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How reframing helped me deal with rejection

No one likes to read the infamous first line "We are sorry to inform you...", which is typically followed by a rejection. Particularly in academia we deal with what feels (or is) a disproportionate amount of rejections, be it manuscripts, applications, grants, competitions, or other.

Even though we know that rejections are (usually) "nothing personal", it can be difficult to not take a rejection personally when having invested significant amounts of time, energy, money, and other resources. Thus, it is a natural reaction to taking it personal and being disappointed.

In the following I describe which steps helped me to reframe rejections from something utterly disappointing to something like "academic battle scars" which I can be proud of.

1. Respond, not react

We often tend to immediately react to situations, rather than taking time to process and respond. As we are all human, this is perfectly normal. However, in the long-run I personally found it more beneficial to acknowledge the situation, take time to process, and respond when I am ready. Particularly with paper reviewer comments this might take a few days, and even when receiving very positive feedback, I at least sleep over it before starting to respond.

Brilliant books to read on this topic are "The Chimp Paradox" by Dr Steve Peters and "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahnemann.

2. Gaining perspective

Another thing that helps me move from reaction to response, is to look at the situation with a broader perspective. Asking myself questions such as "Why is this so important to me?" or "Can I achieve the same aim taking a different route?" helps to gain perspective and assess whether this certain thing/situation has the same value in the larger scheme of things, or only momentarily.

"Things only have the value that we assign to them."

3. Celebrate that you had the courage to try

After quite a streak of rejections, it was time to celebrate that I had the courage to try, try, and try again, in what seemed like an endless roll of rejection. Thus, instead of being disappointed, the first thing to do after a rejection is to high-five with someone. Typically followed by a coffee or chocolate.

4. "Falling forward"

I personally find it the worst when being rejected without knowing "why" or how I can improve. As always, feedback is invaluable and when receiving feedback (even when it is negative) I am grateful that someone took their time to help me improve. The mindset of "falling forward" helps to acknowledge that we have a foundation and build on this to improve in the future.

5. Normalize rejection

Rejection is a part of life and definitely something that most of us experience on a regular basis. Being open about rejection and acknowledging that it is part of our life is the first step to normalizing it. Some colleagues of mine even have a CV of failures, which is something I am planning to collate soon and regret that I have not done so before.

6. Think about the other people involved

Most of our work is produced by teamwork and it is likely to be build on the shoulders of giants (PIs, collaborators, advisors, mentors, colleagues, etc.). Hence, I find it important to maintain good communication with everyone involved and let them know about outcomes (positive or negative) as soon as possible. Where appropriate, I try to be prepared for the "worst case" scenario, with backup plans and knowing what to do next in case of a rejection. This "preparedness" also helps me to "fall forward" without being stuck in a limbo of decision making.

Together, it becomes clear that everyone deals very differently with rejections, but reframing our perspective can help to make it less disappointing and giving it less value when considering a wider life perspective. The most important thing is that rejection is something normal and we can all support each other in responding to it healthily.

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