What lessons can we learn from May Day, mayday, and rejection?
PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS
Today is May 1st. It is a day internationally known as Labor Day in honor of workers. In the United States, it has also come to be known as “college decision day,” when many students have to finalize their college choices based on their applications that were accepted or rejected. That has just been the case with our oldest granddaughter, Mira Goldstein, who was a cub reporter writer for Psychiatric Times® earlier in high school.
In another spelling, mayday traditionally has been a call for help. After being rejected from desired colleges, that is a feeling that students and their parents sometimes feel.
Especially given the increased number of applications that colleges receive, rejections have become more common. Moreover, the criteria for rejection are kept private, so it is often hard to know why one was rejected. Fortunately, Mira’s quest ended well, although what will matter the most is what actually occurs in college.
This scenario is common at other levels of graduate education and in the workforce with job applications, as well as in other aspects of life, like interpersonal relationships and creative products. Last Thursday, Rabbi Harold Kushner died. He was the author of the best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, written after his son died at age 14 from the aging disease progeria. This book was first rejected by 2 publishers.
High school students and their counselors have been developing a new rejection strategy, as discussed in The New York Times article yesterday, “Students Find Joy in 'No' With College Rejection Parties.” And party they do at many high schools in an attempt to reduce the shame. Instead of hiding rejection letters, they are hung on a collective wall and greeted with applause. Using cognitive reframing techniques, students put up messages like:
“You’ve been rejected, you’re too smart. Love, NYU.”
However, while this kind of humorous reframing may cut the pain of rejection, it may also curtail what is best for recovering from the failures we all go through. We often can learn more from failures than success if we can avoid the sour grapes effect or the ostrich effect in a fight or flight response to the threat to our ego.1 It is important to feel the disappointment and process your sadness in order to reflect on the experience. Practice self-compassion. Realize that sharing failure can actually help others in our common humanity.
In our everyday clinical work, failure can be an underestimated challenge. Patients that do not do well can be a major threat to our own self-esteem, whether we have some responsibility for that or not. Consultation and supervision with trusted colleagues can be of help when that occurs.
Patients themselves can feel like failures when their mental disorder hinders them from pursuing life goals. Others can be blamed for that, including us in psychiatry.
The educational lesson? Don’t fail to learn from failure.
Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. To create a better world, he is an advocate for treating mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.
1. Eskreis-Winkler L and Fishbach A: You think failure is hard? So is learning from it. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2022; 17(6):1511-1524.