Coping with rejection and critical feedback
A career in academia brings many professional challenges that can have an impact on your personal wellbeing such as critical feedback on your research or having a grant proposal rejected. However, withstanding and overcoming criticism and rejection allow us to learn and develop. We can train ourselves to develop a measure of detachment which in turn allows us to choose to respond in an emotionally intelligent way rather than react in a highly charged emotional one.
Here are some suggestions, based on emotional intelligence research, that can help you to reframe, understand, and learn how to manage the emotions around rejections and criticisms:
Observe and name what you’re feeling
It might seem a strange thing to name your emotions but imagine if you went to your GP with a bad feeling in your stomach and you had no words to describe the discomfort. The GP would struggle to understand and be able to help you. If you could describe it using words such as intense, intermittent, dull or sharp, then they would be more able to diagnose the problem. So, when you get a rejection or feedback, try to name your emotions and then simply observe what you are feeling. Allow yourself to be frustrated, angry, hurt etc rather than trying to push those feelings away. It can be tempting to try and explain why you are experiencing certain emotions, but this can just intensify it, so limit yourself to naming the emotion.
When you practise naming your emotions you form new neural pathways that allow you to ignore the accompanying impulse. E.g. if you are annoyed about some critical feedback from a reviewer and can accurately name the emotions, then over time you will be less likely to respond negatively and protect yourself from saying or doing something you later regret. Most of us have a poor vocabulary for emotions. Try learning some new names using a taxonomy such as the wheel of emotions or Dr Mark Brackett’s mood meter.
Emotions are data
Emotions, even challenging ones like anger, are data and they exist to help us by providing us with important information. They are our response to our perceptions of a situation, helping focus our attention and move us towards a course of action. If, for example, you are invited to present at a conference, you may experience a fear of failure and criticism. This is your body’s way of motivating you to do your research and prepare as best you can. Once you recognise and understand your patterns, it will help you understand what your body is trying to protect you from and what course of action you need to take. Look at our resources on the inner critic – these also explain that our self-doubt and criticism are a response to stretching ourselves and this can be reframed as a good thing.
Contribution rather than blame
It is common human behaviour to look at what or who was to blame for a situation. You might tell yourself that a collaborator was to blame for the paper rejection as they wrote most of it and submitted it. But it is more helpful to think about all the factors that could possibly have contributed to a situation. For instance, your collaborator might have had a heavy workload at the time or maybe they needed help but didn’t want to ask for support as they knew you were busy.
By concentrating on what contributed, it will help you focus on the future and solutions rather than problems and avoid a negative cycle of blaming and finger pointing. It will also help build trust and a shared sense of responsibility in your team.
Allow yourself time to think
It is natural that rejection or criticism can hurt and as such it’s important to give yourself time to process. Those that really thrive and build their careers are able to learn from and move on from these setbacks. They see a rejection and reviewers’ comments as a boost to improving the quality of their next paper or proposal and look for the learning that they can apply. In Kolb’s learning cycle (below) we need to spend time in the reflection/review stage in order to learn from the experience. It can be tempting to move on from rejection by going straight to planning but when we do that we miss out on a valuable opportunity for growth.
Stop comparing yourself with others
It can be very tempting to compare ourselves to others by observing the quality papers they’ve published, or high profile talks they’ve been invited to give. But it’s important to remember we never see the whole picture. We are comparing our inner and outer experience with what we see of their outer experience. This comparison doesn’t make logical sense. It’s rare that someone shares a professional rejection on their social media pages and so it’s easy to think you’re the only one. By understanding that everyone, even your most successful role model, has been rejected and criticised at various points in their career, it can help you be more objective and focus on what you might take forward.
Focus on the facts
When we’re rejected or criticised, we often assume it’s because of something we’ve done, but that is just one interpretation. If, for example, you are presenting a paper and someone asks you a challenging question about your research in what you perceive as a critical way, it’s easy to assume that they are criticising you and your work. However, we can also choose to look at other potential interpretations e.g. they themselves were worried about looking stupid when asking the question and came across more critically than they intended. Before you jump to conclusions ensure you have all the facts and ask for further feedback or clarification if it will help.
