Does literary rejection discourage and bog you down or does it inspire and motivate you to work harder? Do you succumb to the pain or do you surmount the discomfort? As mentioned in last week’s post, research suggests that personality traits such as resilience are vital to how we process pain. If resilience is so important when faced with an obstacle like rejection, how can we learn to be more resilient? The good news is resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be practiced and developed in anyone.
Steven Southwick explains the scientific research on resiliency in his Huffington Post article The Science of Resilience. He says, “Emerging scientific research has begun to show that neurobiological systems associated with resilience can be strengthened to respond more adaptively to stress. For example, research using EEG and fMRI technology has shown that mindfulness meditation and training in cognitive reappraisal can increase activation of the left prefrontal cortex. This is important because people with greater activation of the left prefrontal cortex recover more rapidly from negative emotions such as anger, disgust, and fear. University of Wisconsin researcher Richard Davidson has proposed that resilience is largely related to activation of the left prefrontal cortex and the strength of neural connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Robust activation of the PFC inhibits the amygdala, quiets associated anxiety and fear-based emotions, and allows the PFC to facilitate rational planning and behavior.”
George Bonanno is a clinical psychologist at Columbia University’s Teachers College; he heads the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab and has been studying resilience for nearly twenty-five years. He explains that one of the central elements of resilience is perception: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? In The New Yorker’s How People Learn to Become Resilient, Bonanno explains, “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things.”
The article presents research from Columbia in which the neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner has shown that teaching people to think of stimuli in different ways—to reframe them in positive terms when the initial response is negative, or in a less emotional way when the initial response is emotionally “hot”—changes how they experience and react to the stimulus. Training people to better regulate strong emotions helps them become more resilient.
If the research tells us that stress management strategies help develop resiliency, wouldn’t it make sense to add some of these approaches to our writers tool kit?
Let’s start with some of the practices mentioned in the research. Mindfulness and cognitive reappraisal increase activation in important parts of the brain that help people recover more rapidly from strong feelings like anger, disgust, and fear. Reframing an obstacle like rejection from a negative threat to a positive challenge will help you develop resiliency.
The American Psychological Association presents ten ways to build resilience here. The Huffington Post suggests seven habits of highly resilient people — and ways that you can improve your own ability to cope with challenges. Tiny Buddha offers insights into how to overcome the pain of rejection.
The easiest place to start may be an exercise that Psychologist Guy Winch recommends and writer Michael Alvear suggests. Alvear explains, “Once you understand your sense of purpose, your ability to face, process and overcome rejection rises exponentially. In the face of the greater value delivered, the obstacles raised by rejection are put in perspective.” This five-to-ten-minute exercise can help you to build resilience in the face of publisher rejection letters.
Make a list of five values your writing delivers. For instance, does your writing inspire people? Are your books entertaining? Does your writing solve problems? Then, choose one of these values, and write one or two paragraphs about why this particular purpose is important and why it would be meaningful to another person.
Winch says, “Studies show that when you do that and remind yourself of your worth, then you are more resilient to rejection that comes thereafter.”
In this excerpt fromWalt Whitman’s poem O Me! O Life! he writes:
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
What is your verse? That is the question. Your answer, and the depth to which you feel it, is essential in forging the kind of resiliency required in order to thrive in the face of literary rejections.