"Unfortunately, on this occasion..."
Rejection sucks. Here's how I deal with it.
It’s has been an interesting few months. I’ve got more rejections that ever - and for someone who struggles with rejection sensitivity this can be super tough.
I have to remind myself that it means I’ve put myself forward to more opportunities to get my work seen, and it will eventually pay off.
I have to remind myself to prepare for rejection, because it’s an inevitable part of artistic life.
I have to remind myself that although it sucks, it is not the end of the world (even if it feels like it at the time).
I have to remind myself that my work is valuable even if this particular juror / funding giver / curator didn’t connect with it.
I have to remind myself to keep going regardless, and make work that I’m proud of.
As Holly Whitaker writes in her recent post on, we say we value authenticity but only when it’s prettied-up, I’ve-figured-it-all-out and I’m on the other side of it sort of authenticity (which, coincidentally, one of the difficulties I faced when talking about my body of work Beauty Hunting - I’m really still not fully on the other side of it).
So I started writing this post while I was in the thick of it - and then, inevitably, put it in my drafts because I was feeling a little too down to share it - or to even to finish it. Now I’ m on the other side, here it goes.
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We all like to celebrate our successes, but not many of us speak about our rejections. At times, it can feel like you’re the only one getting rejection emails. But actually anyone who is doing anything at all to do with getting their name or work out there deals with rejection on a regular basis, and so I think it’s really important we all talk about it more - so we feel less alone.
The long and short of it is this: Rejection sucks. No matter how you look at it, no matter if you’ve experienced it a lot, no matter if you’ve had successes along the way. It just sucks.
For us creative souls rejection can be especially painful because we put our whole selves into our art/work, it’s an integral part of who we are as individuals, and so when you don’t win an award or get a grant it can feel like you’re being rejected as a human being and told you’re not good enough, and that your work - work that you poured your heart and soul into - doesn’t matter.
(Obviously this is not true, but this is what it feels like in the moment.)
Throw in some neurodivergence into the mix (and many creatives are somewhere on the spectrum) with its Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (severe emotional pain some ND folk experience when encountering failure or feeling rejected - however small it may be) and doing all this can become ten times harder.
And yet rejection is an integral part of any working creative life (obviously it isn’t so much of an issue is you’re just happy to create for the sake of creating and don’t plan on sharing the work with many others or earning money from said work).
I have developed a love/hate relationship with rejection. Or more accurately, tolerate/hate relationship.
I still very much dislike it, but I understand that without rejection, I can’t get the occasional “YES” to move my work forward. And for for every YES I get there’s about 10 NOs that I rarely talk about.
So, I try to actively desensitise myself to rejection.
I regularly seek opportunities to get my work critiqued and discussed via portfolio reviews, mentorships and artist peer-to-peer critiques. It’s a valuable exercise in toughening up a bit and learning to not take it personally. You learn to see learn WHY some things resonate while others don’t and with what kind of people. You learn that some people love it and others simply don’t get it and it’s okay.
Having had the opportunity to judge a photography competition and curate an open call exhibition myself I now understand more about the behind the scenes mechanics of these things. It really is less about individual photograph and more often than not is about how the work fits together. If there are repetitions of themes and concepts, then you choose the strongest ones. Sometimes good work gets rejected because it does not fit into a particular narrative. Sometimes one person doesn’t like the picture but the next one falls in love with it.
That said, I have periods of time when I know I won’t be able to deal with rejection at all.
Maybe the work/project I’m making is still in it’s infancy and it’s too early to start showing it or even individual images from it (and getting rejections or negative feedback) because it can affect my overall relationship with the project - and my confidence to complete it - going forward.
Maybe I’m falling into the trap of seeking external validation and ego stroking, and forget about the bigger picture behind it (getting features and awards - for me, at least - is simply a marketing exercise and a means to an end, nothing more… although sometimes I forget it).
During those times, I make myself slow down, hunker down, and look inward. I quietly work on my projects instead and choose not to share them with the world until I’m ready - and mentally prepared to handle rejection which will inevitably come.
And when I do get the rejections?
I allow myself to sulk and throw a pity party for a while. Sometimes I might even take a whole day off, take myself offline and to the sea or on a nature walk to clear my head. This recent rejection streak had me down for days, and it was the worst I’ve ever gotten - but I knew I’ll come out on the other side of it, eventually.
I used to delete rejection emails in a fit of rage. Now I save them in their own folder. It’s interesting going back sometimes and noticing how it stings a lot less - if at all - after some time has passed.
It’s still a tricky balance but that’s what gives me the courage to continue putting myself and my work out there.
How do you deal with rejection? Do you have any more wisdom to share?