Let’s talk about criticism, in particular criticism of our academic work. Criticism that challenges our methods, our arguments, our conclusions. Criticism that we personalize even though it’s not about us. Criticism that stings.
But before we get into how to handle criticism, let me be clear that I am talking specifically about written or verbal feedback on writing — an R&R, a chapter for your dissertation, a conference paper — any written work that you put out to someone for comment. This advice does not apply to interaction with toxic people who are undermining, or who don’t offer any good feedback. There is other work to do be done to remove those people from your sphere and from inside your head. In this post, I particularly want to talk about what to do when you get what you perceive as harsh criticism of your work in writing.
To begin, a question:
What is your first response when a feedback email shows up in your inbox? Do you rush to it with excitement? Do you think, “Hurray! I can finally make this even better! I can’t wait to see what they say!”?
Maybe you are like so many of us and when the email comes in, your first response is a heart-stopping dread, a little (or big) knot in the pit of your stomach. “Oh No!” you instantly think, “What did I do wrong? What failure are they going to discover that proves I don’t belong?”
If you have been in this spot, then you are in the perfect location to begin changing the way you respond to criticism.
First step: Notice the story that you are creating. Notice the way you are thinking about the email before you even open it. Does it feel like a threat? A potential harm to your person? You haven’t even seen it yet but are you accepting as “truth” that it’s going to hurt?
If your answer is yes, join the crowd.
After all, you have sat through countless seminars and conference paper presentations only to hear (and perhaps offer) blistering critique. It is not surprising that you can imagine yourself at the receiving end of those same dismantlings. And because of the cult like qualities of the academy, at some point you have likely woven your sense of self into your work. Your research has become your identity, and vice versa. Hence the reactivity.
Welcome to Step Two: Focus on the facts rather than a story.
The first fact is, regardless of the toxic messages of academia, you are not your work. This means that critique or rejection of your work is not a rejection of you.
The goal of focusing on the facts is to begin to create even the tiniest gap between you and your work so feedback is not a direct hit on your psyche.
Now let’s get to the content itself.
I read a fascinating write up of a study in the Harvard Business Review on what makes people resilient in the face of harsh criticism.
Much like the process of focusing on the truth that your work is not your identity, this research suggests that we build resiliency in the face of harsh criticism by ignoring the form of the delivery and focusing on what’s potentially true in the information being shared.
In short: The key to resiliency is exposure to feedback with an eye to the truth rather than attention to HOW the feedback is delivered (and the story you create about that delivery). The end game is to get to a place that the condescending holier-than-thou blah blah blah gets tossed aside as a “them” problem and the information itself becomes a “you” opportunity.
Here are the (CURE) steps to resiliency the author recommends.
Again, this is not meant to suggest that you are required to interact with toxic people; rather to look at tone as noise, focusing on the facts underneath, and nurturing a resiliency that will keep you moving forward and productive.
So, let’s try that email again. Take a deep breath, get your bearings, start reading and ask, “Is that true?”
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I really needed this today, Kellee! I am expecting some feedback soon and this post comes at the best time–when I am overcome with anxiety and worry. These tips and steps are all going into my toolbox. Thank you so much for this!
Carrie F says
Kellee, I plan to share this with my art students in fall before we have our first critique. (And of course, internalize it myself, too!) Thank you!
C. A. Johnston says
May I share a rejection with you? It is the worst I have ever seen. I am not certain that any strategy would keep me from being stung by it.
I have a really bad one, too. So bad that I am just now going back to the paper after over a year. I’m TT so I can’t really be wasting that kind of time. But it destroyed my self confidence. I needed time to process, and I had to work on other things with a completely different topic. I think the point is not to not be stung in a case like this but to act on any useful info. The a**hole review says more about the writer of the review than you.
My advice—don’t read it again. You know what it says, and you probably have some sense of what needs work. Come back to it as soon as you’re able. And then get feedback on the newer draft from a trusted colleague. When people have to put their name on something, they tend to be kinder. And you also know the feedback is coming from someone who respects you and wants to help rather than tear you down.
I’ve also learned to pay far more attention to how I sound in the reviews that I write. To be helpful and honest, but to do so politely.
This is very helpful advice, thank you. Do you have any tips for handling criticism when it is very public, like in a published review, and it can feel career threatening?