When I arrived at the University three years ago, I planned to make the most of my college experience. Having grown up doing music and theatre my whole life, I decided to continue on this path by auditioning for seven a capella groups as well as the UM Educational Theatre Company. I knew these groups were competitive, but I reasoned that if I auditioned for everything, I should at least get one callback for something. Instead, all eight groups flatly turned me down. As rejection e-mail after rejection e-mail flooded my inbox, I began to feel a mixture of disappointment, shame and inadequacy. To comfort myself, I watched Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper” music video on loop while my roommate pretended not to notice the tears streaming down my face.

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, feeling accepted is a key driving force behind human behavior. When we experience rejection, we feel anxious and unhappy because our sense of belonging has been jeopardized. Rejection can be so distressing that we stop putting ourselves out there so that we can avoid the pain of being repeatedly turned down.

After facing multiple rejections early in my college career, I lost all self-confidence and retreated back into my shell at a time when I should have been putting myself out there the most. I fell into a mentality of learned helplessness. I passed up opportunities to apply to programs that interested me because I assumed I would never be chosen. It took until my junior year to find the courage to audition for another singing group; this time it was the Women’s Glee Club. I was completely shocked to receive an acceptance e-mail, and I immediately attributed my admittance to some sort of fluke in the audition process. It wasn’t until completing the first rehearsal that I realized I had earned a spot on my own merits.

As a current executive board member for the Women’s Glee Club, I am gaining a new perspective on rejection by learning about what goes on behind the scenes. Part of my job this semester was to help run auditions. My heart broke when we proofread the rejection e-mail aloud as an executive board. I thought back to all the freshmen I had met earlier that day, eager to become involved on campus and find a sense of community. I pictured how their faces would fall as they read the e-mail, feeling the same disappointment I had felt during my own freshman year.

My biggest takeaway from running auditions was realizing how arbitrary the cutoffs were. The unfortunate reality is that there are always more talented, capable individuals interested in contributing to any organization than there are open positions available. Rejection is never meant to be a malicious attack on someone’s character; it is merely an unavoidable byproduct of most application processes, especially at such a large, competitive university. Lines must be drawn somewhere, and often the only thing separating those who are rejected versus those who are accepted is luck. With this knowledge in mind, I am now able to face rejection without taking it personally.

Another way I learned to remedy the pain of rejection is through rejection therapy. A recent NPR piece interviewed Jason Comely, who was so afraid of rejection that he created a game to face his fear. Every day he completed a task that he knew would prompt a rejection, such as asking a stranger for a ride. By making rejection his goal, he became desensitized to the unpleasantness associated with being denied. He also found that he was rejected far less than he assumed, and instead began connecting with more people. He created playing cards listing various challenges, such as “Convince a stranger that you know them,” and “Before purchasing something, ask for a discount.” His game became so popular that others began using his tactics to find dates.

This year, I am starting to practice my own form of rejection therapy. Every day I take at least one risk, whether it’s talking to a stranger, trying a new activity or applying to a new program. Rather than feeling ashamed each time I am rejected, I am learning to laugh at myself and roll with whatever happens. Like Comely, I have been pleasantly surprised by how many times things have gone my way, allowing me to meet more people and take advantage of new opportunities.

I regret wasting my first three years at the University internalizing my rejection letters and letting them determine my decisions to apply to future programs. Now, as a senior, I realize that if I want something badly enough, I shouldn’t let one little “no” cause me to give up on myself. Instead, I will turn rejection into a laughing matter and keep pushing forward until I achieve my dreams. Go on and try to tear me down; I will be rising from the ground. Like a skyscraper.

Annie Humphrey can be reached at annieah@umich.edu.

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