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If you are a graduate student, it is likely you have experienced a lot of success prior to your entry to graduate school. This is not meant to be a blanket statement because I know we worked hard to get where we are at and many of us have experienced rejection in other contexts (e.g., romantically), but after chatting with a handful of different graduate students about experiencing rejection once in graduate school, I have discovered that for some of us, getting less than ideal feedback from a professor, receiving a denied letter on a scholarship application, having our conference proposal vetoed, or not succeeding on something we have normally had success with is one of our first experiences with professional rejection. In fact, on more than one occasion, I have heard students say (verbatim): “I have never not gotten something I applied for.” It becomes a pretty significant reality check. As graduate students, we are competing with a lot of other people who are just as driven, motivated, and successful as we are. The road to success just got a lot more congested. Yes, this will introduce some challenges to our course, but if we are looking for the silver lining (which we are, always) this means we are in good company.
In fact, on more than one occasion, I have heard students say (verbatim): “I have never not gotten something I applied for.”
Let us discuss resilience, particularly in the context of our emotions. I have spent a bit of time researching this, and will do my best to deliver a brief synopsis. This might be a bit tough, mainly because resilience pops up in the positive psychology literature in so many important places, like resilience among Black and Latino boys (Fergus, Noguera, & Martin, 2014), resilience following loss and trauma (Bonanno, 2004), and resilience in the context of adolescent adversity (Fergus & Zimmerman, 2005). At the community level, resilience is especially salient, as diverse groups (continue to) advocate for their right to be recognized, to live in a safe community, and to be accepted and celebrated as an equal. In this writer’s opinion, culture and diversity are fundamental characteristics of resilience. However, the three to four page limit on this post would be violated rather quickly if I tried to address those questions, because that is an issue bigger than this post. So, I will stick to my objective – first, what is resilience? And second, how can we build resilience and survive rejection as graduate students?
What is Resilience?
Briefly, Masten (2001) describes resilience as “good outcomes in spite of serious threats to adaptation or development” (p. 228). Similarly, resilience has been described as a “dynamic process encompassing positive adaptation within the context of significant adversity” (Luthar, Gicchetti, & Becker, 2000, p. 543). Both of these definitions address a “significant” adversity or “serious” threat. Of course, this is like anything in psychology – how do we operationalize something like “adversity,” when adversity is a subjective construct? What is a serious threat to me may be less so to you, and vice versa. So, I did what all great scholars do in the face of questions about definitions. I consulted with Merriam-Webster (and read lots of other articles, obviously). Resilience is defined as the “ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” (resilience, n.d.). This definition is helpful, as it excludes level of threat from the context. For a graduate student, a “serious threat” (a la Masten, 2001) or “change” (a la Meriam-Webster) could be perceived as an assault to one’s identity as a successful person. That dreadful rejection email we receive after applying for a scholarship… That is a blow to our identity…
As I was drafting this post, I had a short conversation with one of my dear friends and close colleagues about resilience, and she said – what about mentioning Frankl? I gasped. How could I forget about my man, Viktor, especially when it comes to discussions about resilience? Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor. While he was in the camp, he developed something called “meaning therapy.” (I will refrain from turning this post into a counseling session.) Meaning therapy is a humanistic therapy style that helps individuals in making decisions that will produce significance in their lives. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) shared an article on resilience, so adequately titled, “How Resilience Works.” You can read it here. But their nod to Viktor Frankl and resilience is so spot on: “This dynamic of meaning making is, most researchers agree, the way resilient people build bridges from present-day hardships to a fuller, better constructed future. Those bridges make the present manageable, for lack of a better word, removing the sense that the present is overwhelming.” To summarize HBR, by actively tying what you are experiencing now to a strength in the future, you are building your own resilience. In other words, all of those track changes are the foundation for your stronger-than-ever writing skills… Years from now. In Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning (1984), Frankl describes how he came up with meaning therapy. As he walked to work, he had a conversation with himself – whether or not he should trade his last cigarette for a bowl of soup. He also questioned how he would get along with the new foreman, who he knew as a rather unpleasant individual. This was an overwhelming feeling. In order to survive, he discovered that he would have to find some purpose. So, he imagined himself delivering a lecture on the psychology of concentration camps – after the war was over. In this moment, he was able to rise above the pain he was experiencing. “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed” (p. 112).
In other words, all of those track changes are the foundation for your stronger-than-ever writing skills… Years from now.
So, what can we do? Can resilience be developed, or are we “stuck” with what we got? After briefly exploring the vastness of resilience, I propose three factors for building resilience and surviving rejection (based on my personal experience).
