It’s no secret that rejection comes with the territory for artists. Learning how to cope with artistic rejection can keep you on a more even keel emotionally, help your creative process, and guide your art career forward.
Consider these tips and action items to help you navigate through rejection and emerge stronger than ever.
1. Congratulate yourself for being brave.
Acknowledge to yourself that you are brave enough to put yourself out there. It’s not easy being vulnerable, and vulnerability is not weakness. According to Brene Brown, “We can measure how brave you are by how vulnerable you’re willing to be.” The only way to get seen is to risk artistic rejection, so right off the bat, you are doing something right.
Action item: take a moment to congratulate yourself for being vulnerable and therefore brave. Look in the mirror. Tell yourself, “Way to go, you, for behaving fearlessly!” or similar words that come to you. This may feel hokey, but there is science to back up how making eye contact with yourself and encouraging yourself have positive effects on your mood and self-image. If you want to slap yourself a high-five in the mirror, all the better.
2. Feel your feelings.
Rejection is painful, and it’s a natural inclination to move away from pain. But it’s actually better to feel and process your feelings than to ignore them. Experiencing and moving through difficult feelings will allow you to move on more easily. Unprocessed feelings don’t go away. Instead, they emerge in other ways, like fatigue, avoidance, creative blocks, or tension.
If you need a break from your feelings:
Working through artistic rejection can involve some pretty painful feelings, and you may need a break. It’s a normal reaction to want to distance from your feelings. Often people will numb themselves with alcohol, food, shopping, work, the internet, etc. Numbing can provide some temporary relief. We all do it. Give yourself a day.
If you need some distance or a break from painful emotions, try to be aware of what you are doing, The key is being aware that you are choosing to take a break or get some space from your feelings.
“Numb time” won’t move you along in terms of processing your feelings, but getting distracted can give you a much-needed break. You can have a chance to re-group, refuel, and regain some energy needed to sit with difficult thoughts and emotions.
A break is fine, but don’t avoid your feelings about rejection completely.
There is a catch to numbing out: our brains and bodies are not wired to numb our feelings selectively. In other words, if you drink some wine to take the edge off of shame, sadness, or fear, you are also going to numb your hope, joy, and excitement. So be careful about how much time you spend distracting yourself from what’s going on underneath the hood.
Additionally, if you find yourself struggling to control how much time you spend distracting yourself from your feelings, it may be a good time to seek help.
Action item: sit quietly and take a few deep breaths. Allow whatever feelings that come up to surface. You may cry, you may want to yell into a pillow (or punch it!), or you may just sit and breathe. Assign a name or names to what you are feeling: sad, angry, frustrated, insecure. Observe your feelings without judging them. Vent your feelings in a journal or by reaching out to someone you know can be supportive.
Once you’ve vented your painful feelings, do something restorative for yourself, because you deserve a break. It might be a short walk or a nap, or maybe you want to talk or write about things that have gone well, or future projects that you’re working on and are excited about. Focusing on these positive things can serve as a reminder that this rejection is not the whole picture, and it can help get you back on track.
3. Watch your self-talk
Chances are, you wouldn’t tell a friend, “Oh my God, you’re such a loser. You’re a lousy artist. What were you even thinking?” Please, don’t tolerate that kind of self-talk, either! Listen to your internal monologue, and ask yourself: would I talk to a friend that way?
Besides taking a toll on your self-esteem, negative self-talk tends to shut down creativity and delay the processing of hurt feelings. Basically, berating yourself is a one-way ticket down the shame spiral. Noticing your self-talk and working on making it more supportive can help you bounce back from artistic rejection faster.
Action item: It is time to direct some compassion towards yourself. Imagine for a moment that you are talking to a friend in your situation. Speak or write exactly what you would say to them. Maybe you’d say things like, “Oh how frustrating, I’m sorry, honey. You’re amazing and the right opportunities will present themselves to you. I love you so much.” Now say it to yourself. You deserve that same consideration.
