Rejection is scary. I feel like I’ve swallowed a boulder. The boulder has lodged itself in my chest. It is pressing on my heart. My heart is responsible for pumping blood around my body. My heart is having to beat faster to get the blood to flow around the boulder that is lodged in my chest. My heart hurts. This is what fear feels like. The fear is coming from words: no, no, no, no, no. The words were typed by humans and then translated by computers into ones and noughts. The ones and noughts were fired at great speed through optic fibre cables buried deep underground. When the ones and noughts surfaced they were translated back into words. The words were placed in a virtual file. When the file was ready a noise was emitted. My ears heard the noise. I tapped a small rectangular device made of various precious metals until I could read the words. No, no, no, no, no. It’s a shame, writes my agent. I feel her disappointment. Let’s evaluate and try again.
It’s a shame indeed. Toe-curling, skin-shrinking shame. I try to focus on the physical sensations. They are not unfamiliar. I trace them backwards in time. I follow them back to the wet field where I sank to my knees, overcome with grief because He had met somebody else. He had picked me up and carried me for a while. Then he discovered I was broken inside and he dumped me. She was thin, young, beautiful, whole. I nearly threw my heart up with weeping. No, no, no, no, no. You are not good enough. You do not deserve. You are not allowed in. No, no, no, no, no.
I picture my new shiny agent at her desk, her hand over her mouth, rueing the mistake she has made. I’m a loser. I will spend the rest of my life in abject poverty, sleeping on the street, eating out of bins. I will be forced to retrain as a librarian. I will wear brown calf-length skirts and keep elderly cats and drink five bottles of gin every night.
There is a reason why rejection feels like death. It piggybacks on the neural pathways associated with actual physical pain. Back in the days of the apes, when we literally wouldn’t survive if we were banished from the tribe, the pain of rejection was a valuable corrective tool. The good news is that those who felt the pain of rejection most acutely were the ones most likely to adjust their behaviour and stay alive. The bad news is that the tribe has expanded to include everyone connected by ones and noughts and underground cables made of optic fibres. The potential for experiencing the pain of rejection is no longer limited by distance, or the number of people we actually know. Social media platforms ruthlessly exploit our need to belong and our fear of being excluded. Advertisers go out of their way to target our insecurities, our sense of being left out and left behind. We are bombarded with information about all the fabulous things the slick and succesful members of our tribe are getting up to while we’re wandering lost and lonely in the desert, wearing shoes that are falling apart.
I call a friend, an outwardly-succesful, award-winning writer whom I admire greatly, not just for the books she’s written, which are wonderful, but for the effort she makes to live life fully, however much grief this costs her. She tells me stories of the rejections she has handled. They make me gasp in horror. She tells me they can’t force me to be a librarian. It’s not up to them to decide who I am, she says. I don’t need anybody’s permission to get on with my work. AlI I need is a piece of paper and a pencil. I force myself to call my new and shiny agent. It’s not personal, she says. It’s the market. It’s normal.
I do not feel normal. I feel like I’ve swallowed a boulder and now I’m trying to hack it up with a piece of paper and a pencil.
I shouldn’t be writing this. I should be on Instagram, papering over the cracks with ones and noughts and hashtags. I should be refining an image of myself as one of the slick and succesful people that have never been rejected. But I want you to know it’s an illusion. I’m not one of those people. Those people don’t exist, and the sad thing is that we exclude ourselves from the comfort of genuine human interaction every time we believe in them. They are not personal. They are the market. The market is not normal.
Onwards, says my new and shiny agent.