and review process, read, rewritten, and revised until I became sick and annoyed of my own story. All indications are that the book is ready for the world. So now is the easy, fun, and stress free part… submitting queries to literary agents! Right?… Right?…

Well, not quite. Honestly, submitting proposals for my book about overcoming anxiety is one of the most anxiety inducing things I’ve ever done. How’s that for irony?

In all my research on writing and submitting proposals, I’ve read it numerous times. You WILL be rejected… A lot… Expect it, prepare for it, and develop thick skin. 

Noted. I’ve been prepared for this. I’ve made a list of a hundred literary agents whose interests align with my story, and I’ve prepared myself for massive amounts of rejection. Literary agents are rightfully particular about the stories they want. They want to represent what they believe they can sell to a publisher–something that fits their expertise and passion. It makes sense for both parties. Finding an advocate that has an equal passion for a project as a writer takes time, and a lot of “I’m sorry, but it’s just not for me.” 

Saying I’m prepared and actually being prepared for inevitable rejection are two entirely different things. My experience thus far has led me to learn a few things about my constitution as it relates to rejection, and anxiety’s role in my reaction to it. 

It’s a funny thing about anxiety. Even after all these years, it creeps up on me in different ways. New fears, new irrationality, and yes, even new superpowers.

Because of the variable requirements for submission among literary agents, my submission process is more of a slow trickle than a flood. I’ve been averaging about two to three submissions a day on my way to one hundred. After about a week, I’ve submitted about fifteen to twenty proposals and had two responses, both rejections. The first one I met with elation. It was a surprising reaction, but I was excited to see that someone actually sent me a personal response, even if it wasn’t favorable. 

The second rejection, however, affected me more than I thought it would. I found myself getting demoralized by what I perceived to be a “trend.” Now, I understand that two in a row is not necessarily a trend… and likely, based on the evidence, I should expect many, many more rejections in a row. But my little friend anxiety loves to put a magnifying glass over insignificant things. The worst case scenario is often the perceived reality for anxiety superheroes, and we have to work extra hard to persist through disappointment. We have to let disappointment be a driving force. 

Looking back, it is clear that I’ve always had a fear of rejection. When I reflect on my days as a teenager, I simply avoided asking girls out on dates because avoidance was better (in my warped thinking) than outright rejection. I can only assume that it is rooted in anxiety. The inherent lack of control associated with being absolutely vulnerable to another person while they give a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” is enough to send the hamster wheel of anxiety spinning.

This new experience querying literary agents takes a similar level of vulnerability. Putting my story out there – a story that I worked hard on, not only writing it, but living it – and risking many rejections is, quite frankly, fucking with my anxiety.

So when these emotions get stirred up, and we get to feeling anxious about how other people will receive our story, The best course of action is to simply give up altogether because we should always go out of our way to avoid discomfort, including giving up on our dreams…

Nah, screw that. That’s not what we should do at all.

As with any fear, we persist, we go anyway, we tell our brains that our decision is not up for negotiation. Immersion is an antidote for anxiety… with this caveat: So long as the immersion is empowering, or something from which we can grow. If we’re banging our heads against a wall and expecting the anxiety to subside, we’re fooling ourselves. Either that or we’re replacing one pain with another. Rejection is always telling us something. Sometimes it’s just not a good fit. Sometimes, it’s the delivery. In either case, we need to reflect, evaluate, and adapt so that we can learn and grow from the experience. That is how we can reframe anxiety into a superpower. We allow it to empower us so that we can improve and become better next time. 

I now have two rejections. I will persist until I get one hundred rejections if necessary, then I will persist some more, adapting, and making intelligent changes along the way.

It feels like rejection is something we’re all dealing with right now in one way or another, and anxiety is at an all time high. With all of the uncertainty in the world right now, rejection is a common theme. It’s never easy, but the effects of rejection are never permanent, and our response to it can ultimately minimize the lasting negative effects. As hard as it may be, if we frame rejection from a place of optimism and empowerment, we can grow from it. 

If we can learn to become comfortable embracing discomfort, and embrace rejection as an opportunity for growth, it can become a superpower, and cease being our kryptonite. Healthy immersion is the key to becoming comfortable with discomfort, and embracing rejection. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to try to embrace rejection, celebrate it, and show it gratitude for the education it gives me.

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