Much of the literature on building resilience evolves from child and adolescent development, particularly how adults can help children foster resilience. Take a look at this article on fostering resilience in children, this article on the 7 Cs to building resilience, and this resilience guide for parents and teachers. So, in theory, yes, resilience can be developed. You might notice that these references target child and adolescent populations. In the early 90s, there was an interesting lecture on resilience in the context of children who have been exposed to trauma (Fonagy et al., 1994). I want to be clear, I am in no way comparing a psychological trauma to the feelings we have when a paper is returned with hundreds of track changes. However, there are several recommendations for building resilience among children that can be generalized to adults, particularly those who have experienced prolonged stress (like being a graduate student). The presenters suggested that SES, gender, age, temperament, and absence of early separations or losses may be indicative of greater resilience. Further, the presenters cited several specific features of the child’s circumstances which may also be considered protective factors, including competent parenting, a good (warm) relationship with at least one primary caregiver or adult, and the availability of support (peer-based, faith-based, family-based). Finally, other features in the context of psychological functioning were mentioned, including IQ, coping styles, task-related self-efficacy, a higher sense of self-worth, autonomy or internal locus of control, interpersonal awareness and empathy, and a sense of humor. Many of these factors align closely with the American Psychological Association’s guide to resilience, which discusses the importance of making connections, taking action, nurturing a positive view of yourself, savoring the experience, and keeping things in perspective. I am confident that the average graduate student can relate to many of these factors. All of the aforementioned strategies (e.g., keeping things in perspective, being positive) are important factors for resilience, so let us explore a few others…
Self-Efficacy, Self-Worth, Self-Compassion, Self-Care... Self, Self, Self
Let us be honest here. These terms all sound so similar, and I am confident that a number of us have used them interchangeably from time to time, not because we do not know that they are different, but because some of the differences are so nuanced, that teasing them apart produces more questions. Briefly… Self-efficacy is not the same as self-worth. The former involves individuals using evaluative judgments about their own abilities and feelings. The latter refers to one’s own perceived value, similar to self-esteem (Ford, 2014). Self-compassion involves “being touched by and open to one’s own suffering, not avoiding or disconnecting from it, generating the desire to alleviate one’s suffering and to heal oneself with kindness” (Neff, 2003, pg. 84). Self-compassion is also characterized by nonjudgmental understanding to an individual’s own pain, inadequacies and failures. Consequently, that person’s experience is seen as part of the larger human experience (e.g., “The Big Picture”).
Yeah, ok – they all sound sort of similar.
Anyway, there is a great article on the Association for Psychological Science website (read it here) that describes the importance of having self-compassion. The author of the APS article noted, “When facing rejection or other setbacks, it is normal for students to feel at times that they won’t make good psychological scientists or that they’re just not cut out for grad school. These feelings can be amplified when students perceive peers excelling where they are failing (e.g., seeing a colleague get an article accepted in Psychological Science when their own paper was not initially accepted)” (Ford, 2014, p. 2). This might be one of the greatest take-aways from this guidance – feeling “less than” is normal when comparing yourself to your peers. And even if your peers and mentors do not admit it, they are feeling “less than,” too. (Did somebody say impostor syndrome?) How does one combat those feelings? By having self-compassion, we are acknowledging a few things:
I will be the first to admit – this is a super uncomfortable conversation to have with yourself. Nobody likes to evaluate themselves, especially when they are feeling vulnerable. But, by making this part of your routine each time you face adversity, you are proactively preparing yourself for the next barrier, because the conversation flows a little bit easier each time. Practice makes perfect-ish, after all.
Growth Perspective as a Coping Style
It makes sense for all of the “selves” described above to segue way into a conversation about coping. I could spend some time describing the importance of prosocial coping styles and outlets for self-care, but I will take another approach… Have you taken the coping and stress management test on Psychology Today? Do it here. I take it every few years. (In fact, I make my undergraduate students take it, too.) All validity and reliability questions aside (it is a quiz on a psychology website), I think it acts as a nice temperature check for what is going on in your life and how you cope with it. If nothing else, it gets you thinking. Here is a snapshot of my results summary when I took the test this summer (after defending my dissertation, before I moved to New Orleans for internship; in other words, between two major life stressors).
I am quite confident that this snapshot report would look a little bit different now. In any case, the changes and challenges I am experiencing now offer an opportunity to re-evaluate my coping strategies. These are the questions I ask myself when I have experienced rejection and barriers, and want to reflect on my own resilience…
Brief aside, because number seven strikes me every single time. When I was in junior high, I took a World Literature class. I loved this class and this teacher. Early in the semester, the teacher shared a story that will stick with me forever, a story about lessons learned.
My teacher started by describing how she was parking her car on the side of a busy street because she had an appointment with one of the street-front businesses. Before opening her door, she looked out her side mirror (any cars or bicyclists coming?). Nobody was there, so she leaned over to grab her bag before opening the door. In that moment, a bicyclist turned the corner and was set for a direct hit with her door. Before she knew it, the door was flipped backward; the bicyclist had flipped over his bike and tumbled onto the street. My teacher fumbles out the car, completely shocked and worried about the bicyclist. Before she can say anything, he pops up and says, “Well that will teach me a lesson about keeping my head down when I’m riding.” My teacher stood there in disbelief. She too was thinking, “Well that will teach me a lesson about opening the door without looking again.” In that moment, it could have been so easy for each person to blame the other person for what happened. Had you been in that situation, how would you have reacted? What would you have said to the bicyclist if you were my teacher? What would you have said to my teacher if you were the bicyclist? In that moment, they simultaneously looked inward at what they could take away from the accident. The bicyclist brushed himself off, helped return the door to somewhat working order, picked up his damaged bike, and walked away. I remember sitting there as a 14-year old, totally in awe over how the Universe could bring two people together and produce that outcome. Maybe their resilience had something to do with it? A lesson for my teacher was simultaneously a lesson for the bicyclist, too.
