Accepting Rejection

Personal. Estimated reading time: 6 minutes.

I’m going to experiment a bit with ways to let you know whether something is ‘business’ or ‘personal’ writing. For now, I will use the subheading. I might try the new sections function in the future.

Also, I also saw another substack add the estimated reading time and felt that could be useful. Last new addition: a TLDR. Let me know what you think.

TLDR: I was ghosted. A friend helped me snap out of my obsession with rejection. A post with more pop culture references than usual.

In the movie Heat, Robert De Niro visits his pal Val Kilmer. He reminds his fellow bank robber of the principle that kept them out of trouble: “Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”

Kilmer however is in love with a woman. “For me, the sun rises and sets with her,” he answers. He can no longer adhere to De Niro’s advice.

Recently, I wrote about my COVID heartbreak: I returned from Germany after eight months, hoping to pick back up where my ex and I had left off. After spending a night at a party in Tribeca, she and I texted for a few days. Then she fell silent.

I was infatuated. The sun rose and set with her. Except it didn’t set. Like the midnight sun near the Arctic Circle, it turned my nights into a red-eyed twilight.

I kept glancing at my phone, looking for the WhatsApp symbol. Like a radio telescope, I was scanning the silence of space for a sign of life. I did this when I woke up, within a second of my consciousness booting up. I did it before I went to sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night, hoping for a signal from that distant solar system where I had left my heart. I just needed to know that she was there, that she still cared about me. But my phone remained silent.

When I can’t sleep, I get up and write. At the very least, it clears my head. When I couldn’t sleep because of the pain of rejection, I wrote sad and flowery love letters.

As I was writing, I had an idea. If I had been closed off in the past, maybe now was the time to “speak my truth.” After all, I was trying to follow a new path. Call it the George Constanza way of doing the opposite. Perhaps this was the time to tell her everything, rather than take it to the grave with me (assuming I’d never see her again).

I have a newfound appreciation for friends in different time zones. As I was preparing to drop a thousand words of heartbreak into my WhatsApp wasteland at 2am, a friend of mine in Asia interjected. Her advice: “You’re at rock bottom with this woman. Don’t send this essay.” I didn’t. Eventually, I fell back asleep. But the question of whether to reach out kept nagging in the back of my mind.

In the opening scene of the movie Swingers, the protagonist asks his friend for advice on how to win back his ex-girlfriend. The answer is “paradoxical intent.” Only by letting go does the possibility arise of her coming back.

Mike: I mean, I could, like, forget about her. And then when she comes back, make like I just pretended to forget about her?

Rob: Right, although probably more likely the opposite.

Mike: What do you mean?

Rob: I mean, at first you're gonna pretend to forget about her. You’ll not call her, I don't know, whatever. But then, eventually, you really will forget about her.

Mike: Well, unless she comes back first.

Rob: Mmmh. See, that's the thing. Somehow they know not to come back until you really forget.

Mike: There's the rub.

Rob: There's the rub.

Pretending doesn’t work. One has to let go completely. This is, of course, not actually advice to win her back. It is advice to overcome the resistance that protects the emotional attachment. The resistance to let go, to accept defeat, and move on. It is advice suited for the reality of dating, not to soothe the anxieties of infatuated romantics.

It is the kind of advice I got from my guy friends. Advice that I rejected. Did they know more about women and relationships than I did? Perhaps. But, I reasoned, they were mistaken. They just couldn’t see that what I had was special. They just couldn’t relate to the intense emotions that I had felt.

In other words: I was desperately clinging to my infatuation and attachment.

A couple of days after coaxing me back from the brink of dropping emotional prose bombs, my friend helped me grasp an uncomfortable truth.

Her response to my complaint about sleepless nights waiting for a text back?

“You need to resist thinking patterns that don’t serve you."

That made me angry. How dare my friend question the pain I was in? When I proposed sending a shorter message, rather than the page-long love letter, again she hit my fingers with a stick:

“Examine your motivations.”

Why couldn’t she just agree with me? As my anger passed, my friend talked to me until I finally let my defenses down and truly listened. In German, we call this Engelsgeduld, having an angel’s patience.

I had been conflating rejection, which is about me, with getting over my love, which is about her. This confusion made me rebuff advice to accept the rejection because I felt misunderstood, as though my friends didn’t see or understand my hurt.

Meanwhile, rejection pushed the buttons of my deepest insecurities. What did her rejection say about me? Did it mean I wasn’t successful, popular, interesting, or outgoing enough? My inner boy became obsessed with getting a response, with getting her attention.

Which is why the letter, as I had drafted it, was not a good idea. My motivations were fear and insecurity. It was not about speaking my truth. It was about the response I wanted from her. It was all about me, me, me. Me and my bruised ego.

The trouble was not the pain of rejection – which was perfectly natural to feel – but that I allowed myself to wallow in it. My insecurity made me elevate its importance. Instead of letting the feeling burn itself out, I perpetuated it. I had to accept reality and redirect my attention.

In the movie Her, a lonely writer refuses to sign divorce papers, therefore maintaining a dysfunctional attachment to his estranged wife (while falling in love with an AI). At the end of the movie, he completes his arc by writing a letter in which he finally lets go of the rejection. “Everything I needed you to be or needed you to say. I’m sorry for that,” he writes. That letter is a beautiful example of speaking truth without selfish intent.

In the conversation with my friend, I found the first glimpse of acceptance. The following day, I woke up after a full night of sleep. My consciousness came online without obsessive thoughts, without scrambling to check for messages.

I am grateful that I found a way to speak my truth. First, when I faced the page. This is where I could clear my mind and find an outlet for the flood of feelings. And second, in conversation with my friends. Like De Niro, they showed up with coffee and good advice. Then they patiently guided me out of the eye of the storm.

Thank you to Miranda Newman (who wrote about ‘radical acceptance’ and helpful techniques like tracking urges and checking feelings against facts), Chris Angelis, and Lyle McKeany at Foster.