Last week was a rough one for me. I received two rejections in one day. And one of those rejections was for a SSHRC doctoral award, which is an award that I have been working to earn for the past four years. It was a personal goal that I wanted to achieve in my PhD, and this was my last year to apply.
I’ve had my share of rejection in the past; applying to other schools for my PhD, other funding opportunities and you can check out some of past past reflections here and here. But something hit different this time.
The typical narrative around rejection in grad school is “get used to it”, “this is something we need to face for the rest of our career”, “if you can’t take rejection, you will never make it.” If this was in fact true, you would think by my fourth year of my PhD I would be an expert on rejection and it wouldn’t affect me, right? Wrong.
One thing you must know about me is that I am a feeler, I am emotional, a really big empath. I used to hate this about myself, but it’s something I am growing to love. When I received the news of this rejection, I felt like I should have enough experience in rejection by now and be able to dust it off and move on. I am sure some people can do this, but not me, I don’t think it will ever be me. If you are like me, an emotional soul, then I say let’s embrace it. Let’s change the narrative of rejection in academia. Let’s allow ourselves to feel the hurt and see what we can learn from it. Here is what I am learning so far:
Lesson One: Feel your feelings – both the bad and the good
After I heard the news, my husband came in the room and double checked the e-mail to make sure it was correct (which in hindsight is very sweet), as I ended up on the ground crying and in disbelief. That night, the only thing I could do is try to focus on anything else but the negative thoughts in my head and doing anything I could to sleep that night. This was very much survival mode, it was very difficult to exist that day. The next morning, still in a bit of a shock, I shared the news on Instagram, which made it more real. I went for a morning walk. I wanted to be “strong” and move on, but I couldn’t help but cry for most of it. Unfortunately, my mask only covers half my face, leaving my blood-shot eyes out in the open for everyone to see. Then things got easier, minute by minute, hour by hour. It seemed less like running through mud and more like walking at a very slow pace.
But you see, I was strong; I face and felt all my feelings – the anger, the frustration, the hopelessness, the unworthiness, and the deep, deep sadness.
Allowing myself to tune into my feelings, I found something surprising. There were also a lot of wonderful moments amongst the saddness. At first, this was a bit uncomfortable to feel, I thought, “This is awful news, I can’t be enjoying some piece of this rejection, can I?” Well I did. The words my husband told me, while I was curled up in a ball on the ground that night, the out-pour of supportive comments, DM’s, cards, coffees and gifts that I received, were all so thoughtful and heartwarming. And I don’t want to forget those things – the unwavering support from my husband, the academic community of colleagues that support me and my work, the online community of scholars sharing in their own rejection stories to rewrite the narrative of rejection in academia, the check-in’s from family and friends. If I had brushed off my rejection, I would have missed it all.
I learned my first lesson, it’s okay to feel so incredibly sad, while also feeling loved and happy at the same moment, because of the same event. Practice liking what you are feeling – both the good and the bad.
Lesson Two: Get rid of that shame. We have all been here
I felt so embarrassed. Unworthy to be playing in the same arena as the other scholars who have received this award. I felt embarrassed that I took this silly award to heart so much. I felt like a disappointment to those who have been supporting me in my journey. I felt, shame. So. Much. Shame. But can we please work towards getting rid of that? If everyone experiences so much rejection in academia, then it shouldn’t be shameful. We should wear our rejections with pride. Imagine if there could be a section for rejections on our CV and we could see them too as significant milestones – because you put yourself out there, you worked hard on those applications; you tried.
My second lesson, my rejections are my battle wounds, check them out – aren’t they cool?
Lesson Three: Find something that helps with negative thoughts
But as I mentioned, there were dark days. As someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, dark times are tough. Tougher than I even want to admit to my therapist, or my husband, let alone in this blog post for the entire world to see. But something that helped me in these dark times is working through the present moment. This won’t work for everyone, but it worked for me. I found something that worked for me. At first, this was simply focusing on something to be grateful for, anything really, and repeat it until I was blue in the face. Then, I could reframe my thoughts a bit more easily. And eventually could bring myself to do things that brought me joy, like read, paint, or meditate. This comes with a warning however, working at your negative thoughts is exhausting. It’s a lot of work. But it was survival.
My third lesson, gratitude is exhausting, but it works (for me).
Lesson Four: Reflect on your unconscious feelings
And for my biggest lesson of all. In deep stillness comes deep reflection. My reflection taught me why I actually wanted this funding award so badly. Sure, the money would be great. Yes, it would look great on my CV when I apply for jobs. Oh, and I would gain significant bragging rights. But mostly, I wanted it because it would prove that I could be a respected scholar, that I am good enough to be in the playing field, that I belong.
What I am learning is that this funding award would could never give me that. I am the only one who can give that to me. I need to believe it, and no funding award will prove it. I am not there yet, but I am working on it. I feel hopeful and I feel powerful, because I felt my feelings.
Of course, I don’t have this whole rejection thing figured out, and I definitely don’t have this PhD thing figured out. But I know I can’t run from being who I am. So, if you are reading this blog post because you have recently faced rejection, I encourage you to take some time to sit with your unique feelings and emotions, whatever ones come up for you, and see what lessons you can take away from this experience. Rejection sucks. But you are strong.
Until next time,
P.S Don’t forget to use #ScholarCulture #ScholarSquad to keep me updated on your experiences as grad students.
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