After my divorce, I moved west. It seemed like a literary thing to do, my life an open field of freshly cleared California wheat.
After leaving Arkansas for Indiana, finishing graduate school, ending my marriage, and falling in love with someone who eventually rejected me—in some semblance of that order—I moved to Santa Margarita, California, an ellipsis of a town between Los Angeles and San Francisco, flanked by vineyards and horses.
Literary or not, I cried regularly for nine months.
I knew only one person in California, and had just left my best friend/ex-husband of 10 years in the cornfields of Lafayette. I started a new job teaching English at Cal Poly, of which I was proud, but I felt lost in the season-less sunshine of long days connected only by dandelion seeds of a schedule and smiles of potential new friends. I was suddenly aware of how having a shared history acts as a grounding force, without which I felt unmoored. I walked my dog, Clair. I watched stars undiluted by city lights. I journaled and cried and worried I’d made a mistake…many mistakes. But some days those country roads were rocky paths leading myself back to me.
Soaking in the ramshackle outdoor tub dressed up with grapevines, I steeped in rejection. He was a philosopher with dark eyes that lead somewhere I’d never been. He showed me Rothko’s deep blues and Truffaut’s Parisian scenes. We swapped used books like baseball cards and read each other’s annotations. Even before we had our first coffee, he sat in the dark theater and watched me dance. I replayed that dance many times in my mind just to feel what it was like to be in his gaze. He didn’t know me—the southern Christian girl with the badge of injury, but he knew a part of me; that part that needed beauty as much as breath. We listened to Debussy in the snow.
Rejection feels like black tar suffocating the heart.
That summer of 2007 wasn’t the first time I experienced rejection, nor the last. I’ve had friendships dissolve. Two years after landing a good job at Cal Poly, I along with hundreds of other instructors, was laid off. Pastors have lied to me. I have an entire file of “rejection slips” from literary magazines where I’ve submitted poetry. Some spiritual mentors have reminded me not everyone is a good fit. I’ve been on the receiving and giving end of rejection, which at its root is someone simply saying, “No, thank you.” It’s life. But, oh, how rejection stings.
Understandably so. The pain we feel is not metaphorical—it’s real. “fMRI studies show that the same areas of the brain become activated when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain,” according to Guy Winch, PhD, in his article “10 Surprising Facts about Rejection,” published in Psychology Today. Winch also suggests taking Tylenol may mitigate the emotional pain associated with rejection. While this may sound farcical, we resort to all manner of coping mechanisms when faced with rejection: abuse of alcohol and drugs, over/under eating, shopping sprees, self-harm, self-help/inspiration binging, and my particular favorite, searching for a quick relationship substitute to fill in the void.
I wanted to be in someone’s gaze, his arms, so I wouldn’t feel the cold isolation of an empty stage and a vacant heart. But just as a pill doesn’t remedy our deeper, emotional pain completely, nor will any of these methods. Real healing takes time…and whatever personal practices cultivate resilience. I talked with a therapist. I danced. I practiced yoga. I listened to my friends and started believing what they had to say about my value. Just for being me.
Though I wouldn’t have called it this at the time, I explored the “R’s” of rejection: Review, Reassess, Rearrange, Revise, and, eventually, Rally for and Recommit to myself. Be Real.
We review anyway, so why not do it consciously and purposefully. Recall what worked in the relationship. What parts did you like? Was it how she affectionately curled into you catlike while watching movies? Maybe you appreciated how your boss offered monthly kudos acknowledging publications. That’s good. Say it. Write it. Magnify it. Know you will have this, or some better variant, again in the future. Now, what didn’t work? Be specific. Get clear. Don’t get caught up in a negativity tailspin, but create some awareness.
Transitions give us an opportunity to reassess what we’re doing and why. You’ve created habits and an identity in this relationship, and those are shifting, so ask yourself these important questions: What am I doing now? Why am I doing it? Who am I now? Of course, your essence is the same, but your habits, inclinations, and goals may be different. Rejection often feels like someone took your choice away, but my teacher Constance Hart reminded me everyone has choice–others and you. We have endless choices.
