Bouncing Back from Rejection

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Sander A. Flaum

We’ve all been through it. Anyone who says he hasn’t is either acutely neurotic, suffering from chronic amnesia, or in total denial. Still, rejection is tough to take. It's demoralizing, ego-shattering, and can even lead to the slippery slope of depression.

Rejection forces us to make emotional choices. An easy response is to get angry and to crawl deep into a bottle of vodka, awash in self-pity.

Another choice is to reflect on the rejecter, dismissing him or her as ignorant, naive, misinformed, dumb, and, just generally, a loser; but to turn things around climb quickly and then make something good happen. Put another way, winners take many deep breaths and then bounce back with renewed energy, better than ever.

A good example of a positive reaction to rejection was illustrated by one of our country’s greatest heroes, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln knew about rejection: he was defeated for the Illinois General Assembly, U.S. Congress and U.S. Senate, as well as for his party’s vice presidential nomination before he finally became the 16th president of the United States. It was his perseverance and integrity that carried him through numerous personal attacks and setbacks. Decades into his career, he still considered himself a failure in comparison to the man he would ultimately defeat for the presidency, Stephen Douglas.

Lincoln had some obstacles to overcome—he didn’t have looks, formal education, or money. He was called “a horrid looking wretch” and a “zoological curiosity” by newsmen of the day. He suffered brutal criticism of his administration and his personal character from detractors on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line and from within his own cabinet. Long tormented by melancholic thoughts and torrents of criticism, he nonetheless stayed true to the course and realized his vision to preserve the Union. Abraham Lincoln, considered one of our greatest presidents, succeeded because he kept going.

There isn’t one of us who hasn’t felt the painful sting of rejection; it’s part of the human condition. Why then must we take it so personally? Scientists at UCLA have demonstrated that the brain response to rejection is the same as its response to actual physical pain. A comparison of MRI scans shows no difference between the two. So the pain of rejection is real. What differentiates people is how they deal with the pain.

As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “Into each life some rain must fall.” Even when you are pounded by a hailstorm, carry on. Let that hail bounce right off of you. Act decisively and with enthusiasm at the earliest opportunity.

Whether rejection stems from a brilliant idea whose time has not yet come, a leadership style conflict, a promotion you thought you deserved but didn’t receive, or a lack of cooperation from key players in a strategy implementation, the ability to bounce back is crucial.

Getting to the top is no accident. Leaders are accustomed to being right and being obeyed. When they encounter rejection and criticism it’s a hard knock because of their personal investment of lifework, energy, passion, and vision, the hallmarks of great leadership. As a leader you must deal with rejection in a positive way. Vow to be better today than you were yesterday. Fortune favors the bold and life rewards action. Rejection is nothing more than a whistle stop along the line to your chosen destination. Hear the train whistle blow and get aboard.

"If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how—the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what's said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference."  —Abraham Lincoln.

Success over time is the best tonic to rejection. Everything comes down to practice, and rejection is an opportunity to practice leadership values like greatness, wisdom, magnanimity, integrity, and perseverance. Then when it’s time to step up to the plate, keep your eye on the ball and hit it out of the park.


Atlantic Monthly. “Lincoln’s Great Depression,” by Joshua Wolf Shenk. October 2005.

BBC News. “Brain Scan Shows Rejection Pain.” October 2003.

National Review. Interview on Project President, by Ben Shapiro.  January 22, 2008.

The White House. “Biography of Abraham Lincoln.”

About the Author(s)

Sander A. Flaum is managing partner, Flaum Partners, Inc., and chairman of the Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham Graduate School of Business. He is coauthor, with his son Jonathon A. Flaum, of the book The 100-Mile Walk—A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Leadership (AMACOM, 2006). Contact him at [email protected].