A highly qualified professional went after his dream job. Although not yet 30, “Paul” has a solid record of extraordinary career success and he was confident about being the winning candidate. Then he felt devastated when he didn’t get the job. Paul wrote me about the intensity of his reaction.
“I hate how this news makes me feel,” Paul said. “Not only did I miss out on a job that I really wanted, but the company hired someone against whom I stacked up very well.”
“Aside from frustration and sadness, I also have second-order emotions regarding this decision,” Paul said. “Namely, I'm angry at myself for feeling sad and frustrated. These aren't becoming emotions of a gentleman, and certainly I know rationally that they aren't the 'right way' to deal with rejection.”
That was a couple of months ago and Paul is feeling much better. He suggested that his struggles and our dialogue about career rejection might be useful to others trying to get over a career disappointment. These tips helped Paul, and we hope they might help you in handling career rejection:
- Know that pain is normal. As someone who has read a lot of history, Paul realized that all great leaders faced setbacks on their paths to glory. But that knowledge didn’t help him feel better. He was embarrassed about experiencing such pain from something that happens to everyone. “I understand your frustration and the other emotions swirling around,” I said to Paul. “This is a normal passage for all high achievers. Everybody gets rejected eventually and the pain is tougher when you are not used to it.” Knowing it’s OK to feel bad was helpful to Paul, and he chose to let go of those secondary emotions, like guilt for feeling grief.
- Write about your pain. A useful way of dealing with pain is to examine it. When you carefully notice details about your pain, you start to feel some distance from it. I suggested that Paul take notes about his pain. I asked him, “What does it feel like to be sad and frustrated? Describe your feelings precisely? Where do you feel stress in your body? What are your repetitive thoughts? Are you making it worse by projecting what this blow means for the future?”
- Share with your inner circle. A key to Paul’s rapid recovery is the support he received from his partner and a few close friends. “I found it really helpful just to share my anxieties with them because good friends who know you well can help you maintain perspective,” he said.
- Understand what you lost. When you face professional rejection, some of your sadness is a sense of loss because you don’t have the opportunity you sought. But sometimes people feel awful about not getting a job they didn’t even care about. They like winning and feel rejected whether or not they wanted the prize. It may help you refocus on the future if you can be specifically identity what really hurt. Are you mostly concerned about the opportunity, the prestige or the money? The more clearly you understand the cause of your disappointment, the better you will be at articulating and looking toward your next goals.
- Keep a gratitude journal. One of the best antidotes for negative emotion is gratitude. Research has demonstrated that when you feel grateful the part of your brain associated with anxiety quiets down. You can pull yourself out of a bad place by focusing on the things in your life and career that are going well. A useful exercise is to take a few minutes at the end of every day to write about five aspects of your work life for which you’re grateful.
- Be gracious in defeat. While Paul was honest about how he felt with a trusted few, for most of the world he put on his game face and avoided any show of disappointment. That worked out well for him, and one of the executives involved in the negative decision helped make a connection that led to a job that’s an even better fit.
In the depth of his despair, Paul asked, “What’s the silver lining here?” One answer is that career building is a learning process, and overcoming setbacks is part of how you move forward. And, I said, “now that you have this first big disappointment out of the way, you’ll start to build up antibodies for the next time, like with chicken pox.”