Since I started coaching three years ago, I’ve supported countless founders who have experienced some form of deep and/or prolonged rejection. This includes being passed on by superstar recruits, having an M&A deal fall through at the eleventh hour, and hearing “no” from a hundred VCs.
Here’s the reality: rejection is part of the entrepreneurial journey. Every founder experiences it at some point.
Rejection is defined as dismissing or refusing a proposal, idea, etc. It describes a person or entity pushing something or someone away or out. According to Mark Leary, a Duke neuroscientist, rejection occurs when our perceived relational value (how much others value their relationship with us) drops below some desired threshold. It has the effect of making people feel as if they are not wanted, valued, or accepted.
Scientists believe that the feeling of rejection evolved as a survival mechanism. Early humans developed an internal defense system to protect us from being shunned by our tribes. If a prehistoric human was banished by their clan, they would likely die. Thus, our early ancestors developed a full-body response to rejection to ensure their behavior was accepted and would ultimately survive.
Furthermore, researchers believe we evolved to experience rejection as painful both mentally and physically. According to their findings, rejection fires up some of the same pain signals in the brain that get triggered when we injure ourselves. That’s why we can viscerally feel it in our stomach, chest, and other parts of our body. This may very well explain why we often feel so bitten by rejection. Every single pass or decline literally stings.
In my role as a coach and an advisor, I’ve seen the emotional and physical toll that rejection can have on even the most capable and confident founders. Prolonged rejection can result in reduced confidence, social withdrawal, anxiety, and depression. That compounds over time if left unchecked.
When founders are in the eye of the storm, I often hear them use words and labels such as doubt, grief, implosion, failure, fear, imposter, stupid, fraud, and waste. I also hear questions filled with self-doubt and criticism. Am I going to close this round? What if I let down my team? Am I cut out for this? Should I lower my expectations? Why am I doing this? Am I crazy? Maybe I should have kept my job?
In periods of prolonged rejection, such as a laborious fundraising process, it can be a challenge to think clearly, make sound decisions, show up with energy, and exude confidence. More often than not, our stress response (a.k.a. fight or flight) is triggered. In this state, it’s difficult to access the executive and creative functions of the brain.
Remember, rejection is inevitable. That’s why cultivating tools to cope is essential as a founder. With the right tools and perspectives, you’ll likely be able to remain focused and get back on your feet faster if knocked down.
In an effort to arm you with some practical tips and tools, here are some that have resonated with and worked for founders I’ve supported:
- Give yourself permission to feel all of the feelings. Acknowledge the emotions. Be with them. Deflecting and repressing will only prolong the pain. What emotions are coming up? Where in your body do you feel them? What label would you give them? How can you energetically release them?
- Remind yourself of the purpose of your company. What inspired you to get started? Why did you devote your life to this cause? How are you serving and helping? What’s driving you? What’s your mission and vision?
- Don’t let the opinions and decisions of others define your success and self-worth. Just because someone doesn’t believe in you or wants to invest, it doesn’t mean you’re not capable or it’s not a great opportunity. Plenty of great companies have been passed on. How do you define your own success and self-worth? What are you playing for?
- Engage in activities that are not related to your startup. This creates balance and helps reinforce that you are not your company. This could include time with friends, exercise, and hobbies.
- Remember that you’re pushing your limits. Rejection proves that you’re stretching your boundaries and outside your comfort zone. You’re likely in uncharted territory. How can you recognize and honor this?
- Acknowledge your own learning and growth. What have I learned about myself and the company? How am I growing? What have I gained? How am I different?
- Unlock and gain new perspectives. How far have I come? How would I feel if I didn’t start this company? How will I feel about this in five years, ten years, twenty years? What would the wisest person I know say about this situation?
- There are 1,000 reasons why a VC passes and many of them don’t have to do with you. They might not be excited about your space. Their firm has been burned in the past. There isn’t enough traction to give them conviction. They’re having a bad day.
- Provide yourself with time to rest, recharge, and recover. This not only includes at the end of each day but also in between pitches. How can you give yourself a pause? What do you need to refill your batteries?
- Honor and reinforce positive qualities to revive your self-esteem. Focus on your positive qualities. What makes you special? What are your superpowers? What attributes might be appreciated by someone else in a different situation?
- Engage and talk with your support network. This can include friends, family, founders, mentors, coaches, therapists, etc. Who can you speak with openly? Who will support you no matter what? What do you need from them?
- Learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. As Seth Godin says, learn to dance with it. Stay the course. Intense emotions will no doubt show up in your founder journey. How can you work with intense emotions? How can you cultivate equanimity?
This list is by no means exhaustive but it should be a good starting point. Keep in mind these tools won’t completely eliminate the sting of rejection. That’s hardwired into each of us. But they can certainly help lessen the blow. As I hope you can already see, they may also help you create a new perspective, gain more energy, and show up with more confidence.
I sincerely hope you find these tips and tools useful in your own quest to bring your vision to life. You’ve chosen to walk the less-traveled path. This takes sacrifice, courage, and conviction. Think about how far you’ve already come.
I salute you. I honor you. I believe in you. Good luck.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Napoleon Hill.
“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”
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