Every time my father went away for a hunting trip, my mom would rearrange the furniture. I never understood why. Maybe because reordering allows us to see our lives differently. Some of us need to work from outside in. Perhaps my mom needed to see her home differently in order to see new possibilities within herself. I pull out my planner. If I can rearrange my schedule—here a yoga class, there coffee with a friend, here returning to the project I’ve loved and neglected—I can reorient myself to my life.
I’m a writer, and so are you. We write stories in our minds all the time; some serve us better than others. “S/he rejected me because…” is only a story. There are so many possible arcs—some of which you are aware, and some you’ll never know. So, why not chose the one that is most honest and empowering? How? Own your part of the story. Doing so declares you are not a victim, powerless to the desire and will of others, but a participant in the story. “Rejection refocuses me on my own path,” explains Maia Kiley, friend and Marriage and Family Therapist trainee. “I move away from feeling like a victim and back into my own power with more clarity and purpose.” You can write your next chapter.
Your friends will rally for you, but will you rally for yourself? Your future? Here’s where you rouse yourself from depression or apathy and take action. Maybe you start dancing again, seek the support of a therapist, paint your bedroom purple because why not?! Maybe you finally, after three months, take all those wine bottles you’ve been so sentimental about—the ones with handwritten dates from special events you shared—and lovingly chuck them from the pier far into the sea, knowing they’ll come back as beach glass, transformed and beautiful.
What is the most important relationship in your life? The one you have with yourself. Take a vow of self-love. Recommit to yourself, your desired feelings and goals, your path. After my last heart-scrambling breakup, I drove my cousin who was visiting from Arkansas up the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. We stopped in Cambria to get coffee. In an abalone shell near the cash register, I saw a small silver ring with a simple moonstone. Without thinking, I put it on my ring finger and made a silent promise, “I won’t leave you, again. I marry you.” That was four years ago. I’ve since given the ring to my sister, but the commitment to myself remains.
I’ve presented these R’s as if they occur in an orderly fashion, chronologically. They don’t. They more likely will swirl, depending on your own process, the context of the relationship, and what the hell Mercury is doing in the sky. Allow yourself to cry, stay with the ache, practice self-care, watch Netflix, take long walks, seek support (therapists, shamans, rabbis, life coaches), stare out windows, travel, return to all your loves you’ve neglected, cry in the shower, scream into a pillow, write, pray, sage your entire house… Just be real. Make your choices. Transpose the no to on: turn on to what is most light-full and meaningful in your life.
Rejection sucks. Period. Yet, each time I’ve heard that “No,” I eventually gained a deeper, truer sense of myself. When I realized my pastor was lying and stealing, I quickly learned not to put others on an spiritual pedestal. When Cal Poly laid me off, I made a list of other possible ways to support myself and gained more confidence in my ability to do so. I now teach yoga classes and retreats in addition to writing and literature classes at Cal Poly (yes, they hired me back the next quarter). When the man I thought I was moving to Idaho with made a different choice, I cried. A lot. Then I rallied for myself.
I began to court myself with old-fashioned flair. I bought myself flowers. I wrote and listened to myself as if my next word might unlock the key to my heart. I floated under waterfalls, traveled alone to Puerto Rico, and fantasized about my future. I did things that scared me (teaching yoga and writing retreats) and inspired me (teaching yoga and writing retreats). I experienced creative surges in my writing. I spent more time with those loving, supportive relationships that sometimes get neglected in the emotional spins and dips of troubled water. I exercised more. Cooked more. Gained greater clarity about what I want from a romantic partner, my friendships, career, even spiritual life (it’s all spiritual). Rejection offers us innumerable gifts.
Rejection may feel like death, but if we persist—if we really let go of the person or situation and assimilate what we’ve learned—it can lift a curtain to an even more fulfilling life.
Author: Leslie St. John
Image: Esra Erben/Flickr
Editors: Emily Bartran; Catherine Monkman