I

When you’re rejected, people will tell you not to “take it personally.” They’ll make comments like:

  1. “There were a lot of good players trying out for the hockey team this year. Don’t take it personally that you didn’t make it.”

  2. “It’s too bad you didn’t get the promotion. Your skills probably didn’t align with what they were looking for. Don’t take it personally.”

  3. “She doesn’t want to be your friend? I’ve heard she dislikes people who watch The Bachelor. Don’t take it personally.”

  4. “I’m sorry they didn’t take you as an intern. You probably didn’t come off as charismatic as the other applicants. Don’t take it personally.”

  5. “It sucks your date didn’t go well. He probably didn’t get your sense of humor. People have different tastes. Don’t take it personally.”

Each statement is supposed to take the edge off denial. You, the listener, may hear these and recognize you were not rejected because of who you “are.” Rather, you happen to have some accidental qualities that your coach/interviewer/admissions officer/date doesn’t like. The people in charge didn’t make a judgement about the “True You.” They only judged some of your features that have no bearing on you “as a person.” This is why you shouldn’t be too despondent about a rejection. You were denied based on features that have no bearing on who you “really are.”

I think this view is horseshit. If things like our abilities, sense of humor, or beliefs have nothing to do with who we are as people, what does? We are bundles of traits. These are our beliefs, predilections, skills, and — like it or not — physical characteristics. Change any of them and we are changed as people. Notice how we describe ourselves by referencing our traits. We say “I am a basketball player” (I have certain basketball skills), “I am a movie-lover” (I believe movies are superior to other forms of entertainment), “I am loyal” (I tend to support my friends), “I am a Mormon” (I believe the revelations of Joseph Smith). Now, imagine trying to explain to someone who you are as a person without referencing a single trait of yours. I think it’s impossible.

“Stop right there,” some say. “I can agree about personality traits or beliefs. I see how those are related to who we are as people. I don’t think our professional abilities or skills have anything to do with that. Does knowing Salesforce really bear on the True Me? What about my Pickleball skills?”

Yes — even your Pickleball skills. Although I take issue with the idea of a “True You.” The only “you” that’s important is the composite of all your features. Insofar as knowledge of Salesforce or a killer Pickleball serve are features of yours, they bear on who you are. I admit, these kinds of skills may not have massive influence. It’s not catastrophic if you forget the difference between Salesforce Lightning and Salesforce Classic, or if one day your serve is a shell of what it once was. However, imagine the personal ramifications of taking away Magnus Carlson’s endgame or Rafael Nadal’s forehand. Without those skills, they probably feel like entirely different people. Their abilities clearly have a connection to who they are. I claim your skills have a similar relationship to your person. Perhaps the relationship is weaker, or just as strong, but it’s there.

If all your features bear on you as a person, then every rejection is personal. Those in charge examined you and found some trait lacking. You’re quiet when you should have been gregarious. You have sales experience when they’re looking for operations people. You’re a gadfly when they want agreeableness. These are parts of yourself they’re judging. The traits they examine may not be the most fundamental to your person, but they are yours. A rejection is somebody saying something about who you are, or at the very least, how you appear to be. You should acknowledge that.

Keep in mind you’re also responsible for how you’re perceived. After a tough interview, somebody might say “they got the wrong side of you. Don’t take the rejection personally.” This looks like a clear case of those in authority not passing judgement on your person because they were wrong about what traits you had in the first place. I disagree. Here, they’re judging a meta-trait of yours, namely, the trait of how well you represent your traits. If you did a poor job of accurately displaying who you are, then that’s your fault. How you present yourself is a trait, and a consistent failure to do it well bears on your person. In this scenario, I would tell you to take it personally that the interviewer got the wrong impression of you. You’re responsible for the impressions you give, and the fact someone received a poor one is a reflection of your PR abilities.1

II

Saying “don’t take it personally” is not only metaphysically sketchy, but dangerous. When you brush off a rejection because it doesn’t reflect you “personally,” you’re creating a ghost. In your mind, the people in charge have rejected a spooky image that shares many of your characteristics, but somehow isn’t “you.” The ghostly-you was found to be unqualified, lacking, or deficient. This allows the “True You” (whatever that is) to continue living as if nothing has happened.

Ghost production carries several related risks. First, it insulates you from reality. By allowing a ghostly-you to absorb all criticism, you’ve made it impossible to create an accurate representation of yourself. All negative feedback is brushed off as things you “shouldn’t take personally” and accrues to the ghostly-you. And, in an ironic asymmetry, all positive feedback will probably be attributed to the faultless True You. Since you (obviously!) identify with the True You — as opposed to the impersonal ghostly-version — you conclude you are a Very Special Individual whose qualities are beyond critique. This makes you insufferable.

The additional risks are more profound. A ghostly-you is a surrogate person. When we send them into the world in our stead to work, date, play, and interact with others, we’ve made a certain bargain. If your ghost is a raging failure, you can brush it off as reflecting on the ghost and not the True You. If your ghost is a wild success, True You receives all the credit.

We think this is ideal because we’re exposed to all of the upside with none of the downside, but it’s actually a step towards nihilism. Ghostly-you’s actions don’t really matter under the bargain. If she fucks up, you’re unscathed. If she succeeds, you collect praise that, deep down, is empty. Success earned by a metaphysically suspect “You-but-not-really-You” is much different than what you earn yourself. It’s corrupted or spoiled by the fact you were prepared to abandon ownership for your performance at signs of trouble. As such, ghostly-you can only provide deniability or hollow approbation. How can its actions matter if they have nothing substantial at stake?

The metaphysics and practical considerations point the same way: take rejection personally. When you’re passed up, denied, or looked over, know that the world has rendered judgement on some aspect of you — which includes how you present yourself. In other words, it’s trying to tell you something. If we care more about developing an accurate representation of ourselves rather preserving our egos, we should listen.

Bonus Here’s how a rejectee who doesn’t believe in ghostly-you’s might respond to statement (1).

Friend: “There were a lot of good players trying out for the hockey team this year. Don’t take it personally that you didn’t make it.”

Rejectee: “What do you mean by that? How can I not take it personally? I’m the one who tried out for the team. I’m the one who went through the effort of showing up to the rink and doing drills for coach.”

Friend: “No, no. What I mean is that this rejection doesn’t have anything to do with who you really are. It doesn’t diminish the fact you’re a great person with a kind heart.”

Rejectee: “I suppose the rejection doesn’t impact these other things, but isn’t my hockey ability part of who I am? It’s not all of me, but it’s important enough that I tried out for the team. Who I ‘really am’ has to do with hockey, although only slightly.”

Friend: “I guess what I meant by ‘don’t take it personally’ is that nobody was out to get you. From what you’ve told me, coach wasn’t biased, you played well enough, but other people were better so they made the team. There was no conspiracy to take them and not you.”

Rejectee: “How is that supposed to comfort me? If anything, chalking this up to a ploy to cut me would be better for my ego. It would allow me to say I am good enough, but the only reason I didn’t make it was because of politics. You’re just saying I can’t blame anybody but myself for my failure.”

Friend: “Maybe what I actually meant was you shouldn’t be too upset about the rejection. Everybody gets rejected sometimes and there’s no reason to be despondent about it.”

Rejectee: “Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”

Friend: “I don’t know.”

  1. There are cases where you are misrepresented through no fault of your own. You could have had an uncharacteristically bad day or the other parties could have been so blinded by malice or ideology that they’re incapable of seeing clearly. In these circumstances, a rejection has no bearing on your person. It may be difficult to tell sometimes when those in charge are biased or not, but it’s up to us to be reflective, charitable, and open to learning from those who deny us.