What a Toddler Taught Me About Rejection

As actors and improvisers, we deal with rejection on a regular basis. And even though I’ve been improvising and auditioning for a really long time, it’s still hard to not to take rejection personally, because I am still looking for outside things to put a big stamp of approval on my forehead.

When I audition for something and I don’t get it, I say to myself that I am loser and I want to blame the script; the director; the reader; the casting director; my wife, Lauren; our cat, Coco; the traffic; the economy; the state of Illinois; and the state of the world for me not getting the part. Really, I am angry and full of shame, but I mask it as blame. Blame is drug I use to medicate my real feelings, which are hurt and sadness.

Last week my daughter, Betsy, turned two years old. She is now in the “I only want Mommy for everything” stage. I only want Mama to put me in my high chair, get me my yogurt, change my diaper. “No Dada, only Mama.” The other day she got so angry at me in the kitchen when I tried to pick her up that she started physically pushing my legs and saying “No, Mama! No, Mama!”

If I am honest about my feelings, I felt a little angry, but mostly hurt and sad. I talked about how I was feeling with Lauren, some of my friends, in group therapy and in every 12-step program in the state of Illinois.

But no matter how much I talked about it, it still stung, and what I found interesting is that I did not blame her for “making” me feel angry and hurt. And even more surprising, I had compassion for myself, unlike how I typically feel after I fail an audition. Oh believe me, I still had my feelings. In fact, I still have some left over from a week ago, but I realize Betsy has nothing to with my feelings, and I also realize I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s really hard to take rejection personally coming from a toddler.

What I finally realized was that my feelings were not about Betsy. They were about the rejection I have experienced in the past. For me, it was rejection lite, all the taste of rejection without the shame.

This was something totally something new for me. Could I have my feelings of hurt, sadness and anger and not make it anyone’s fault, especially mine? Could my two-year-old daughter actually be teaching me something about rejection in my career? That if I don’t get something, there is a 99 percent chance it is not about me or my talent. And that I don’t have to take rejection personally and use it to berate myself for living.

If I’m right about this, my daughter is lucky, because I won’t have to waste so much time blaming others when things don’t go right, and that means she’s going to have a lot more time to play with her Dad.

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Give Yourself Credit for Showing Up

Comedy, acting, and improv can be a hard business. There are so many disappointments and so much rejection that we often forget to give ourselves credit for even showing up. I know I do.

I cannot tell you how many times I have been out with a group of friends and someone will have a piece of good new to share like, “I had an audition for a TV show,” and I will start clapping for them in the middle of some crowded breakfast restaurant. They’ll glare at me for a couple of seconds and then snap back, “Don’t clap. I didn’t get the part!”

Like most things, I used to take that personally, but now it just makes me sad because it’s how I think, too. If we don’t get the results that we wanted, then there’s no need to celebrate. God forbid we give ourselves credit for just getting the audition in the first place. We all know that’s not good enough. Deep down we hate ourselves, and if we are not perfect then we don’t even deserve to live. (Ok, maybe a little dramatic, but it’s honestly how I think sometimes.)

The good news is I am changing. Let’s blame it on me becoming a father, but I am starting to see my own progress. I am becoming gentler on myself thanks to my daughter. In fact, since we had Betsy, I am starting to like myself even more. I kiss her chubby little cheeks and say I love her 100 times a day, and that stuff seems to be rubbing off on me. It has disrupted the negative messages in my head.

The other day, I had a big audition for NBC’s Chicago Med. It was five scenes, which for a Chicago actor is like getting three-picture deal. I showed up. It was not one of my best auditions, but it wasn’t terrible. As of the writing of this blog, I have not gotten a call back and today, that doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. Usually I am pile of nerves before, during and after an audition. In this case, I wasn’t. I was unusually calm. Typically after an audition I am filled with shame and despair and beat myself up on the ride home until I go to bed that night. I am not going to lie; even this time, I had tinges of shame, which I fought off like a winter cold, and the negative messages seemed to evaporate like snowflakes landing on the warm cement. (How is that that last sentence of writing? Pretty impressive, huh?)

But here is the best part: Even though it was just an ok audition by my “high standards,” I actually felt proud of myself for showing up and happy that I got to perform. I felt so good, it was equivalent to going to three hours of group therapy. I was on new kind of performance high, the kind that usually only come from a killer show or when I actually land a TV or film part. Not this time. The good feeling came from just showing up and doing the best I could on that day. Some would say that is acceptance. Some would call this serenity. I don’t care what you call it, I liked the feeling. And for me, this is progress, huge progress, and I believe it will lead to more opportunities and an overall better life for me, my new family and even for my friends who get annoyed when I clap at their good news.

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158: Rejection

Jimmy explores the process of rejection in comedy with guests Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer from Broad City, David Koechner, Dan Harmon, Colbert writer Brian Stack, and more.