Rejection sucks. It hurts. It really hurts a lot. When you take the risk of presenting something you made, which you took pride in and which is an expression of your best efforts and the best thing you were capable of producing at that moment, it can sting when your work is cruelly rebuffed. Often, the rejection is cursory, insouciant and dismissive, as if no effort was made to consider its finer qualities. Sometimes the rejection feels like the vindictive expression of pure prejudice, or the result of arbitrary irrationality. At other times, the rejection is just plain nasty. The feelings of indignity, injustice and shame can be overwhelming. It feels like it’s not just your work that’s being discarded as worthless; it’s you.
We feel indignity because we have offered a gift that has not been appreciated. It has been thrown back in our faces and our generosity derided. We feel injustice because the rejection seems to be based on nothing much more than a whim. Other artists present their work and it is accepted, but as hard as you may have worked to produce your work, it has been rejected. That feels very unfair. We feel shame because the rejection is a veiled accusation that we are imposters, as artists. If we took our art and ourselves seriously, then we feel like the rejection repudiates our quiet claims to competency and adequacy. The shame comes from feeling like we’re just not quite good enough.
Learning to deal with rejection is a survival skill and one of the hardest aspects of being an artist, or somebody creative, in my opinion. It’s certainly something that many artists, me included, perpetually struggle with. If they don’t want my art; what should happen next? How you deal with rejection determines whether or not it ultimately harms you, or helps you to grow. It might do a little of both. If you self-identify with your art in any significant way, you can feel like an utter failure.
Some Bad Responses to Rejection:
There are many bad, self-destructive responses to rejection, which, it has to be said, most of us, at one time or another, have fallen into the trap of pursuing. They all compound the pain of rejection:
- Losing Yourself
One of the most common of self-destructive responses to rejection is losing your sense of self. You lose self-confidence and stop believing in yourself. Everything you thought was right and stable about you, as an artist, has just been given the big thumbs down. The temptation is to believe that you’re no good, you can’t succeed, and that you can’t do what you think you can. You also conclude that it will always be this way. That’s a bleak place to reach. There’s also not much objective evidence for it. The actual truth is that you can succeed, when things go right for you. What will prevent that, though, is losing faith in your ability to succeed one day.
- Losing the Joy
After a rejection, the business of making art can take on an overly earnest, do-or-die quality, where every work you make just has to succeed, or it will merely confirm what the rejecters have already asserted. The stakes are high. All the joy and carefree fun of making art is suddenly replaced by a fight-to-the-death mentality, whereby you can’t derive any pleasure from making your art, any more, for fear of slipping up and making something else worthy only of rejection. What was once pleasurable and even escapist now feels like a dreary death march. Often, you only go through the motions, rather than immersing yourself in your creative activities completely. The thrill is gone.
- Losing Sleep
The rejection can play on your thoughts so much, that you lose your peace of mind. Pretty soon, you’re losing sleep over it and beginning to fall apart; physically, emotionally and spiritually. You start to resemble a burnt out, hollowed out shell of an artist, not the vibrant creative being you really are. Letting your health suffer, because of a rejection, isn’t very rational, but it is very common. The damage inflicted can take decades to undo, if it can ever really be undone. Repeated rejections, resulting in an assault on the artist’s health, can be devastating and ultimately, career limiting. Be very careful about slipping down this slope. It’s hard to climb back up from.
- Dulling the Pain
Many artists self-medicate, to dull the pain. Substance abuse and art have been frequent bedfellows, for a long time. In an attempt to not feel the keen edge of rejection, many supreme aesthetes seek to anaesthetise themselves, as self-protection against the pain. It rarely works, long term. All the self-medication does is divorce the artist from their feelings, which is where their best art used to come from. That, again, increases the chances of future rejection. If you fear the pain of rejection, as an artist, it makes no sense at all to increase the odds of rejection, by turning off your ability to feel anything. How will you make art that affects the feelings of other people, if you can’t feel anything yourself?
- Picking at the Sores
Humans have a strange habit. If something hurts us, we tend to focus on it overly. We pick at the wounds, before they have healed and in so doing, deepen and worsen them. Dwelling on the rejection simply causes us to experience it, anew, repeatedly. How does that help us? Replaying the moments, in your life, when you felt worst, simply guarantees that you’ll feel that bad, over and over again, without relief. It’s self flagellation. Bad enough to have experienced the pain of rejection, but replaying it in high-resolution, slow-motion detail, daily just reminds us of the pain, without actually removing the hurt, or doing anything about coping with the pain.
The stiffness and control, including your worries about failing and being rejected again, will show abundantly in your future work. It will be constrained and lack any risks or joie de vivre. In short, you will clamp down so hard on your natural ability and agility, there will be so little freedom of expression, that your work will look contrived, pained and tense. This, ironically, increases the chances of future rejection.
- Obsessing on the Rejecters
You can find yourself obsessing on those that have rejected your art, rather than seeking out and finding people that might love what you do. You can withdraw from the world, to lick your wounds, instead of doing what you should be doing, which is looking for people that won’t reject your work. You might not have the courage to put your art in front of people again. You might have lost the courage to even create new work. The rejecters might be the only thing you can see, in your mind’s eye, when you contemplate making something new and sharing it with the world.
- Chasing Second Guesses
In the mistaken belief that everything you previously knew about making your art is now wrong, you can find yourself second-guessing your rejecters. You’ll try everything to reshape your art into something that might please them. It never does. Second-guessing your rejecters, abandoning your integrity, as an artist, results in pastiches that please nobody. You are what you are. Pretending to be somebody else, through your art, is easily detected as fraudulent. People tend to reject fraudulent art.
