The artist and his critic: how to deal with rejection

by Matthias Hartmann

Humans have social needs. We want to belong, we want to be heard, we want to be seen. Artists base their life on being heard and seen – in public. And that takes a lot of courage. Being deprived of those needs is felt as rejection and rejection is painful. One would assume that (performing) artists are used to rejection. After all, before artists can be rejected by an audience or an art-critic, they have successfully dealt with rejection by various institutions, selection-committees, juries and the like before. But few of us get used to rejection or can easily deal with the pain of rejection because the fear of rejection runs deep in the human psyche. 

The consequences of rejection are even more difficult to deal with. Our mind quickly paints the worst-case scenario in all its colours: from financial insecurity to being deprived of other basic human needs i.e. safety and housing. It is not surprising that few of us are willing to contemplate the consequences of rejection. But sub-consciously those possible consequences feed your fear of rejection. 

Being rejected after a job application in the corporate world hurts less when we know that artificial intelligence decides which candidate matches the company culture and job requirements. But as far as the art-world is concerned, few gallerists would trust artificial intelligence to decide which artist should be having a solo show. No theatre director would allow the software to decide which performer is best suited for a role on stage. At least not yet. Art is still personal. 

Especially at the beginning of an artist’s career the art and the artist’s self are closely linked. After all, artists often expose themselves which makes it difficult to separate the person from their art. Therefore, not making it into the next round of auditions and not finding a gallery to represent your work can easily be taken as a rejection of the person, not just the person’s artistic expression. And that rejection hurts.

Physicial pain and social rejection do activate similar regions of the brain. That is why rejection hurts, it’s painful. The purpose of any emotion however is to assure your physical survival and psychological well-being. That includes the emotion of fear as well as the fear of rejection. To fear rejection enables you to avoid feeling that pain (again). So nature just does its thing! Adapting the artistic work to be ‘liked’ (by the art-market, jury,…) may reduce the possibility of rejection. But that approach conflicts with the very authenticity which is expected of the artist. A judgement on the art can therefore feel like a judgement of the artist’s self. This is the dilemma; your body helps you to not feel the pain of rejection while the very possibility of rejection is the prerequisite for authentic artistic expression. 

It is easy to pretend that rejection doesn’t hurt. We are masters in suppressing any deep emotion which doesn’t make us feel good. Tensing-up allows us not to feel. Does biting on your lip, making a fist or putting on a poker-face sound familiar? Needless to say that suppressing emotions that don’t feel good will only backfire. Their energy gets stuck in the body until released (periodically). To make matters worse, keeping up the tension to not feel (fear, shame, guilt,…) cost a lot of energy. The energy is lost for artistic expression. Besides, it is difficult to hide nervousness or fear of rejection.

Fear kick-starts a lot of physiological processes to prepare the body to fight, flee or freeze. While performing on stage it is not possible to fight or flee, so the body tends to freeze. The breathing becomes shallow, the heart-beat increases, you may start to sweat or get cold feet, literally. At the same time, fear undermines the trust you have in yourself and all of that combined negatively impacts any good performance. Fear of rejection can be paralysing. 

To avoid or be prepared for rejection and/or criticism from outside, we tend to become our own worst critic. Those ‘voices in the head’ empower self-doubt which tends to stifle artistic expression in the name of avoiding rejection, ridicule or embarrassment. The negative self-talk further undermines trust in yourself and negatively impacts your motivation. Deep-seated insecurities may surface. Fear of rejection in combination with a fierce inner critic therefore makes a terrible combination and kills any artistic freedom. 

On the other hand, acceptance feels good. Having successfully passed an audition releases various feel-good hormones and bio-chemicals in the brain which cause that good feeling. Acceptance of suppressed emotions i.e. fears feels equally good and allows for a release of all the built-up tension. However, that process of accepting suppressed emotions causes discomfort which is why most people shy away from it and rather live with the consequences of suppressed emotions. Especially since over-the-counter substances are widely available which quickly help us feel better. But that is not a solution. So what can be done to deal with the fear of rejection?

1. The only thing you can control in life is where you place your attention. And why not place your attention on what you want in life?! Building confidence in your vision, the “big picture”, is what helps to (re-)build motivation to move past any possible rejection along the way.

2. Do what you do best to express yourself. Express that pain of rejection instead of suppressing it. This will help to build a stronger connection to your core/essence/self. Your self wants to be heard and seen. Let’s hear and see you.

3. The full acceptance and integration of all aspects of who you are, including all suppressed emotions, is a powerful approach to deal with the fear of rejection. I should add ‘non-judgemental’ acceptance of who you are. This will also quieten the inner critic.

Non-judgmental self-acceptance of all aspects of who you are while focussing on your “big picture” allows you to express yourself. Fearlessly.


Matthias is an art collector and a life-coach whose practice is focused on an embodied approach to dealing with internal blockages, with the aim to achieve deep transformational change. He comes from a long career in international sales. His last position was sales director for Europe, Middle East and Africa. Managing and coaching sales-managers is, or better was, his second nature since Matthias gave up the corporate world to focus on the coaching part. He became a life-coach and is using an embodied approach which enables him to dig deep in internal blockages of change. Having given up the corporate job also allowed him to continue his journey inwards to help his clients experience transformational change. He calls himself “The coach to call when life is calling for change” and that says it all! Originally from Germany he has lived in various cities on 3 continents, has been to 74 countries on the planet and speaks four languages fluently.