Use your support network
In order to thrive in our personal and professional lives we need support around us. We have to be able to process and move on from rejection and criticism and so it can be helpful to share the situation with key people around you. Your mentor/s will be able to provide a more neutral and unbiased perspective and help you understand if it’s something you need to focus on or whether you should move on without allowing it to take up too much time. Your line manager and collaborators may also be useful to help you gain perspective and sometimes sharing it with someone outside of your context e.g. a colleague in another department or institution can give you space to reflect.
Take a ‘helicopter view’
Take a big step back and view the situation from afar. Imagine you are taking a ride in a helicopter to see the whole landscape (metaphorically!) How significant does the feedback or rejection look from here? A useful technique to change your perspective is to imagine that you are speaking to your future self, perhaps 10 or 15 years into the future. Ask them what their view or advice would be. They may have some words of wisdom to help you reframe.
Develop your optimism
According to Martin Seligman in his book ‘Learned Optimism’ we can build our skill in this area by practising some simple exercises. When we develop our optimism, it has a positive ripple effect on our resilience as well as our mental and physical wellbeing. As such we’re able to move on more quickly from rejection and criticism and focus on the future.
Try practising a simple gratitude practice, the ‘3, 2, 1’ technique on a daily basis for a couple of months and see how your outlook changes. Simply record at the end of the day:
- 3 wins – Anything (small or large) that went well, something you’ve achieved or contributed to e.g. completing a task on your to-do list, influencing a senior manager to change their mind on something, getting some positive feedback from a team member, or even something like leaving work on time or having a delicious meal!
- 2 skills or strengths - Consider what you’re good at and how have you used those skills over the day to good effect.
- 1 positive emotion – Identify a moment in the day when you felt happy, accomplished, calm, invigorated, motivated, successful etc. – remind yourself that it’s not ‘always bad’
Our emotions are based on how we currently view a situation, and our overall wellbeing also influences our response. If you are already tired from working long hours, it is likely that a rejection will be harder to deal with than if you were feeling physically fit and well. As such, it’s vital that we check in with our health and ensure that it’s not colouring our view. This way we are less likely to overreact or misinterpret something. It’s important to consider our sleep patterns, stress levels, our diet and movement to ensure we’re in optimal condition to deal with the challenges of our role in academia.
“Remember that, by definition, in academia your peers and competitors are a group of people who probably got straight ‘A’s at school, they got into the top university of their choice, and they got a first-class degree, and then they probably got their PhD without any major issues.
Take all of those people over a 40-year span and put them all together and they’re all applying for funding and competing with you. They cannot all be successful 100% of the time, because they're all competing now for a very small pot of resources. So, it’s always important that you draw out the lessons when you’ve not been successful. If you dismiss the feedback out of hand then you really have come away with nothing.”
- Professor Peter Haynes, former Head of Department, Materials, now Vice-Provost (Education and Student Experience)
“You will get lots of rejections that you will not be prepared for. Just submit it and get it under your belt. Each rejection makes you more ready to move on.
One thing is that I always try and have a proposal under review. So I’ve always got a rejection to look forward too!”
- Professor Robert Hewson, Reader, Department of Aeronautics
Internal resources and guidance
External resources and guidance
- Valuing failure: a two-part podcast from Fast Track Impact:
- Part 1 – Prof Mark Reed explores how you can reframe the failures and rejections that are part of everyday academic life as something that deeply affirms our values and leads to greater meaning and contentment.
- Part 2 - Mark continues to reframe failure as something that deeply affirms our values and leads to greater meaning and contentment.
- A blog from the Research Whisperer with five ways to pick up the pieces, post-grant-unsuccess.
- Two books that will help you to build your emotional intelligence (thereby managing rejections and feedback constructively). The titles speak for themselves!: