Rejection’s a funny thing, isn’t it? Definitely fits in the ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger category’ – painful at the time, but character-building in the long-term. But that doesn’t stop it being painful at the time.
Some forms of rejection are inescapable – we’re forced to process them, often in front of and with the help of friends and family. Relationship breakups, unsuccessful job interviews – our hopes are dashed in public, and our reactions are quietly scrutinized by those around us. That’s probably helpful; as I say, it forces us to process our emotions.
Other forms are more subtle; secret even. The long-term hope that never seems to come to fruition; the unsuccessful conversation with that guy or girl who no-one knew you liked. Many of us are faced with painful thoughts and feelings – we might feel unattractive, unskilled, foolish, deluded even – and at the same time we’re faced with a decision: do we tell others about it, and allow them to see our discomfort and insecurities, or do we bottle it all up? If you’re anything like me, you may gravitate towards the latter option.
A true story to illustrate my point, and a fairly uncomfortable one to share…
Six months or so back, I wrote an email to a guy I didn’t know very well, asking him if he wanted to go out for a drink. I had a suspicion (from our previous meetings) that we would get on well, and so I thought I’d see if he wanted to hang out. I’m aware culturally this might sound a bit odd, but this is how friendships start, isn’t it? You just don’t normally write about it in this way.
Anyhow, he said that’d be great, but that he was a little busy. He asked me to drop him a line again in the New Year to arrange it, and so that’s what I did. At this point I wasn’t feeling particularly vulnerable, but then, I didn’t know what was coming. A few weeks later, I finally got a reply from this chap, and it read along these lines:
“I’m sorry, I’m really busy with all the things that are already going on in my life, and maintaining all my current relationships, so I don’t think I’m going to have time for a drink with you.” (the subtext being ‘not now, not ever.’)
I don’t know how your self-esteem might have coped with that email, but mine didn’t fare particularly well. Of course I felt rejected that this person couldn’t see ANY opportunity in the future for a coffee with me, but there were other things too – I felt silly and a little strange for having asked in the first place; I wondered if this meant the guy thought some of the worst things I sometimes think about myself. It was a pretty ugly moment, and I was shocked at how hard it hit me.
I share that rather awkward story because I’ve been pondering my reaction for the last couple of months, and I have a sneaking suspicion that others may have had similar experiences of secret rejection. They might have taken the form of a publisher’s rejection letter (or ten), or a single off the cuff comment which the speaker had no idea contained such power. I’m sure the chap in my story has no idea that he has hurt me. But these things do hurt, and when they come along we leave them unprocessed at our own peril.
That’s partly because we do ourselves no good by bottling up pain – the amateur psychologist in all of us knows that will only lead to problems down the line. More importantly though, things like this give us a really good opportunity to ask the question: where is my identity rooted?
Those of us who are Christians all know the ‘correct’ answer to this – it’s Jesus of course! But that response is utterly meaningless if it’s not what we actually know and feel. My story clearly demonstrates that my sense of who I am is not entirely defined by what God thinks of me. But it is a strong encouragement to me to make that the case. That’s certainly how I’ve focused my prayers since it happened.
I’ve been reflecting a lot then on what it means to have my identity rooted in God – in what he, my Father and creator, thinks of me. My own sense of guilt at the things I get wrong in life can cloud that, but the truth is that this isn’t Biblical. ‘As far as the east is from the west,’ Psalm 103:12 tells me, ‘so far has he removed our transgressions from us.’ When God sees me, he doesn’t see my brokenness; he sees his forgiven child.
Another Psalm, 139, reminds me in v14 that ‘I am fearfully and wonderfully made.’ That’s got to be the most quoted Bible verse about self-esteem, but that doesn’t stop it being true. And I wonder if sometimes when we read that verse, we get the emphasis slightly wrong. It’s used so often to reassure us, but it’s actually about God – it’s about the fact that He doesn’t make mistakes.
Right there in Genesis 1 v 26, there seems to be some sort of inter-Trinity conversation about the making of mankind, where God says “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.” We are image-bearers of God himself. In some hard-to-fathom way, when other people meet, talk to or just look at us, they catch a distant glimpse of the image of God. We need to allow truth like this to soak deep into our being.
I haven’t got this one sorted by a long way. But I am starting to really appreciate – in secret, for real – that God loves me unconditionally, and looks on me with a huge beaming smile. Knowing those things for real – not just being able to recite them to others – will give me the tools to better process rejection when it next inevitably comes to visit, whether that’s in public or private.
How do I feel about my friend-who-turned-out-not-to-be? Disappointed, but no longer crushed. Having been on the end of rejection hasn’t just prepared me to deal with it better in future, it’s also helped me to gain perspective on how others must feel when I disappoint or reject them. My identity in Christ means that I must seek to grow more and more like him – that means submitting to and serving others, and as far as is humanly possible trying not be a source of rejection for them.