I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.

-Brene Brown

One of my first years as a college professor, I was offered a graduate level course on Learning. I was flattered that I had been suggested as a candidate to teach the course and puts hours of work into making what I thought was a productive learning environment. There were some growing pains. However, I ended the semester feeling like it was a great experience. Unfortunately, as student ratings came in, my optimism quickly dwindled.

My Worst Evaluation as a Professor

The following are excerpts from one of the students in that class:

I had no trust for the teacher to do what is best for the students.

She gave it a good effort, and pushed through, knowing full well that the class wasn’t connecting with her or her teaching.

I don’t trust her grading procedures.

She took six hours of my life every week, and it was not worth it.

There is much more I could include from this student’s personal, stabbing, and global criticisms. Regardless of what aspect of my teaching the question focused on, I was doing it wrong.

As a psychologist, criticism is something I have an intimate relationship with.  I’ve had many job applications rejected, research articles rejected, blog posts rejected, op-eds rejected, and heaps of critical responses on my teaching and writing.

The fear of failure can be overwhelming because let’s face it. Rejection. And. Criticism. Suck.

Even just including one of my worst teaching evaluations brings back the head-to-toe weight of inadequacy.

There are many times I have wanted to give up and stop trying. Thoughts intrude saying, Your writing will never be good enough.  No one takes your teaching seriously.  You’ll never be a real psychologist (i.e., tenured professor, published, accomplished, etc.).  The fear of more rejection, criticism, and failure can be suffocating.

As I reflect on my years of being a professor, I’ve noticed there are 5 stages I go through when I get rejected or criticized.

5 Steps to Handle Rejection and Criticism

1. Ride the emotional roller coaster

My first response is always overwhelming emotion. I’m mad at the student criticizing me or hurt that my research paper got rejected because I’m “just not experienced enough.” I get defensive. Then angry. Then hurt. Sometimes I will cycle back through these emotions more than once. The first day can be rough.

Though this stage is the hardest, it’s better than stifling the feelings, and pretending they aren’t there. I could say I don’t care and guard myself, but as Morrie Schwartz said, “If you hold back on the emotions–if you don’t allow yourself to go all the way through them–you can never get to being detached, you’re too busy being afraid.”

2. Talk it out

The next thing I do is talk it out.  Simply naming out loud what you’re feeling can take away an emotion’s power by lessening arousal.  I can unload the anger and hurt. Defend myself. Every person needs a cheerleader in their life who will be on their side no matter what. That’s my husband. He’s quick to listen and reassure me of my abilities, and happy to state how misinformed the naysayers are.

Having a close partner who shares in your joys and disappointments is like jumping on a trampoline; the stumbles are softened while the highs are amplified. One recent study measured pupil dilation to show that people calm down sooner from a stressful event when they have the support of their spouse.

3. Take out the Trash

The next step is to see the unhelpful messages for what they are and immediately dismiss them. Sift the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.  Ignore comments when they are:

  • vague (I didn’t trust her)
  • global (she was never prepared, and no one had a connection with her)
  • personal attacks (she was incompetent)
  • a matter of opinion (I didn’t like her wardrobe)
  • verifiably inaccurate (she always left before the students)

There is no point in dwelling on negative things that give no direction on how to improve.  If the feedback you receive does not inspire you to want to do better, discard it.

4. Reflect and Learn

Now that my defenses are down, my emotions are in check, and the trolling/triggering comments are history, I’m able to learn. Helpful feedback is vital to improving skills. Take the specific comments that pave the way to get better.

Study the remarks. Make a list. Create a plan.  Implement changes to improve.

My teaching assignments, activities, and writing style have evolved a lot as I’ve considered the advice that was specific and encouraging.

5. Move On

It can be tempting to ruminate on negative feedback, reexamining it over and over. What did he mean by, “there was no connection?” How could he have the nerve to say that? They don’t even know me!

We gain nothing from rehashing each old criticism from every angle wondering what if, dwelling on regret, or allowing bitterness. Women are especially bad at this, which explains in part why they have higher depression rates than men.

Our brains are drawn to negative information more than positive information. Have you ever been given several positive comments on performance, but can’t stop thinking about the 1 or 2 negative ones?  Some researchers put the ratio at about 3:1, where negative events have three times the impact as positive ones.

Don’t let the positive comments be forgotten. They can be just the boost you need to keep going.  When I find myself remembering the stabbing unhelpful criticism over and over, I remind myself that it is not the critic who counts.  If the feedback stating, “The students had no respect for her,” comes back into my thoughts, I talk back with the positive comments I’ve had.

The Most Epic Student Comment I’ve Had

One comment I will never forget happened after a lecture on finding meaning in life. An international student in my Lifespan Development class waited until the end of class to tell me sincerely that I gave her life meaning. I was taken aback that she hadn’t said the class or the subject, but me personally. Helping students find meaning and fulfillment is one of the best feelings in the world, one I have been chasing ever since.

So what keeps me going? Encouraging comments. Remembering the time my students gave me a standing ovation. The time my advisor praised my op-ed unprompted. The time my article got accepted on the first try. Constructive comments from people who matter to me, take me to higher ground. Not those who laugh as I stumble or thrive on feeling superior.

Getting rejected or handling criticism can be hard.  Don’t let it keep you from trying again. Don’t let the fear of failure hold you back.  When you allow yourself to follow these five steps, you can break that crippling fear.

As Elbert Hubbard said, “Do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing, and you’ll never be criticized.”

Veronika Tait

Veronika Tait is the proud mother of two little ones. She earned her PhD in Social Psychology at Brigham Young University and currently teaches psychology courses at two universities in Utah. When she’s not writing articles on VeronikaTait.com, she’s reading psychology books, researching decision making, conducting Story Time at her local library, or volunteering with political groups.