If you would like a bedside resource for coping strategies, consider the ABCs of coping and stress management found here. (Preview below.)
Sense of Humor
One of my dear sweet friends always uses the phrase, “The secret to happiness is a good sense of humor and a bad memory.” (I have no idea who said it; search results haven’t produced any consistent citations.) I love this so much, I have actually written it on a post-it note and taped it to my computer. It falls off every few days, but I write it again, and put it back on there. There is a lot to be said for humor as a prosocial defense mechanism. In fact, there are studies that have shown how humor can reduce anxiety (e.g., Yovetich, Dale, & Hudak, 1990; Adil, Ishaq, & Khan, 2016). The field of positive psychology has explored humor as a character strength and a factor of resilience. Kuiper (2012) describes this…
Humor, which is defined in this domain as a general positive attribute (e.g., like to laugh and joke, bring smiles to other people), is one of the character strengths that contributes most strongly to life satisfaction (Peterson, Ruch, Beermann, Park, & Seligman, 2007). Of particular interest from a resiliency perspective is that several positive character strengths, such as kindness, humor, leadership, love and social intelligence, all showed significant increases in growth following experiences with major traumatic events, such as a life-threatening accident, attack, or illness (Peterson et al., 2008).
What else could I do in that moment… But laugh?
Certainly, processing the rejection is an important first step, but following up with a funny video, a review of the humor page on Pinterest, or stepping back and laughing at how you arrived at this outcome is worth considering, as these efforts may contribute to a strengthening of your own resilience. But Lauren, what is so funny about rejection? Rewind… Right before re-entering graduate school, I applied to four different research labs at Arizona State. When it appeared that I would not be hired by a single one, I offered to volunteer a few hours each week entering or cleaning data, just so I could attend meetings and stay connected to a University research community. They all said, “no thanks.” No, thanks? No? Thanks? I am offering free labor – data cleaning! No, thanks? What else could I do in that moment… But laugh?
Rejection is painful. We all agree on this, so you are in good company. (And misery loves company, right?) Certainly, finding outlets to process those feelings will be a starting point, but self-compassion, a fresh perspective, and a sense of humor may soften the experience. And if you find yourself settling in with no way out…
Think of resilience as similar to taking a raft trip down a river. On a river, you may encounter rapids, turns, slow water and shallows. As in life, the changes you experience affect you differently along the way. In traveling the river, it helps to have knowledge about it and past experience in dealing with it. Your journey should be guided by a plan, a strategy that you consider likely to work well for you. Perseverance and trust in your ability to work your way around boulders and other obstacles are important. You can gain courage and insight by successfully navigating your way through white water. Trusted companions who accompany you on the journey can be especially helpful for dealing with rapids, upstream currents and other difficult stretches of the river. You can climb out to rest alongside the river. But to get to the end of your journey, you need to get back in the raft and continue (American Psychological Association, 2017).
Adil, A., Ishaq, G., & Khan, O. (2016). Impact of Sense of Humor on Perceived Stress among Undergraduate Medical Students: A Gendered Perspective. Journal of Gender & Social Issues, 15(1).
American Psychological Association. (2017). The road to resilience. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx.
Bonanno, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events? American Psychologist, 59(1), 20.
Fergus, E., Noguera, P., & Martin, M. (2014). Schooling for Resilience: Improving the Life Trajectory of Black and Latino Boys. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Fonagy, P., Steele, M., Steele, H., Higgitt, A., & Target, M. (1994). The Emanuel Miller Memorial Lecture 1992 The Theory and Practice of Resilience. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 35(2), 231-257.
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man's search for meaning. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Kuiper, N. A. (2012). Humor and resiliency: Towards a process model of coping and growth. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 8(3), 475-491.
Luthar, S. S., Gicchetti, D., & Becker, B. (2000). The construct of resilience: A critical evaluation and guidelines for future work. Child Development, 71, 543–562.
Masten, A. S. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56, 227–238.
Resilience. (n.d.). Retrieved October 3, 2017, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/resilience
Yates, T. M., & Masten, A. S. (2004). Fostering the Future: Resilience Theory and the Practice of Positive Psychology. In P. A. Linley, S. Joseph, P. A. Linley, S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice (pp. 521-539). Hoboken, NJ, US: John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Yovetich, N. A., Dale, J. A., & Hudak, M. A. (1990). Benefits of humor in reduction of threat-induced anxiety. Psychological Reports, 66(1), 51-58.