No Thanks

If there’s one thing I ought to be used to by now, it’s rejection.  For years I worked as a free-lance writer, placing some articles in magazines and newspapers, and even selling a children’s book.  But for every acceptance, I received at least twenty rejections. Eventually I acquired a whole file drawer just bursting with rejection letters.  A few of them were personal (which I counted as a small victory), but the majority were simply the form letters that publishers sent out to every writer who sent them a manuscript or proposal that they didn’t want.

And the rejections weren’t limited to my writing career.  When I was fresh out of college with an English degree, I applied to any job that was even remotely related to writing.  In return, I got a few interviews, a ton of rejection letters and zero job offers.  Eventually, I was so desperate that I ended up working as a secretary for a small seminary.  There’s nothing wrong with being a secretary….it’s an important job….but it wasn’t at all what I wanted to be doing.

One way or another, rejection and I are very well acquainted.  So it surprises me how much rejection can still hurt, all these years later.  You’d think I would have developed an immunity to it somewhere along the line, but I haven’t.  It still stings, especially when it feels personal.  Which tells me that I am still putting far too much value on what other people think of me, and not nearly enough on what I think of myself.

I know it’s only natural to feel hurt by rejection.  It’s hard when an old friend gradually becomes too busy to get together, or when someone I’ve just met at a party immediately looks over my shoulder for someone more interesting.  I once went to a church dinner by myself, and I put my plate of food down at a table where four other people were sitting and then went to get a drink.  When I returned with my glass of water, all four of them had moved to a different table.  I’d be lying if I said that didn’t sting.

The trick, I think, is to remember that I have no control over how other people are going to react to me, and to remember that often their reaction has nothing to do with me at all.  Maybe my old friend really was much busier than usual.  And maybe the person looking over my shoulder at a party is searching for someone she’s supposed to be meeting.  And as rude as their behavior was, maybe the people I sat down with at the church dinner were trying to save seats for the rest of their family and just didn’t know how to tell me that when I approached their table.

But even when someone is actually rejecting me, I need to remember that their opinion of me is just that:  their opinion.  And that while it feels good to have others appreciate and validate us, what ultimately matters is that we recognize our own self-worth and not wait for others to acknowledge it for us.

As a writer, I survived all those rejection letters by reminding myself of the simple truth that just because a publisher didn’t want my manuscript didn’t actually mean that my manuscript had no value.  It just meant that particular publisher didn’t think it could make a profit selling my book.  So I kept writing, and I kept sending out my manuscripts and queries, and I did make some sales.  I was very intentional about believing in the value of what I had written.  And sometimes I need to work just as hard at believing in the value of me.

Can You See Me Now?

I was talking to a friend one day, and she said one of the biggest surprises she had upon reaching middle age was discovering that she had become virtually invisible to almost everyone who wasn’t also a middle-aged woman.  When I responded sympathetically, she exclaimed, “Oh, I don’t mind at all!  Actually, I love it!  I can do whatever I want, and nobody notices!”

I’d heard middle-aged women complain about being invisible before, but being young at the time, I had assumed that they were simply complaining that the men they encountered no longer saw them as desirable.  And I thought, with all the callousness of youth, that they just needed to get over themselves.  But there is nothing vain or shallow about my friend, and she was talking about her work situation, not walking into a party and wanting the men in the room to stare at her with deep admiration and longing.  She meant that, as a middle-aged woman, most of her superiors didn’t really notice her enough to pay close attention to what she was up to, which gave her the freedom to do her job as she thought best without a lot of unnecessary interference. And since she’s both smart and hard working, she doesn’t need or want to be micro-managed.

But while middle-age invisibility may be an advantage in the workplace (although I’m sure it means my friend is also not recognized for some of her achievements), it can feel a bit uncomfortable when it spills over into the rest of our lives.  I once visited a new church three times by myself, slipping in and out of the sanctuary mostly unnoticed.  On the fourth visit, my husband joined me, and that time lots of people came up to greet us.  Once I was part of a couple, people actually saw us.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find that a bit annoying.  And unless I’m shopping in a store that specifically targets middle-aged women, I can usually browse for a very long time without a sales person approaching and asking if I would like any help.  Middle-aged invisibility is not just in our imagination.

So, although I agree with my friend that there are distinct advantages to the freedom that comes from living in a culture that doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to middle-aged women, I think there is also a downside to middle-age invisibility.  Because all of us, even those with a healthy self-esteem, sometimes need a little validation from other people.  We need to be reminded that we still have lots to offer the world, that we still count, and that we are still beautiful, both inside and out.  Which might be why, as we live out our middle years, we tend to spend so much time with other middle-aged women.  They still see our worth, and we see theirs. And sometimes that’s exactly what we need.