4. Check your boundaries.
If a rejection feels soul-crushing, it might be time to examine your boundaries between you and your work. Consider whether you need more balance in your life. Don’t let your artwork take over and define who you are as a person.
As soul-baring as it feels to show your art to others, it can soften the blow of rejection to remind yourself that you are not your work. Putting the rejection into the context of your entire life can help take the sting out of it. You are enough, right now, regardless of this rejection.
Action item: Make a list of the aspects and roles you value about yourself that are not related to your artwork. Are you a partner, parent, friend, business owner, cyclist? Consider how much this rejection actually impacts your marriage, or your 5k time. (Hint: probably not at all.)
If you find that you are over-identifying with the artist in you and that you struggle to come up with other roles that are important to you, commit now to seeking more balance in your life.
5. Seek support
When it comes to rejection, remember that it happens to everyone. It can really help to commiserate with others and to be reminded that you are in the midst of a common (though ego-bruising) experience for artists. Hearing about other artists’ experiences with rejection can put things in perspective, and remind you that the highs are worth the lows.
Artists become strangely familiar with rejection and build up a certain kind of resilience to it. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect you or that you don’t need support.
Artistic rejection stings less when you can share with people who understand what you’re going through.
If you don’t have a group of artists you relate to, please seek one out, in person or online, to give and receive support. A quick Google search will turn up dozens if not hundreds of online groups, for every area of art that you can imagine. Humans are social animals, and you are not meant to go through this alone.
Action item: Call or text someone you know will be supportive of you in dealing with this artistic rejection. If you are feeling like hiding this rejection, it’s even more important that you reach out and talk about it, because you likely have some shame around it. The best way to banish shame is to expose it to the light of day. You may want to include a therapist as part of your support system, especially if you are feeling really stuck or overwhelmed.
6. Be proud to be you.
Your job as an artist is to express your truth, and not everyone will relate to it. If you tried to please everyone to avoid artistic rejection, your art would suffer. Besides, censoring or altering your self-expression in order to be accepted is an exercise in futility. Even if you twisted yourself into pretzels to try to avoid rejection, not everyone would like your twisted-pretzel stuff!
How much better to be yourself.
After all, there is literally no one else who can be you. Since you can’t avoid rejection, cultivate pride in the unique contribution you have to offer. So unique, in fact, that it’s not for everyone.
Action item: Look at some of your artwork right now, and pick out something that is uniquely “you”. Maybe it’s a certain kind of mark-making, your use of light, or a particular color combination. If you are having trouble identifying what makes your artwork recognizable as yours, ask for feedback from the person you talked to in step five.
7. Understand why
Rejection is not personal, and competition means that a certain amount of artistic rejection is inevitable. That said, there are some things you can listen for in the way that you are rejected that might tell you that your work or your application skills might need something. Every artist has areas they can improve, after all.
Once you have bounced back a bit from being rejected, take stock of the situation. Consider these questions:
- Have you gotten the same feedback about something from different people who don’t know each other?
- Are you putting in the time and dedication every time you send out your portfolio, adjusting it to cater to each application?
- Did you take some time to research the gallery or company so you could fine-tune your portfolio?
- Did you write a personal email or letter for the application?
- Are you submitting to the right places that showcase art by people at similar points in their careers as you, with a similar price point and aesthetic?
Action item: Ask yourself the above questions about your portfolio and application process. Make a commitment to improve at least one thing about your strategy when submitting your work. Taking action like this helps you to turn rejection into motivation to keep improving. Using a rejection as an opportunity for self-reflection can guide your art career forward in a thoughtful and productive way.
Remember, you and your artwork are valuable.
Rejection hurts, but it’s part of the process. You can not only weather it, but grow from it. Don’t forget to reach out to people regularly, because you are not meant to do this alone.
If things don’t seem to get better, or you find yourself in the same pattern over and over again, don’t be afraid to seek out therapy. I work with creative professionals and artists, and therapy can help you feel more present in your life, and generally feel greater freedom and inspiration in your creative endeavors.