Turned Down: Rejection and the Bummed-Out Freelancer

April 5, 2018 | Stephen Jackson

You’ve been there. You’re waiting for a potential client to get back about a project — some web copy, a logo, whatever. Your inbox has been empty for a day or so, and this really needs to go well. You hit refresh. You hit it again. You leave, grab a cup of coffee, and return to see that the email has arrived.

But it’s not great news. They’re going with someone else. It’s beyond their budget, it’s not the right fit. You’re devastated.

But why? Why do you care so much? Besides the money (which is a huge part) why does this feeling sting the way it does? Well, according to Sarah Larkin Birdsong, a licensed mental health counselor who works with developers and freelancers, it has to do with the way we’re put together as people living in today’s world.

“All humans — not everyone, but if you’re reading this, probably you — tend to take in negative feedback more intensely and give it more value than positive feedback,” Birdsong says. “We all tend to be people who work well with lots of positive reinforcement, but we also tend to take negative feedback more to heart.”

One problem with working on your own is that it’s usually not in a potential client’s best interest to give you constructive criticism. If your work isn’t to their liking they will either (a) not hire you in the first place or (b) not hire you again. There’s no coworker giving you positive feedback or helpful criticism, no mentor-boss pulling for you to “realize your potential.” Nothing. Just you and the icy expanses of the internet, trying to make a buck.

“All of this is a recipe for freelancing to be very difficult for the ego to handle,” Birdsong says. “In this way, it’s hard to reframe rejection into something positive because you aren’t given much to grow from. It’s just like, ‘no, we don’t want to hire you, and we don’t need to tell you why.’”

So how can you better manage this sense of rejection?

Know Thyself

“Self awareness is huge. Acknowledge that you might be the type of person who ruminates more on negative rather than positive feedback, and take that opportunity to acknowledge all the other positive things you’ve heard along the way,” Birdsong says.

It’s important to realize that, as a freelancer, you are simply not in an environment where positive feedback is necessarily given. Becoming aware of of this, along with the fact that you’re likely predisposed to absorb negative stuff way more than good stuff, is an important first step to getting out of the whole head-trip that is self-doubt.

Build Your Own Community

Now that you’ve realized that you might not be the only independent creative professional staring out a rainy window and listening to Modest Mouse every time you get rejected, go out and build a community of people like you.

“Find a source of positive reinforcement, because that stuff’s important to your mental health,” Birdsong says. “Even if you’re freelancing, you can still have other freelancers in the same field that you get coffee with once a week. You can vent together and get support one another. It’s an important part of the holistic system of being a freelance creative professional.”

But Let’s Get Back to Yourself

“Acknowledge that, as a species, we equate rejection with death and abandonment, and that it’s reasonable to have it hurt so much,” Birdsong says. “However, it’s unreasonable to make much sense out of it. We don’t have to draw conclusions that we suck, or that we’re worthless. We can acknowledge that it hurt, but keep moving forward and not think that it makes us exceptional in any way.” She says that it’s important to normalize the feeling of rejection and not try to internalize it, as this can just make it all hurt worse.

Speaking of normalizing rejection, check out this TED Talk Birdsong showed me featuring a man who set himself up for 100 days of rejection by doing things like asking strangers to borrow $100 or requesting a refill on his burger.

It’s a great example of defanging rejection and getting on with your life. When it happens in future, it’ll be less of a big deal.

Now, get out there and ask your landlord to do your taxes. What could it hurt?