That Pile of Laundry Sitting in Your Closet

Reflections on Rejection

NOTE: All of the names of the people in the story, except Kelly’s, have been changed. This reflects the subjects’ wishes to remain anonymous.

“The job hunt and my love life are way too similar,” Chris says as we wait for our food at Julian’s on Broadway Street. He’s a friend, but I’ve asked him to get brunch today for reasons that fall somewhere between professional and therapeutic: to talk about rejection.

His statement strikes a chord somewhere. Toward the end of winter break, I got an email that hurt. In the weird, overly-polite tone of a rejection letter, it informed me that I wasn’t being awarded a fellowship I’d thought I had a good chance of getting. I read the email, cried for about five seconds, called my mom, stifled my emotions, plopped down on the couch, and started binge-watching Criminal Minds, the most mindless show I could think of. In essence, I pretty much acted as if I’d just been dumped.

The reality is, we’re walking around a pretty high-achieving place. But even with all the students who are on fast-tracks to becoming CEOs or John Krasinskis, most students go to enough interviews that they have to have been rejected by some employers. What’s more, way too many people are single, so you know that romantic rejection is floating around. And too many people have dropped classes for the university to be a fail-free place.  

For a lot of other seniors, ’tis the season of getting rejected. Or, if they’ve finally landed a job, that season has just passed. But rejection can be tough—each subsequent denial adds another hue of uncertainty to our futures, and it’s hard not to count each one. Like dirty articles of clothing, you toss them onto the floor of your closet and shove the door shut. But once in a while—maybe it’s an especially smelly sock—the pile acquires something that’s hard to ignore. And that’s how I ended up at Julian’s, talking about rejection over pancakes with Chris. Later I talked with three other students, two seniors and one sophomore, about the laundry sitting in their closets, and how they deal with it.

(Please note that because of the nature of the topic, the people I spoke with were friends and this is by no means a representative sample of Brown’s student body.)

There’s something about Middle School

Let’s start at the very bottom of the pile, with the rejections that have probably stuck with you for a long time. I’m talking about certain middle-school horror stories: you know, the ones where you felt raw and exposed because the entire school knew you’d asked so-and-so to slow dance and he said “no”? While they probably once stung like hell, talking about them now isn’t so bad. For me, at least, they’re an exercise in humility, a reminder that we weren’t always highly-driven college students, but vulnerable 12-year-olds who had yet to deal with our first rejection experiences.

For my friend Mike, it happened at a bar mitzvah. He’d gotten the DJ to play a special song and then asked a girl to dance with him. Then, in classic middle school fashion, he said, “Will you go out with me?” She answered, “I think we should just be friends.”

By now you’ve probably heard this kind of story a million times. Chris had a similar experience, except that it happened over everyone’s favorite instant messaging service, AIM. Mike and Chris both say they got over these events fairly quickly, but the fact that they can each recall these experiences so easily means something. They got stored in the memory box for a reason, perhaps as an introduction to the feeling of rejection, which is, of course, no bueno.

The other two people I spoke with—Emma, also a senior, and Kelly Carey-Ewend, a sophomore—both recalled not romantic but athletic rejections as marked aspects of growing up. Emma was so bad at sports that her elementary-school gym teacher kept telling her she had to be left-handed. She wasn’t. The whole situation made her feel disconnected from her school’s sport-centered culture, which bothered her until she got to college

Kelly, who had two really athletic siblings, tried every sport he could but did not succeed at any of them. At one point he made the A-team of ultimate Frisbee, only for the coach to quickly move him to the lower level. Often, he felt like the team didn’t want to talk to him.

After Kelly talked about his issues with the Frisbee team, something inside me clicked. Growing up as the world’s clumsiest person, I dealt with a less searing version of Kelly’s athletic rejections (less searing because I decided I didn’t care really early on and because no one in my family was big on sports). But still, Kelly’s description of the exclusive Frisbee team allowed me to articulate one of the reasons rejection hurts so much: In whatever way, shape, or form it arrives, rejection insists that you do not belong. You can’t be on our team. You can’t sit at our lunch table. You can’t work at our firm. It takes away a possibility, and leaves us feeling a little bit less. Now the laundry’s really started to smell, and we’re left trying to figure out what to do about it.

