About a year ago, I wrote an article on trauma that focused on defining oneself by resilience. In it, I reframed awful experiences through the lens of growth and self-reinterpretation, asserting that we possessed the power to perceive ourselves as survivors rather than as victims, as individuals with the ability to overcome great sorrow to discover a profound sense of inner strength. On the heels of that piece, I thought it would be appropriate to expand on the notion of self-reinterpretation in a more complicated way, pointing to other traits and values that could be significant for healthier self-perceptions and, thus, healthier emotional states.
Recently, I expressed my feelings to someone, hoping that my honesty and vulnerability would be enough to propel us into something deeper than an acquaintanceship; subsequently, it didn’t happen. Fortunately, for me, it wasn’t a direct rejection, as most aren’t at my age; but, one can take a hint. I was heartbroken, as expected, and I allowed myself to feel my feelings, as any therapist would advise someone in my position to do. While feeling sad, I began to explore what all of this meant for me and my emotional development; I thought about how far I had come in terms of self-expression.
I frequently write about authenticity and vulnerability because I’ve struggled with it for the majority of my life. I was raised in an environment where you were taught to be tough, which meant perpetually suppressing your emotions, with the exception of rage, of course. So, I dealt with them the only way I knew how to: denial. And, it manifested in anger and mistreatment because I wouldn’t afford myself the permission to be honest in letting others know that I was sad or afraid. Consequently, when experiencing rejection, I lashed out at those who hurt me; and, when anticipating it in a state of apprehension, I pushed away those I cared for, making them feel as insignificant as I felt. In a nutshell, I lived as inauthentically as one could have.
When I focused on the outcomes, I was afraid of what they’d be be; so, I often found myself debilitated by anxiety. “She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me, she loves me not” was the predominant sentiment of my teenage years. And, as a kid craving intimacy and acceptance, I created a facade to foster their development; I became a tough guy. Fast forward to today, I handle my feelings much more rationally and self-compassionately. The kid who was convinced that he wasn’t good enough carved out his space through his own values, one of which is authenticity.
Back then, outcomes defined me; but, now my values do. While I still feel sad each time that I’m turned down, I allow myself to explore how it was that I lived up to my value-system. Was I honest with the person I expressed my affection for? Did I overcome my fear of rejection and vulnerability? Was I able to perceive how what I said could have helped her despite the fact that she wasn’t interested in dating me? And, did I use that experience to help others grow? In answering those questions, I assess where I stand in the context of my principles and the man I want to be.
People get rejected for all sorts of reasons, a lot of them impersonal. And, living and dying with each one can toss one into a pit of deep despair. However, the shame that accompanies it can affect you only if you allow it to, as cliched and cheesy as that is. Psychologist Dan Gilbert, in his popular books and Ted Talks, explores synthetic happiness, the idea that we, internally, create happiness; this means that our minds automatically find the good within the bad. And we do this all of the time. Disgraced politicians, prisoners unjustly sentenced, etc… have created internal ways to cope with trying circumstances by convincing themselves of the good which arose in them, telling themselves that some positive outcome would never have occurred without the seemingly negative circumstance. Fundamentally, our worlds are the products of our thoughts, or rather, the products of our interpretations. The Buddha, in some sense, was right when he taught that we’re the creators of reality.
Unfortunately, feeling better isn’t as simple as living by one’s values; however, it is an important piece of the puzzle of mental health. Additionally, I have a solid support system that reminds me of how much I’m loved every time I feel knocked down. In conjunction with my own reframing, both aspects work together to help me recover from failure and rejection. With respect to my core values, one of the major ones is honesty and authenticity, which I don’t always live up to but try my best to embody. Sometimes, I feel too embarrassed to speak my truth, and that’s a part of being human. I will never be able to be honest and vulnerable all of the time, but I’ll keep trying my best to battle back the demons of shame and fear.
At bottom, what matters most is who we are and how we live. I won’t look back on my life wondering why I was rejected; I don’t think it’ll matter much. Instead, I’ll fondly recall how I responded. If there’s one important lesson I learned from Viktor Frankl, the great existential psychotherapist, it’s that one’s life isn’t about the bad that she’s experienced; it’s about the person she became in the shadow of that which attempted to destroy her.