A few months ago I noticed a strange feeling creeping over me. I was tired, unmotivated and taking forever to finish a task that I’d usually dash off in a couple of hours.
Looking at my symptoms, I had a pretty good idea of what was going on – everything I was feeling matched my previous experience of being burnt out. But I couldn’t understand how it had happened. The last time I’d experienced burnout was at the end of an intense period of work, right in the middle of a massive restructure that had seen me nearly lose my job. But this time around, all the circumstances were different.
My working life wasn’t particularly full on, and I was managing to prioritise my personal life. If I’m honest, the biggest problem I had to worry about was how to make my Instagram stories more interesting.
It was only when I spoke to a friend about how disengaged I was feeling that I finally understood what was going on.
“You’re experiencing an overload of micro-rejections,” she told me. “No wonder you’re burnt out. You’re constantly putting yourself out there, pitching for new business, trying to find a date and putting more of yourself on social media, all while receiving lots of small knock-backs. It would be enough to make anyone take to their bed.”
She was right. This time, I wasn’t just experiencing burnout – I was suffering rejection burnout. After all, if there is one certainty in the life of a social media loving, single, freelancer, it’s that you’re going to experience a lot of rejection and it seemed like it had finally worn me down. I was sending out fewer pitches, I couldn’t be bothered to check my dating apps and I was even annoyed at an algorithm change on Instagram.
The bad news is that the way modern society works means that we’re all likely to experience rejection burnout at one point or another. Prior to internet dating, the chances were that we’d meet our romantic partners either at work or through friends, giving us time to get to know them and form an idea of the sort of person they’d be.
Now, over 57 million single people around the world are using Tinder to find the love of their life. The very process of app dating – with its buffet of single people that we are encouraged to swipe past, each one becoming more disposable than the last – forces us into a mindset of rejection.
From the very first moment you join Tinder, Bumble, Hinge or any of the other dating apps, you are encouraged to prioritise rejecting people. The sheer volume of users on these apps means that we spend more time swiping left than we do swiping right (in fact there’s a theory that Tinder’s algorithm will actually punish you if try to swipe right on too many people).
This rejection mindset doesn’t just encourage us to reject people, but also acts as a reminder that others are doing the same to us. Every time we swipe left on someone’s smiling face, we’re given a little reminder that our own face has probably just been dismissed for not being good enough, too.
“Dating apps provide many levels of rejection,” says Natasha Lunn, founder of the Conversations On Love newsletter.
“You have the rejection of not getting any matches (which feels like a rejection of your appearance), then that happens again if someone starts messaging you and then stops, or organises a date and then cancels, or meets you for a date and then never messages. What helped me build resilience was trying to detach my value from the rejection, to reflect on the way I used the apps, and to see the outcomes as facts that had little to do with my worth as a person.”
For engineer Sadie*, the constant feeling of not being quite good enough led her to take a break from dating apps altogether.
“I’d just had enough of feeling like I was desperately waiting for someone to pick me,” she says. “Particularly in my 30s, the whole thing just felt like a bit of a meat market. Eventually I got tired of feeling like everyone on the apps was rejecting me, and so I just rejected them instead. I can’t say it’s improved my dating life, but I certainly don’t feel the same level of anxiety and sadness that I did when I was actively swiping.”
Traditionally, work has been one area where rejections tend to be big, but rare – like not getting a job or being passed over for promotion. However, more and more of us are going freelance or setting up our own companies. Not only are freelancers likely to earn less but not being paid at all is a major issue because, while getting turned down for work is a tough rejection, doing the work and then not getting paid is even worse. This means female freelancers will be experiencing more rejection than ever before. After all, if you want to have a successful freelance career, you have to be prepared to put yourself and your ideas out there again and again.
Anna Codrea-Rado runs FJ & Co, a community for freelancers, and says the constant rejection can be tough on even the most seasoned of self-employed workers.
“Personally it’s not the ‘nos’ I find hardest to deal with, but the unanswered emails,” she says. “I’ll spend a few hours putting a pitch together only to never hear anything back. To not even be acknowledged is deeply defeating, because you make up stories in your head that the person on the end of that email laughed at it and then deleted it.”
Couple this with how often freelancers are encouraged to use social media to promote themselves and their work, and you have a double whammy of rejection.
For artist Safiyyah Choycha, using Instagram to sell her work made her doubt her own creativity.
“I would start by writing really thought-provoking posts hoping it would get myself out there a little more, but it wasn’t giving me a feeling of growth,” she says. “It made me question if people thought I was overdoing it or, worse, boring. Some of the art I posted would also get less engagement than other pieces, which would make me question if I was any good. There is a real feeling of self doubt and imposter syndrome which I deal with on a day-to-day basis, I have to train my brain to think in ways that are healthy and positive to get me through the day.”
Codrea-Rado says finding a support network is the key to overcoming those regular knock-backs.
“For me, [rejection] resilience is a practice rather than a destination,” she says. “One practical tip I have for freelancers who feel the bite of rejection: find a supportive community to share your war stories with. A Facebook, WhatsApp or Slack group of people who work in the same industry, or are fellow freelancers, who will lend an ear when you’re feeling downtrodden.”
Codrea-Rado also recommends focusing on the process, rather than the outcome; it’s about sending the pitch or showing up for the date rather than having that pitch accepted or finding true love. Re-frame feelings of rejection by celebrating the wins rather than fixating on the losses.
“It’s all too easy to focus on the setbacks but plenty of good things also happen each day, congratulate yourself for them, no matter how small,” she says. “And lastly put out into the universe what you hope to receive – if you have to reject someone at any point, then do so with kindness and compassion.”
How to handle rejection by Dr Sheri Jacobson, founder of HarleyTherapy.com
Dr Jacobson says it’s our need to be accepted by others that makes rejection feel so tough. But, she believes there are simple ways we can overcome knock-backs when we experience them. Here are her top four tips for handling rejection:
1. Digest it. Try not to cover it up with negative behaviours or defences. This can be a short-term fix, and negative thoughts can often end up returning to compound the issue.
2. Try being more self-compassionate. Being critical of yourself on top of external rejection compounds the problem. Having a kind stance towards ourselves can soften any blow.
3. Flip failure and rejection into a positive. Try to think of the good that can come from a rejection – can you learn anything or improve for next time?
4. Practice. Make clocking up as many rejections as you can your challenge. Doing so will put any further rebuffs into perspective. A stint working as a charity collector, where rejection is commonplace, can help normalise knock-backs and soften further blows.
*Names have been changed. Images: Unsplash, Getty.