How Philosophers Handle Rejection

Living in absolute poverty, the great cynic philosopher Diogenes slept in public places and begged for food. One day, he begged in front of a statue. When someone asked him why he did so, Diogenes answered: “to get practice in being refused.” For a beggar, being denied food is part of his existence. And even though this experience can be painful, he’ll starve if he doesn’t face it. But if he trains himself to become indifferent towards it, he’ll have no problem asking people for food and might even get it.

Similarly, many people fear being rejected because they experience it as painful. As a result, they avoid situations in which they could be rejected. And so, they rather not apply for jobs that might be out of their league, avoid asking out a romantic interest when there’s a possibility of refusal (which is always the case), and never ask friends to hang out as they might turn down the offer. But when we fear rejection, what do we fear? Is it the disapproval from other people? And if so, why do we care so much about that? Or could it be that we fear the idea of being inadequate?

When we look at our species, we see that human beings love to be part of something. Often, we wish to belong to the people around us; we want to be in relationships, and we long to be part of something bigger than ourselves. However, to achieve this, we generally need approval from other people.

Who rejects us? (Schopenhauer)

Other people determine whether or not we’re good enough to be part of the group. We experience this phenomenon in the playground when we’re small children when the other children have to assess if we’re good enough to join a game of “hide and seek.” Later, the popular kids decide who sits at their table during lunch break. And, when we’re adults, other people decide if we’re qualified for specific jobs, the right fit for certain social groups and settings, and even if we’re eligible for a romantic relationship. And thus, if we want something in life that requires other people’s approval, we’ll eventually face rejection.

In many cases, rejection is based on logic and reason. For example, rejection is an expected and reasonable outcome if someone in a wheelchair applies for being a professional soccer player. Or when someone without any relevant education, work experience, or skills wishes to become the CEO of Google, rejection is inevitable. In such cases, we’re simply not skilled enough for the task. 

In many other situations, rejection doesn’t always seem fair. People may reject us for flimsy reasons, like clothing style, even though we’d be highly compatible in other areas. Despite sharing many interests, potential friends may dislike us because of our looks. A nightclub may deny us entrance for the same reasons, even though we could have been long-term customers. A company may choose another candidate based on physical features rather than skills and experience.

Despite the superficiality and irrationality of people’s judgments, those who face rejection often feel personally humiliated. Being rejected by those we’re romantically interested in leads to feelings of inadequacy. When people reject us, we believe we’re not good enough. The more rejections, the stronger this idea becomes. But, according to Arthur Schopenhauer, we make a mistake if we take too seriously the judgments of other people:

(Apart from this,) what goes on in other people’s consciousness is, as such, a matter of indifference to us; and in time we get really indifferent to it, when we come to see how superficial and futile are most people’s thoughts, how narrow their ideas, how mean their sentiments, how perverse their opinions, and how much of error there is in most of them; when we learn by experience with what depreciation a man will speak of his fellow, when he is not obliged to fear him, or thinks that what he says will not come to his ears. And if ever we have had an opportunity of seeing how the greatest of men will meet with nothing but slight from half-a-dozen blockheads, we shall understand that to lay great value upon what other people say is to pay them too much honor.

Arthur Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life, chapter 4

Rejection isn’t just about us; it’s also about those rejecting us. Rejection isn’t always based on facts, reason, and logic but often on people’s opinions and feelings. People’s opinions are often irrational or plain stupid. So, if someone rejects us, we may want to remind ourselves of Schopenhauer’s words.

Amor fati (Stoicism)

If we look at rejection from a Stoic point of view, we’ll discover that the pain of rejection originates from a wrong attitude towards the world. Rejection means that we don’t get what we desire, which is the acceptance and approval of others. So, when we fear rejection, we fear not getting a specific outcome. For example, a man approaches a woman in a bar because he desires to be with her. But if he approaches her and clarifies his intentions, there’s a risk of rejection, meaning that the woman isn’t romantically or sexually interested in the man. If that happens, the man doesn’t achieve the desired outcome.

Stoic philosopher Epictetus explained that we should be careful with desire and aversion. If we don’t get what we desire, we feel disappointed, and if we encounter what we’re averse to, we experience distress. Hence, he advises us not to desire things to happen as we wish but as they happen. Doing so neutralizes the pain that usually follows after rejection because we don’t dread rejection but welcome it: we wish for things to happen as they happen. 

