Once upon a time, I experienced a special kind of rejection.
I say "special" because I've had plenty of rejections in my life. I've probably been rejected as many times as I've used a line from The Mighty Ducks or D2 in a conversation; in other words, it's impossible to count. (Oh, and every time I say, "Quack attack is back, Jack!" and receive a blank stare and/or silence in response--that's a form of rejection in and of itself.) We all experience this, all the way back to our parents telling us "no" as little kids to being turned down for a job or a date as adults.
Some rejections are worse than others. Some are like F1 tornadoes, little baby tornadoes--some tiles knocked off the roof, a few broken branches, everybody's okay. Every once in a while, you might run into an F2 or F3--a little more powerful, some roofs torn off, some trees snapped and uprooted. The type of rejection you pray you never go through is the F5. The F5, or--as the 1996 film which starred Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt and taught me almost everything I know about tornadoes puts it--The Finger of God. The kind of rejection that levels everything in its path.
That special rejection I went through was an F5-type of rejection. It's an exaggeration, of course, but this lets me use a Twister reference, and I think we're all better for it. I don't want to go into the details of the situation, but I'll say that I loved a person, and it's the one person I most expected to reciprocate that love, and she didn't. And rather than a single occurrence, a single tornado, it was more like a series, over a number of years, over and over and over again. Once I began to rebuild, to replace the broken windows and fix the roof, along came another storm, one more incarnation of the same rejection.
It tore me down. For years, I was like a walking wound, never able to heal. Worse than anything, it had me questioning me--my worth, my confidence, my sense of who I was. It had me asking over and over, "Is it me? Is it me? Is it me? What's wrong with me?"
The turning point came for me when I realized a simple truth, a truth that friends, family, counselors, and even that small voice inside had tried to tell me before:
It wasn't me.
It wasn't me. There was nothing more I could do, nothing I could say, nothing I could change about myself (and believe me, I tried) to make this person love me. For so long, I had fought tooth and nail to discover the missing piece, the formula, the secret to gaining this love. The secret, all along, was this: I can't make this person love me, and that has nothing to do with my worth.
That was the moment I woke up and realized that my need to be accepted and loved by this person was like me choosing to live smack-dab in the middle of Tornado Alley. My striving and trying and changing myself to be loved primed me to be leveled by rejection again, and again, and again.
To be rejected by someone you love, or someone you think should love you, might be the most difficult form of rejection to endure. Those of you who have experienced it know what I mean. For a long time, it was soul-crushing for me. Being rejected on that level, though, became one of the greatest gifts I've ever been given once I learned how to get out of Tornado Alley.
Tornado Alley is the place we find ourselves in when we need someone else's love, approval, or acceptance to be okay. That's what rejection really is about, isn't it? Approval. Acceptance. Someone else validating us. Our expectations of how someone should feel about us or what we do. We get out of Tornado Alley when we realize we're not entitled to anyone else's acceptance or approval. Once I figured out how to do that, life became much less storm-prone.
I've been able to hold everything with a much more open hand, much less afraid of rejection. Facing your worst fear and discovering you can survive it will do that.
It lets me present myself as I am. This is me. This is my body. This is my job. This is what I make. This is what I like, and this is what I hate. This is what I'm about. Take it or leave it.
If someone doesn't like my personality, that's fine. If someone doesn't want to be my friend, that's well within their rights. If someone doesn't connect with what I write or say, okay. If someone I love decides not to love me back, well...it hurts, but I can't control that person's heart or decisions. It lets me be driven more by what I actually value than how someone responds to me.
When it comes to acceptance, so many of us start backward. We try to gain someone else's approval or acceptance or love as a prerequisite, and only then will we be okay with ourselves. This is why being talented or beautiful or popular doesn't mean someone is confident or secure. Talented people might have some great reasons to feel good about themselves, but if they're dependent on other people's approval, they're always on shaky ground. I can count a good number of beautiful and/or talented people who are simultaneously the most insecure people I know.
Outside approval is never guaranteed; it will always come and go, and those who rely on it will always feel insecure. Their best qualities will never be enough because someone will always disapprove or reject them, and that's how you end up in Tornado Alley.
It sounds so cheesy, but approval and acceptance has to start with me. I have to be okay with me. I have to feel good about me. I have to accept me. I have to believe that I'm good enough and that there's no one I need to impress or convince.
What about the parts of me I don't like, though--what about those flaws, those shortcomings, those limitations I can't seem to ignore? It's not black and white. Some flaws need to be worked on; some need to be embraced. Some we can change; some we can't. How do we figure that out? I don't have any simple solutions, but I can share some of what helps me. Hopefully, it helps you, too.
I start with one major question: Why do I care about this flaw?
It's an important question, and it's not always easy to answer. This is a list of additional questions that help me figure out the answer to the one above:
- What are my values--what do I believe is beautiful and important and good in life? The answer to this question is important: it's the filter through which we view ourselves and everything around us. For example, even the questions I list below are a result of my values and what I believe is important. Your answers, and therefore your questions, may not be the same. Based on my values, I ask myself if any particular flaw is something I can work on to better reflect those values.
- Am I letting culture/media lie to me? Am I concerned with this flaw because society is telling me that my face looks like baked beans from a can compared to the tender filet mignon of Ryan Gosling's face? (and body, and hair, and basically everything else.)
- Am I hurting people? Is this flaw of mine hurting the people in my life in a real, preventable way? Maybe you don't care about this one if your last name is O'Doyle or Luthor, or you have a jagged chunk of ice where your heart should be, but it matters to me.
- Can I even do anything about this, and if so, what? Like I said, some flaws can be changed; some can't. We can save ourselves some grief by recognizing when there's nothing we can or should do to "fix" a flaw.
These questions help ground me based on my values rather than what other people think of me. It's the difference between working out to fix a part of my appearance to be more appealing to people, and working out to create a lifestyle that lets me be healthy enough to still hike or climb, activities I love, when I'm forty or fifty or sixty. It's the difference between pretending to like something just so someone can like me, and working on being more kind and thoughtful so that I don't make a friend feel like crap, because I want to build people up and not tear them down.
The more work I do on being okay with me, the less I'm dependent on someone else to be okay with me. That's better for all of us. And it prepares you to better deal with the inevitable rejections that life has in store.
At some point, someone is going to reject you. That rejection might come in the form of a straight-up "no" to a project of yours, an idea, a date. Someone might hate the work you do or the art you create. You might even experience rejection from the person you least want to reject you, in a way you least want to be rejected.
And when that happens, you can take it for what it is--an inevitable part of life that doesn't make you less in any way. It doesn't make you less worthy of love, it doesn't make you less of a woman or man, it doesn't make you less you.
The more we accept ourselves, the more confident we are in our worth regardless of someone else's approval, the less power rejection has to scare us, to shake us, to rip us apart.
How much power does rejection have in your life?
Maybe it's time to move out of the Alley.