How to turn rejection into a success story

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For this month’s article, Nicola Greenbrook is exploring why it hurts so much to be rejected and suggesting ways to convert this into something transformative.

I regret to inform you that on this occasion you have not been successful'. I’ve been both the author and recipient of that terrible sentence on many occasions during my career. 

Even checking the definition of ‘to reject’ evoked memories of some painful brush-offs of my own. ‘To dismiss as inadequate, unacceptable or faulty’. Ouch! Rejection knows no bounds and spans our professional, social and personal worlds. From missing out on your dream job, losing out to a competitor or being passed up for promotion, it’s a common - but agonising - feature of our working lives. Yet, it might not always be a bad thing…

Firstly, why does it hurt so bad?

Being rebuffed really does sting. Psychologist Guy Winch notes that rejection can cause pain because our brains are wired to respond in this way. He describes an experiment where scientists asked participants to think of a rejection while they were hooked up to MRI machines. They discovered that when we experience rejection, the same areas of our brain become activated as when we experience physical pain. Essentially, being rejected can ‘elicit literal (albeit, emotional) pain’. 


Often it’s our self-esteem that takes the brunt of it when we’re told no. Rebecca Weef-Smith, Editor of Goldie Magazine recalls vividly the low self-worth she felt over ten years ago after consistent knock-backs. She had submitted over 100 job applications and 3 PhD proposals without a single interview to show for it. Despite considerable qualifications, including an MA and MSc, she believed she wasn’t good enough. ‘Yet again I didn't come up to scratch or meet the standards required’ she said. ‘It wasn't a momentary failing at life. I was a permanent failure’. 

Being rejected can heighten our own personal insecurities, make us doubt our decisions and choices. As Guy Winch says, ‘…just when our self-esteem is hurting most, we go and damage it even further’.

Patience you must have…

According to science journal Inorganic Chemistry, there are five stages of rejection - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. So how do you pick yourself up again when you’re firmly stuck in the early stages? What if you’ve been unsuccessful for something deep down you know isn’t even right for you? 

Fiona Cowan, Senior HR Business Partner at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) knows this all too well. For over a year, she balanced the insecurity of a contract role with job hunting. Conservation and animal welfare is hugely important to Fiona but as roles in this area are scarce, she had to widen her search and compromise. ‘It was a difficult year’ she admitted. ‘You put all your effort, passion and time into research and the presentation. There’s the anticipation and then… you get the dreaded rejection. It doesn’t make it easier when you’re told you were a strong candidate and came a very close second.

It’s hard to dust yourself off (and for those stuck in the ‘Anger’ stage, I apologise for writing these words) but hang on in there. Life is full of twists and turns and depending on your perspective, change - or no change - can be a good thing. Not getting something you want is an opportunity for something completely different - the right something - to come your way.  

I always live by the mantra “everything happens for a reasonI just didn’t know what the reason was yet.’ Fiona shared. After surviving a year of on-off job hunting with the stamina of a triathlete, the universe put her dream job at ZSL up for grabs. ‘I had an excitement I hadn’t felt for the other roles I’d gone for; I knew this job was for me!’. A winning combination of effort, authentic passion and the right skills, experience and talent landed Fiona the role she'd been waiting for. 

A masterclass in hard work, determination and believing - no matter how gut-wrenching it can be at the time - that things will eventually work out.

When should rejection become reinvention?

Eleanor Ross for Refinery 29 makes an interesting case for whether stubborn, blind self-belief can do more damage than good. She considers if there’s a right time to listen to rejection. ‘While pushing and being resilient is important, rejection can also teach us that maybe we’re not suited to doing something after all’ she writes.

Rebecca Weef-Smith could have crawled under the duvet and stayed there, but realised the only way forward was to carve out a new role for herself, rather than fit an existing one. She used personal rejection to create the role of Editor of Goldie Magazine, the over-40s magazine with masses of style, fashion and more. It restored her faith in her own abilities, widened her friendship circle and made her ‘determined to support others who need a prompt in picking themselves up and going again’.

Turn that rejection upside down

Here are some other ways to make rejection a bit more manageable:

  • Reframe it - Annie Ridout, author, freelance journalist and editor of The Early Hour set up a folder in her email account to file away rejections. She’s renamed it ‘got to keep’, because I like the idea that one day I'll look back at all the rejections I've received and be able to laugh about it' she says. In her book The Freelance Mum Annie also talks about a ‘special’ folder she keeps for encouraging, supportive emails. It’s this folder - rather than the other - she spends the most time looking at to give her a boost.

  • Get some feedback - Ask the client/company for some insight on how you can do better next time. You might learn something new about yourself, prove you’re willing to develop and show them how good you are.

  • Talk it through with someone - If you can, speak to friends, family or a mentor at work. Ruth Moragas, Founder of Happy Heads which promotes positive mental health recovery, believes in the power of helping others going through the crushing experience of rejection. ‘Rejection is something we all go through. It may sting but you get over it by including others. So they don’t feel as you did’.

Rejection can cause physical pain, damage your self-esteem and take you through a whirlwind of stages before you come out the other side. Yet, it can also provide the chance to try out something new, and could clear the way for the right opportunity. Being snubbed is awful, but it can help you think creatively about your career path and provide the fuel that powers your growth and purpose. 

Been rejected? Go out there and really show ‘em what you’re made of. Like Annie, you’ll be laughing about it one day as you happily move the email into your ‘got to keep’ folder. 

Nicola Greenbrook - HR Specialist & Freelance Writer 

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