A Stoic Response to Rejection

“A good person dyes events with his own color…and turns whatever happens to his own benefit.” — Seneca

So your project wasn’t funded, your idea was tossed aside, the public didn’t love your book or movie, your boss just said, “We don’t need you anymore,” the beautiful stranger you hit it off with has suddenly gone silent.

Rejection.

It can be devastating. Can make you feel worthless, like nothing.

But wait, the Stoics would say. Why are we calling this “rejection?”

Is that really how we have to see this?

The essence of Stoicism is that our mind often clouds objective events with all sorts of damaging opinions and interpretation. Think about your reaction to getting fired right now, unexpectedly. It’s one of those nervous, churning feelings that pump through your system. Back up 10 minutes and you witness something horrifying and quit on the spot out of principle. How different are those feelings? But it’s the essentially the same result: you are not working there anymore.

There is really no such thing as rejection–there is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means. We choose what events mean. As Epictetus put it over 2,000 years ago: “So-and-so was carted off to prison. What happened? He was carted off to prison. But if we now add to this “He has had bad luck,” then each of us is adding this observation on his own account.”

When we are experiencing rejection and wallowing in self-pity, a Stoic would also remind us that most of what we are upset about is external, it is outside of our control. Why would we let the world and other people have so much influence over our emotional and mental health? As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Ambition means tying your well being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.”

The Stoics also knew that rejection was a part of life. They also practiced and prepared and knew that this is a potential outcome—a Stoic is never naive to hope for things that are outside of their control. They have rehearsed mentally the worst case scenario, saw how a situation can unfold contrary to their expectations and are at peace with whatever happens. This then, is the momentary response to a situation—not surprised by it, not too emotionally agitated.

For instance, Seneca would begin each day by reviewing or rehearsing his plans, say, to take a trip. And then, in his head (or in writing), he would go over the things that could go wrong or prevent it from happening—a storm could arise, the captain could fall ill, the ship could be attacked by pirates.

“Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation,” he wrote to a friend. “. . . nor do all things turn out for him as he wished but as he reckoned—and above all he reckoned that something could block his plans.”

By doing this exercise, Seneca was always prepared for disruption and always working that disruption into his plans. He was fitted for defeat or victory. And let’s be honest, a pleasant surprise is a lot better than an unpleasant one.

But does that mean that because the rejection was expected, we should resign in the face of it?

No, of course not. It is then that we need to remind ourselves of the classic Stoic expression, the one Epictetus opens his Enchiridion with:

Ta eph’ hêmin?

Is it up to me?

If that sounds familiar it is because the wisdom in that simple line is also expressed in the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

Let’s say that your pitch for your business was dismissed by a potential client. Let’s say you were rejected by your dream job. The Stoics want you to both accept that this is part of life but also to respond virtuously and do your best. It does not mean acceptance and self-pity—it means acceptance and then coming up with the best possible response you’re capable of. It means asking for feedback, refining your slide, your resume, your approach, looking for guidance, asking yourself difficult questions, practicing.

It means doing everything possible and accepting that even then things might not go your way.

That’s the Stoic response to rejection—accepting with equanimity and moving forward with virtue.


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