In an attempt to make up for the rejection, you may find yourself desperately overworking yourself, determined to prove the detractors wrong. You might find yourself trying so hard that you are in danger of killing yourself in doing so. It’s far worse if what you are overworking yourself at is in trying to be something you are not, while second guessing the rejecters. Killing yourself to compensate for rejection is not a course of action that ends well. Over-thinking your art is similar. It’s just another species of overcompensation.
- Amplifying the Rejection
While a single rejection can be devastating, it is only a data set of one. There is a tendency to focus on and amplify that single rejection, while simultaneously glossing over and minimising the acceptances of your art from other people. Somehow, the rejection seems more important than anything else. It’s easy to think that a single rejection reflects the opinion of everyone, or at least the majority. That might not be so at all and typically isn’t.
- Distrusting the Accepters
If you get into the mind set of believing fervently in the judgements of the rejecters, it becomes harder to believe the affirmations of accepters. You tend to ignore them, believing them to be wrong, or not having the same insight as the rejecters, who you think must be right. The distrust of people that like your art can turn them into people that turn away.
As an artist, you might deal with rejection by shutting yourself away and withdrawing. You stop sharing your work with others and keep it to yourself. Unfortunately, while self-protective to some degree, it results in loneliness and isolation. What you have denied yourself is the joy of sharing your work with those that appreciate it. That’s a very sad outcome.
On a practical level, though, rejection of your art can mean a loss of earnings, as an artist. Are there some better responses to rejection, which do not compound the pain of the rejection and which might stem the loss of earnings, due to rejection?
Some Better Responses to Rejection
Some better, more constructive responses to artistic rejection are:
- Make Better Art
Keep doing what you’re doing, improving according to your own schedule. You can continue to improve and make better art, according to your own standards, irrespective of what the detractors say. One day, you’ll satisfy somebody, somewhere. Your art will be good enough, if you keep caring about it and keep developing, as an artist. A rejection does not have to mean the end of the road.
- It’s Not You; It’s Them
It’s important to realise that the rejection may just be their situation, rather than a judgement of you. They might not be in circumstances or a head space to be accepting of your art. Often, their expression of rejection is saying something deep about them, on a personal level, rather than about you. You don’t know what internal battles are being fought in the minds of rejecters. All you can feel is their outward expression of their inner war, which is the rejection. It’s important to discount their rejection on the grounds that it isn’t the whole truth about the situation and it often hides something the rejecter doesn’t want you to be aware of. Rejection can be a place to hide as much for the rejecter as for the rejected who is handling it badly.
- Find Your Audience
Don’t give up the search. Until you have presented your art to everyone, you don’t know that there is no audience for it. All you know is the people you have shared it with, so far, haven’t gotten it. It’s an often told fable, but J.K. Rowling was rejected multiple times, by big name publishers, whose opinions should have been trustworthy, before becoming a billionaire on the back of the earnings from a story that nobody was initially interested in publishing. The Beatles were rejected, because guitar bands were thought to be on the wane. Giving up just before you succeed is the stupidest time of all to fold.
- You May Be Doing Something Right
If your art disrupts and disturbs, it may get more than its fair share of rejection. However, the realisation that if you’re disruptive with your art, you’re doing something right, if not immediately popular, can be a better response to rejection. The fact that it is being rejected could mean that you’re onto something important and world-changing. It might be affective because it upsets. You might be taking people outside their comfort zones and making them think. Rather than accepting your work, their first reaction is to reject and denounce it. This rejection is not necessarily a bad thing at all. It is often the pre-cursor to widespread, eventual acceptance. The Impressionists were initially described as daubers and degenerate artists, but their art has never enjoyed more acceptance than it does today. Although rejected initially, they were right and their art has had lasting appeal, beloved of many. You might be slightly ahead of your time.
- It’s Their Loss
It’s a fact that those that reject you and your art will have to do without you and your art. The richness of your artistic life will not be a part of theirs and they will miss out on following what is often a fascinating and interesting story. It really is their loss. The beauty you create won’t be in their lives. Your incredible adventures won’t be shared by them in any way. They’ll be all the poorer for not following you and your artistic outpourings. Sure, they might not care and they may have an interesting and beautiful life without your art, but they will have denied themselves of your unique contribution. No matter how well you do, how accepted your art eventually is and what success you enjoy, as an artist, they won’t be a part of it. They’ll be excluded. Sucks to be them.
No Contact Ever Again
A final note about rejecters: reconciliation rarely happens. Those that reject you and your art are probably never going to like your art. To do so would be to admit they were wrong and people hate doing that. They have too much pride and don’t wish to feel the shame. Why would you give them a second chance to reject you all over again, anyway? You don’t need their constant rejection and judgementalism in your consciousness. Cut it out of your life. Don’t have anything to do with them, ever again.
On the rare occasions when somebody is brave enough to reverse their previous judgement and now embraces your art, it is for them to find a way back to you, not for you to welcome them back with open arms. You are entitled to remain sceptical of their new-found enthusiasm and embraces, at least at first. They certainly shouldn’t get priority over those that have faithfully supported you, just because they once rejected you.
They made their choice.
The best response to rejection of your art is to just keep making and sharing it.
The second best response is to make it for your own pleasure, but not necessarily share it with anybody. That’s sub optimal, but at least you get to enjoy making your art. Creativity has many benefits of its own.
Nearly the worst response to rejection is to try to make art to please the rejecters. You can’t and you won’t, so it’s pointless to even try. It’s also none of your business what they like, or what they reject and why. Why should you even care?
The very worst response to artistic rejection is to stop making art. Don’t do that. Make what you like, the way that you like it. The world can do what it will.