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Taking a “No” in Work and Life

Taking a “No” in Work and Life

As an agency with a sales team, we are no strangers to hearing a “no.” It’s never easy. Sticks and stones may break bones, but that two-letter word can shatter spirits. Rejection is a bitter pill to swallow, and while there’s no easy way to erase the icky feelings—be it from getting passed over for a job, denied a sale, fired, broken up with, or hearing a critical comment from a loved one—it is possible to take the “no” as graciously as possible. The challenge is to resist some of the negative beliefs about ourselves that are stirred up by these events.

Rejection has far-reaching implications. A 2002 study found that feelings of rejection temporarily lowered intelligence. After study participants were told that they would most likely end up alone in life, they scored significantly lower on an I.Q. test than those who did not receive the rejecting message.

Another study from the same year found that rejection triggered self-defeating behaviors, such as taking irresponsible risks and choosing unhealthy foods over healthy ones. To be fair, it was already common knowledge that people tend to favor sweets and other “comfort foods” over healthy options when feeling down.

Unfortunately, rejection is an unavoidable part of life. The following tips can help you graciously handle hearing “no” at work and in life.

Tip #1

Make sure it’s not your own misperception.

Individuals who are especially sensitive to rejection sometimes interpret neutral cues as a sign of disapproval. Consider the following example:

Amy: “I really loved your presentation. I think it was your best one yet!”

Beth: “Oh, so you didn’t like any of my other presentations?”

Amy was clearly not saying that she didn’t like any of Beth’s other presentations, but Beth’s sensitivity to rejection colored an otherwise innocent comment as a critical one.

There’s a name for this type of distortion in thinking: Confirmation bias. Scott Plous, a social psychologist, writes in his book The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making, that confirmation bias is characterized by a “tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses” (p. 233). If one’s pre-existing belief is that they are not good enough, everything will be seen through a lens of rejection and failure. Contrary evidence is inadmissible in the court of a low self-concept.

Research shows that individuals who are especially sensitive to rejection perceive it more often than others, even when presented with the same cues. For example, if two people look at a picture of a person with a blank stare, one might say, “They look tired,” while the other might say, “They look judgmental.” The difference in the two perceptions has a lot to do with the perceiver’s beliefs about themselves and other people. Sometimes we think we’re being rejected or disapproved of when that is not what is intended by the other party. Responding as if we are being rejected—typically by becoming angry or withdrawing—sometimes occasions an actual rejection via a positive feedback loop, known more commonly as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Tip #2

As much as possible, be honest with yourself.

Sometimes when we experience rejection, we tell ourselves sweet—and not-so-sweet—little lies about why it happened. For example, if we apply to a job and do not get it, we may say, “I didn’t really want that job anyway.” or “I’ll show them, I’ll find an even better job and make them rue the day!” These attitudes bulwark against feelings of rejection by preserving one’s ego. As hard as it is, it might be better to say, “I really wanted this job, and I didn’t get it, and that sucks.” Bearing disappointment is a part of life, but if you deny these feelings and instead try to pretend you’re not disappointed, what you’re really saying is that the disappointment is TOO painful to take straight, it needs to be diluted with self-deception. Tolerance for disappointment, without resigning yourself to self-pity, is a worthwhile goal.

There is an opposite extreme, and that’s where rejection is seen as confirmation of some defect in ourselves: “Of course I didn’t get the promotion, I’m stupid. Joan is way better than me so that’s why she got it.” These lies twist an objective event into cause for self-flagellation, which ultimately serves no purpose other than to make you feel bad. It can also give someone an illusion of control over their fate. For example, if the rejection was because of a personal defect, then future rejections can seemingly be avoided by correcting the defect. Unfortunately, this is based on the faulty assumption that all rejection is based on a defect. Life involves a lot of randomness, and efforts to bend it to our will cannot guarantee any outcome. No amount of self-improvement, brilliance, beauty, or anything else can reliably prevent someone from experiencing the blow of a “no.” As the old saw goes, “It happens to the best of us.”


Sometimes a rejection coincides with an act of self-sabotage. We may have been late to a job interview, talked incessantly about our ex on a first date, been overly pushy while soliciting new business or showed up to a presentation disheveled and unprepared. Self-sabotage assures an unwanted fate by effectively saying: “I’m not going to do my best and take the chance that I still get rejected. Instead, I’m going to trip myself up so that if it doesn’t work out, I’ll know exactly why.” The frightening reality is that we can put our very best foot forward and still come up short. Again, no one is immune from rejection. But making a committed effort toward something in the face of possible rejection shows courage. Courage is the only antidote to rejection. It will not keep you safe from it, but it will encourage you to show up and try again.

As Susan McCarroll pointed out in our last blog, pushiness is a surefire way to sabotage a sale. Pushiness is a misguided strategy for preventing rejection. The thinking goes, “The harder I try to make this happen, the more likely it is to happen.” This is where being persistent must be distinguished from being pushy. The desperation of a pushy person stems from a fear that if they are rejected, they will not be able to handle it. If someone had confidence that they would be alright no matter the outcome of a situation, it is unlikely they would feel very desperate (and pushy). Persistence, on the other hand, is not giving up when things get difficult.

Tip #3

Give Yourself Time

Allow yourself room to experience the disappointment. Despite similar spelling, there’s a big difference between allowing and wallowing. The latter is falling into a total rut of self-pity, while allowing gives yourself space and time to feel crummy, without falling back on distortions of the truth, like beating yourself up for not getting the outcome you wanted. Life is rife with opportunities. There will be plenty more successes—and failures—to come.

Somewhere between rushing yourself through the difficult experience and wallowing in it for too long lies a happy medium you want to find. Process what happened, allow yourself to feel disappointed, account for what you learned from the experience, and try again.

In Summary

Rejection can activate deep-seated beliefs about ourselves. The fear of rejection stems from doubting our ability to handle the disapproval of others. Whenever possible, remember that 1) Rejection is an unavoidable part of life. 2) Sometimes we perceive rejection where it isn’t. 3) Self-condemnation only makes things worse. 4) Self-sabotage might be contributing to the problem. 5) Trying again is a sign of courage.

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