Enough is Enough

Somehow, I managed to subconsciously figure it out in elementary-school gym class: that sometimes, you might really not belong to something, and that’s okay. Kelly figured that out, too, and now he can admit the existence of unbelonging loud and clear. He said his perseverance in sports actually hurt him, because it just wasn’t going to happen and he should have known when to cut his losses. Sometimes getting up and trying again is important, but other times it’s okay to toss out a few of those clothes—for that solution, you don’t even have to use your three remaining Bear Bucks.

Chris’s hardest rejection was a recent one. One of the “big three” consulting companies emailed him in August as part of their recruiting process. He was flattered. For high-priority candidates like him, “They give you a lot of love and affection,” he said. He killed the first interview and later went to L.A. for the final round, which didn’t feel like an interview at all but like a “let’s meet your new wife.” A couple hours after the excitement ended, though, he got a call. They weren’t going to hire him. “It felt like the first time I got dumped,” he said.

Of course, that’s pretty much how I felt over winter break—hence the subsequent Netflix binge. Yes, like my losses, Chris’s were cut for him—he didn’t really have a choice in the matter. But he also admitted that, looking back on the whole experience, he’s glad he didn’t get the job. He would have hated it.

But right in the moment of a rejection, there’s another problem: How do you keep it from making you feel like you’re not good enough? Mike, Emma, and Kelly all touched upon this, with Mike saying he’d only recently reached a turning point where he was able to separate himself from his rejections. His friends helped him reach that point by telling him he was being ridiculous when he was, well, being ridiculous. On a similar note, Emma talked about how important it is to surround yourself with people who recognize your worth. Plus, “when you talk to your friends, you realize they’re amazing people who’ve accumulated rejections.”

Kelly’s advice especially resonated with me because I’d never quite heard rejection put in these terms: After dealing with a rejection, Kelly said, remind yourself that “it’s not because you’re not good enough, it’s because it just happened that way.” The first time you tell yourself this, you probably won’t believe it, but keep on thinking it. Then, accept the path the rejection has put you on, and try to move forward without internalizing it. Get rid of the laundry. Or, use it in some kind of alternative art exhibit. Your choice.

The evil sock you can’t get rid of

Of course, not every rejection goes away easily. Some will stick around for a long while. That one sock you thought you threw away a thousand times will keep showing up again, sitting there cheekily in the back corner of your closet.

Often, these rejections will be deeply personal ones, perhaps those in the realm of that crazy little thing called love. Mike’s worst rejection just occurred—a relationship with a girl he’d been crazy about just ended—and he’s still trying to process it. When I asked why it was so hard, he put it bluntly: “Because this person told me they couldn’t live without me, and then they went and did that, so I felt used and manipulated.”

What do you do about something that difficult? Mike leaned on his friends and family. He started seeing a therapist. Besides that, he gives the proverbial advice to everyone dealing with rejection: “Time is the best medicine.”

Although my hardest rejection ever also has to do with the love bug, the email I got over winter break probably marked my roughest rejection in the past year. It left me drifting toward the abyss that is graduation, this time without a lifeboat. But after I got back to campus this semester, something strange happened. The moping transformed into motivation, and I signed up for the most challenging class I’ve ever taken at Brown, one in feature writing. I knew it would push me; I also knew it would give me valuable skills for the post-graduation abyss. With the course on my plate, the lost fellowship floats ever further from my mind. And I’m not sure I would have taken the class had the email delivered good news.

With that in mind, I would add one thing to Mike’s advice: For those rejections that are hardest, for those evilest-of-all socks, the best we can do is try to keep them clean, prevent them from being a disgusting mess that stinks up our whole lives. Learn to live them in a way that makes us stronger, more resilient. Whatever happens, don’t let the pile become something that gnaws at you and becomes an accumulation of emptiness or unhappiness. Do something with it.