Moreover, we could say that rejection is impossible if we don’t want to get something out of the situation in the first place. Suppose we simply approach someone just to approach without any expectation or desire for more. There’s no rejection if that person doesn’t want to talk to us because we’ve already achieved what we wanted to do, namely, the approach itself. Anything more, whether it would be a friendly conversation, an exchange of phone numbers, or a sexual encounter, is an added extra, which the Stoics classify as a ‘preferred indifferent.’ According to the Stoics, a preferred indifferent is nice to have but unnecessary to be happy, and it’s not in our control and therefore unreliable. So, the result of the approach lies in the hands of fate. 

The Stoic idea of Amor Fati means that we embrace fate and thus not attach ourselves to specific outcomes. How can we feel rejected if we’re okay with whatever happens? Suppose we, instead, let our happiness and joy depend on the desired result, like obtaining a romantic relationship with a specific person. In that case, our happiness and contentment depend on that person’s actions. As Epictetus stated:

If someone put you in chains and put you in the custody of some random passerby, you would be angry. But if you give control of your mind to any random person who curses you, leaving you flustered, shouldn’t you be ashamed of that?

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 28

If we experience pain through what we perceive as rejection, then we have given the control over our minds to another person. But if we just focus on our own actions, and embrace any outcome, then the reactions of others don’t hurt us, and what we previously saw as rejection will be nothing more than an insignificant movement of fate.

The power of uselessness (Zhuangzi)

Isn’t there an advantage in every disadvantage? Doesn’t every cloud have a silver lining? Seeing the positive in the negative is a recurring theme in Taoist texts. How can we approach the hardships of life intelligently and make the best out of situations that would generally be seen as undesirable? 

The Taoist book Zhuangzi contains a story about a large, crooked tree that every logger refused to chop down. The reason was that loggers looked for straight trees that were fit to create planks. But the crooked tree was so deformed that no carpenter would be able to use it, and so it was left alone, as opposed to its straight brothers and sisters, that were chopped by the boatload. Zhuangzi said to Huizi, the owner of the crooked tree, and I quote:

You, Sir, have a large tree and are troubled because it is of no use – why do you not plant it in a tract where there is nothing else, or in a wide and barren wild? There you might saunter idly by its side, or in the enjoyment of untroubled ease sleep beneath it. Neither bill nor axe would shorten its existence; there would be nothing to injure it. What is there in its uselessness to cause you distress?

Zhuangzi, Inner Chapters, Enjoyment in Untroubled Ease (paragraph 7)

The loggers rejected the large, crooked tree, as they saw it as useless. But, as a consequence, it was able to grow old, and some people even considered it sacred. Hence, rejection of any sort doesn’t have to be wrong; it may actually be a blessing in disguise. For example, a girl rejects a boy solely based on his clothing style, even though he has a lot in common with her in terms of personality.

On the one hand, the boy is disappointed because the girl he likes isn’t romantically interested in him. On the other hand, the rejection saved him from being with a shallow person, which could have led to more disappointment and other forms of suffering in the future. Or let’s say someone not so smart or talented is mostly passed over and thus misses most opportunities that more intelligent, capable, and talented people get. On the one hand, we could see this as unfortunate. On the other hand, people leave this person alone, and his shoulders don’t carry the heavy burdens that those highly esteemed individuals bear due to their many responsibilities. His life is generally more tranquil. And so, rejection can be a good thing if one sees and appreciates not having to suffer the things one would have otherwise encountered.

The straight trees from Zhuangzi’s story may have been eligible (and thus not rejected by woodcutters); the sole fact that they were suitable for human use meant that they were chopped down and turned into planks. The woodcutter’s refusal to chop down the crooked tree caused its longevity. So, being useless in the eyes of others could be great for one’s health, as it deprives one of the stress and sacrifice of being useful. Moreover, rejection may signal that we’re probably designed for different purposes and that our talents lie elsewhere. For example, the crooked tree wasn’t suitable for making wooden planks but later on attracted people because of its uniqueness and old age. So, we may not be meant to work in a specific field, have children, be part of the popular people at school, or be the captain of the soccer team. And, as a consequence of being denied from partaking in all these things, we found a different, more suitable, and unique path.

Thank you for watching.