The art of coping with rejection
Everyone faces rejection at some point in their lives, whether it’s being turned down for a dream job, being denied a sought-after university place or, for artists, missing out on the chance to show work at an exhibition or gallery or being refused funding for a project.
Rejection may be a fact of life, but that doesn’t make it any easier to cope with when it happens – at best, rejection can make you feel disappointed and frustrated; at worst it can affect your self-confidence and drive. When you have put blood, sweat and tears into completing a lengthy application form, and when success can potentially signify a life-changing moment for you, it’s only natural to be despondent if things don’t turn out in your favour.
I was recently turned down for a job even before reaching the interview stage. I was especially disappointed because I had already had a dialogue with people in a position to judge, who encouraged me to submit an application. Because I had high expectations, I had further to fall when that rejection email pinged into my inbox.
As an artist rejection is a regular occurrence: art is so subjective and unlike most jobs, you can’t simply tick or cross the boxes on a checklist when submitting an application!
It’s impossible to measure the effects of rejection – although a friend described her rejected artwork as ‘five kilos of disappointment’ to quantifying her feelings. Having to collect your work somehow adds insult to injury when you have been unsuccessful in getting into an exhibition – I remember the pain I felt when picking up a 6ft by 5ft mounted photograph: the physical burden of an object so meaningful to me, and at that time felt that it was meaningless to the selectors.
However I have learnt it’s important to depersonalise rejection – it’s not about you, nor is it about the quality of your work. Rather, I view it as a mis-match between my work and the selection panel’s ambition. At the end of the day, exhibitions are about making money and galleries have to think about the marketability of artwork and whether it fits with their brand or current fashions; your work may not be the right fit at that particular moment in time.
And invariably it is possible to gain something positive from what seems such a negative experience – particularly if you are prepared to move on and not dwell on rejection. So for me the best coping mechanisms when it comes to rejection?
- Allow yourself to recognise and express your disappointment, whether you choose to respond by shutting yourself in a room, shouting from the top of a hill, having a good weep or eating a box of chocolates.
- Humour helps – one of the healthiest responses to rejection is to find something funny or absurd about the situation, such as my friend’s ‘five kilos of disappointment’. Humour helps to put things into perspective and create a distance between your initial disappointment and moving forwards.
- Have a conversation with others to help reinforce your original rationale – you apply for an exhibition because you believe you can do it and rejection doesn’t alter that fact. Getting feedback from others helps clarify that it wasn’t the quality of the work that was the issue but rather it wasn’t right on the day.
- Similarly, find a way of putting your rejected work out into the world to rebuild your confidence – rather than shutting it away because you don’t feel it’s worthy, shout out about it!
- Having tasks or causes beyond your practice can provide an alternative way of using your skills in a non-threatening way. An hour after I received the job rejection email I was mentoring a young person for the Prince’s Trust, which helped take my mind off the rejection and also helped restore my self-belief.
- Find your ‘troupe’ of like-minded artist friends who you can share your experiences with and receive peer criticism from. Try to find people with the same values as you rather than those who necessarily do the same type of work as you.
- Don’t be negative about the organisation that rejected you because that only serves to fuel your own negativity.
- Only apply for exhibitions that you believe in rather than applying for every opportunity that comes up – you will struggle to be convincing if you are ambivalent about the project for which you are applying, remain authentic and true to your own artistic practice.
- If you ask for feedback, be specific about what you are seeking to learn about why your submission was rejected – and try to establish what worked as well as what didn’t.
It may be tougher than ever for artists these days, but don’t allow rejection to stymie your ambition. At the end of the day we often learn more from the journey than the results and it’s about getting better rather than being bitter.