I have often made the case on this blog that we should avoid what I call “prophylactic pessimism”: expecting the worst in order to numb ourselves to disappointment.
But this raises the question: if we’re hoping for the best, but not necessarily expecting it, is there any way to prepare ourselves for coping with a negative outcome that doesn’t involve numbing ourselves to hope and disappointment?
I think so, though I don’t know if I’ve managed to find the right balance for this yet. Maybe I’ll report back after my next doozy and let you know how it goes!
In any event, here are my suggestions:
1) Set Up Some Things to Hope for Ahead of Time
This is along the lines of “Keep ‘Em Rolling” from 4 Strategies to Survive the Wait for a Response to Your Submission. Hope is one of the most effective tools for recovering from disappointment, and you can use this to your advantage. You can check out The Case for ‘Getting Your Hopes Up’ for more on how to make hope work for you instead of against you. Follow some leads, send out some new submissions, get started on that new project. Give yourself something to look forward to!
2) Schedule Recovery Time
“What do you mean, ‘recovery time’? What is this, open heart surgery?” some may scoff.
YES. REJECTION IS ABSOLUTELY OPEN HEART SURGERY.
It is a painful procedure whereby you voluntarily open your heart, remove a piece of it from your body, and hand it delicately to someone else; and then that person tosses it back at you, sometimes stomping on it beforehand just for good measure.
Of course you need time to recover!
Some rejections may only take a few minutes of recovery time. Others may take days, even weeks or months. You need to give yourself however much time you need–and by the way, the more you make space for processing your grief over the rejection, the faster it will happen. Obviously, you don’t always know when the rejection will come, so this isn’t really something you can plan ahead of time. But normally you might have a general idea of when it will happen, and you can maintain an awareness that in the few days after it comes, you may need extra self-care–whether it’s rest, exercise, meditation, a good long walk, time to hang out with friends, or whatever self-care means for you. More importantly, prepare to defend this time, because people may make demands of you and you may be tempted to comply just because “It’s just a rejection, it’s not a big deal.”
Well, no, it is a big deal and you deserve to take care of yourself. If you’re worried people will judge you, just tell them it’s a sensitive personal matter you’re dealing with and leave it at that.
3) Prepare Your Chocolate Arsenal (or Other Courage Reward System)
When I get a rejection for a query letter, a short story, a poem, an article, etc., I have a piece of chocolate from the special stash I keep for the occasion. When I get a rejection for a partial manuscript, I have two, and a full manuscript rejection is worth three. (I also have a sliding scale for critical comments/reviews/other unpleasant rejection-like things.) If chocolate isn’t a good idea for you for whatever reason, you can find another reward system–a warm bath, using a particular expensive ingredient or perfume or essential oil or whatever, or adding money to a jar that you eventually use to do something else for yourself later. Whatever it is, the idea is that it’s both a compensation prize and a reward for your having the courage to do something as brave as submitting your work.
4) Let Yourself Dream… and Doubt
I’ve written a whole post on why it’s helpful to fantasize about a positive outcome, so I won’t elaborate on that here; I want to emphasize that it is also important to let yourself be afraid of the negative outcome and imagine that scenario as well.
I want to borrow from another field of “creative action” to illustrate this.
Before I gave birth to my first kid, I took a childbirth preparation course called Hypnobirthing. The philosophy behind the method is based on the work of Dr. Grantly Dick-Read, author of Childbirth Without Fear. Dick-Read claimed that there is no physiological reason why healthy childbirth should be painful, and that the pain experienced in childbirth was only due to fear and tension, or other issues like anemia or dehydration. Hypnobirthing teaches women to release the fears around childbirth they’ve absorbed from the culture around them using self-hypnosis, breathing techniques, positive imagery, etc., with the idea that a woman who is not afraid of childbirth doesn’t necessarily have to experience pain during the birth.
Now–don’t get me wrong, I found the tools and information I learned very useful and was very grateful to have taken the course. I had three natural homebirths and believe the skills I learned helped me immensely.
There were a few things that bothered me about the sort of “reverse brainwashing” approach of Hypnobirthing, and one of them was that I felt like the word “pain” had been removed from my vocabulary. Adopting this approach to childbirth inherently pitted me against anyone who was skeptical of Dick-Read’s theory–which is basically everyone, especially women who have given birth before and were justifiably incensed by the idea that the pain they experienced was psychosomatic or unnecessary. I spent so much energy defending the theory and trying to change the way I thought about birth, I felt that using the word “pain” to describe what I felt during childbirth would be a sort of failure.
You may have heard of other, similar “mind over matter” approaches to various challenges in life: think positive, banish negative thoughts, don’t invite negativity in! The problem with these approaches is that they imply that you have a hell of a lot more control over what happens to you than you actually do. So when something doesn’t go as planned, not only are you not really prepared to deal with that scenario, you also end up blaming yourself for not thinking positively enough or releasing your fears well enough or whatever.
I am now very skeptical of approaches that don’t make enough space for experiencing fear, sadness, or doubt.
It is perfectly normal and natural to be afraid of childbirth, painful or not.
And it is perfectly normal and natural to be afraid of the pain of disappointment.
That doesn’t mean you can’t cope with these things.
Let yourself enjoy the fantasy of a “yes,” but if you feel a need to explore what a “no” will feel like–let yourself. Don’t wallow in it, but let it happen.
5) Try to Limit Your Focus on the Wait
I think I would be a lot more resilient and have an easier time sending off a zillion queries if I were able to just forget about them right after sending them. But I’m not able to do that. I’m not the sort of person who lets stuff go very easily. That’s just not how I’m built. And if you’re anything like me, you’re going to be thinking about that incoming response all the time. As in the previous section, I don’t think you should be actively forcing yourself not to think about it. But, if you find yourself focusing on it obsessively and this brings you anguish, it might help to take some steps to transfer your focus to other and better things.
I know there’s a CBT-type method where you give yourself a certain time of day to that’s dedicated to focused thinking about the topic that’s bothering you; that would never work for me, but it might work for you. A more mindfulness-oriented response might be to simply acknowledge that you’re thinking about it and gently bring your attention to something else when you catch yourself; in a mindfulness practice you generally turn your attention to your breath, or to your senses. (While we’re on the topic, I recently took a course on FutureLearn on mindfulness, partly with the thought of exploring how mindfulness techniques can be applied to coping with rejection. One of the tools they recommended was Smiling Mind, a free app that offers mindfulness meditation programs. I’ve used YouTube for guided meditations in the past; let me know if you try any of these tools and how they work for you!)
One concrete thing I’ve done is limit myself to visiting QueryTracker to once a day. QueryTracker is a super useful database of agents and publishers that helps writers search for agents and keep track of their submissions. My query list on there shows all the agents I’ve submitted to, how long my submission has been with them, and if anything new has been posted in their comments sections by other QT members. After a while where I found myself visiting it obsessively to look for new comments, I decided I’m only allowed to check QueryTracker once per day–unless I need to use it to research agents or log submissions.
What do you do to prepare yourself for a tough rejection? Do you have any strategies not listed here that don’t involve numbing? Tell me in the comments!