What A Year of Rejection Letters Taught Me About Identity

At a young age, we are encouraged to find our “lane” in life, the activity or hobby that encapsulates who we are to our core. Intentionally or unintentionally, said lane becomes our identity. When we reach high school, our lanes are the electives we choose—sports, drama, choir, cheerleading, band. Identities then become jock, creative, geek, or popular. Then, in college, the lane becomes our major, which then turns to our career, which in society is our identity. We confirm this theory by asking people, “What do you do?” when we meet them for the first time. As if all we need to know about a person can be wrapped into a four-word question.

For myself, I knew being a journalist was my “lane,” but after a year of rejection letters, I was stuck between a rock called insecurity and a hard place called depression. “Who am I if not attached to this?” was the question ringing in my heart, and to my surprise, I didn’t know the answer.

That’s the thing about rejection, it quickly shows you where you put your life’s value.

One of the equally most exciting and dangerous things about my generation is that we have been given a unique opportunity to share daily what we are doing in life. Where people we do and don’t know follow along on our life journey purely out of their interest in the identities we have built for ourselves.

Where the topic was once just a passing conversation starter to state what you do for a living, it is now something to build a platform upon, to convince people that you are worth knowing, and worth following.

But if the dream never comes true, if we never get the job, if we only get rejection letters, will people still watch, still follow, still like what we have to offer—a human trying their best?

This was the crossroads I found myself at in the late summer of 2023 as I anxiously awaited what would be my tenth rejection letter of the year.

While I wish I could say I brushed the dust off my feet and got back up after that last rejection, I didn’t. I sat on the ground, collecting the dust, and questioned everything. What was I made for? What was my purpose? What do I do if I never get my foot in the door? Will I be happy if I never get to say, “I’m a journalist,” at the end of that inevitable question?

After many days and nights of sulking in my despair, I finally realized that I had no clue who I was. So, I began asking a new question: what do you do when you’re trying to learn who a person is? The first thing that popped into my mind was dating.

When you go on a date, you ask many questions in hopes that you learn who a person is and decide whether or not to continue seeing them. While the question of what you do for a living may arise, it’s just one of many things that make up who a person is. And that was exactly what I needed to do.

I needed to ask myself questions to reframe what I thought identity looked like.

Slowly, I began to take notes about things I was learning about myself, things that I would observe if dating myself.

I kept these things tucked away in an iPhone note and, after a month, came away learning new details about me.

Who is Heather?

  • Her favorite artist is Monet.
  • She cries whenever she thinks something is beautiful and moving.
  • Sitting around a table with her closest friends and sharing a meal felt like a hug to her soul.
  • She loves spending Saturday mornings at her local bakery.
  • When she laughs too hard, she snorts.
  • She always does a happy dance after the first bite of a meal.
  • She looks at life through rose-colored glasses, and she thinks about life as if she is an author narrating a book.

The list went on and on.

By the time I had built up a substantial list of things that made up who I was, the less attached I felt to the rejection. This made room for me to re-evaluate what I wanted and enjoy in life.

I forced myself to write what I liked about journalism and what I didn’t like. It turns out there was a lot I didn’t like, but there was also an idea of journalism that I loved. I learned that I loved writing but in a different form, and I eventually had enough room to think about other “lanes” that I never looked at before because they seemed like more silly interests.

A year of rejection was one of the most painful but refining things I have ever gone through, and it has shaped how I have entered 2024. For the first time in six years, I don’t have a goal attached to a career ladder that needs climbing. But instead, I am solely focused on pursuing things that bring me joy, peace, rest, and contentment.

At a young age, we are encouraged to find our “lane” in life, the activity or hobby that encapsulates who we are to our core, and what I have learned is that we as humans are too intricate and complex of beings to have one lane or identity.

Some days I am a writer, who sits tucked into a corner of a coffee shop planning the details of a short story. On other days I am a hostess assembling a tablescape for the latest dinner party I’ve planned.

And the same is true for you.

You are a friend, sister, mother, daughter, baker, comforter, lover of nature, and all things pink wrapped into one.

As we continue into this new year, may we have the courage to reframe our identities to actually be a reflection of all the wonderful and messy little pieces that make up, “you.”