Maybe it's just the rhythms of the semester, but many of you seem to be down in the dumps. I've been hearing from lots of people who are frustrated by cranky colleagues' comments, demoralized by rejected manuscripts and grant proposals, and tired of students' unending complaints. With so much negativity in our work environments, I'm going to focus this week on Common Mistake #11: Internalizing Rejection and Negativity.
Academic Life is FULL of Rejection, Negativity, and Haters
One of the greatest difficulties of academic life is that there is a seemingly endless stream of negative information and devaluation, while positive experiences are few and far between. By this time of the academic year, you have probably received a wide range of negativity from colleagues, students, external reviewers, publishers, granting agencies, and random haters. This is perfectly normal and, quite frankly, some of it is part of the research, teaching, and professional growth process. But that doesn't mean it feels good! While most of us can handle a certain amount of frustration, rejection and disappointment, it's the cumulative effect of this negativity that can lead to exhaustion, paralysis, and/or depression. The problem occurs when we internalize the negativity and allow rejection to impact our sense of our own intellectual capacity, self-worth, and enjoyment of our work.
Responding to Rejection and Negativity
There will always be some negativity in your environment, rejection of your manuscripts and grant proposals, negative comments in evaluations, and haters on the scene trying to steal the joy from your moments of accomplishment. Given these factors, the real question is how you can objectively evaluate negativity while keeping it from disturbing your internal peace. Throughout the 10 years I was a faculty member, I was bombarded by negativity and rejection. Here's the process I used to keep from getting overwhelmed by it:
Ask Yourself: Does This Matter?
Many times the negativity in your environment doesn’t matter one bit to your professional success and happiness. I have developed a habit of constantly asking myself: Does this matter? Things that don’t matter include gossiping colleagues, eye-rolling staff, student sniping, and bureaucratic annoyances. Things that DO matter include rejection letters for manuscripts, grant proposals and fellowships, as well as substantive conflicts with colleagues. For the things that don't matter, you can consciously recognize them as trifling silliness that you have no control over and LET THEM GO.
If It Matters, Identify the Heart of the Problem
If you must engage the negativity, then figure out where the problem is located: Is it your work, your behavior, or you as a person? Differentiating between these three things is critical to moving forward. For example, if you have an article rejected, then the problem is located in your manuscript, not in your existence as a human being. If you receive criticism from your department chair for repeatedly canceling office hours, then the problem is your behavior, not you as a person. Clearly identifying the heart of the problem will help you keep the negativity externalized and pointed in the direction of the problem, instead of internalizing it and allowing the negativity to attack your sense of self-worth.
Consider the Negative Input as Data
Once you have cut through the negativity (to deal only with what matters) and identified the core problem, just consider the negative information as data. I know it's hard to receive a manuscript rejection, but pull out the relevant pieces of information, plan your revisions, and move forward. And while none of us enjoy being confronted about our behavior, it's better for our colleagues to tell us directly if something is problematic (like repeatedly canceling office hours). That honest feedback provides an opportunity for a quick and easy behavioral adjustment and for everyone to move forward.
When Overwhelmed by Negativity, Reach Out for Support
If you are sensitive to criticism, consider reaching out for support. There are many ways to do so. I am extraordinarily sensitive to criticism, so when I was a new faculty member I would give my rejection letters to a colleague for "translation." She would read the reviews and tell me what needed to be revised without the nastiness. Somehow, hearing the revision from her made it not only constructive, but helpful and exciting. I gladly returned the favor for her rejections until we got to a point where we could filter them ourselves.
Pity the Haters
It’s hard enough to deal with the constant stream of negative information, but it’s even more difficult when you do succeed and colleagues try to diminish, dismiss, or devalue your accomplishments. There are some people in our professional lives who simply cannot bear to hear positive information about other people (because they interpret it as negative information about themselves). That means they will do their very best to subtly but persistently bring you down. You know who they are and the pitiful reasons they can’t be happy for you, so don’t allow yourself to be vulnerable to them. I used to imagine putting on an invisible protective shield before heading to faculty meetings so all of the petty and mean-spirited locker-room put-downs would bounce right off me. And on the occasions when the haters penetrated my armor, a loud blast of Jill Scott’s Hate On Me  could always put things back in perspective quickly.
When You Receive Positive Feedback -- Celebrate!
Let's be honest: positive affirmations of our research, teaching, and service are rare. I often work with people who let every negative piece of information sear their soul, but refuse to accept a compliment, enjoy positive student evaluations, or receive an enthusiastic book review. This doesn't make sense to me! So if you do nothing else, let yourself enjoy positive feedback when it happens. Savor it and celebrate!
Develop an Internal System of Affirmation and Value
Most importantly, we each must develop our own internal system of value, measures of quality, and definition of success. Unless you have a clear sense of your value as a scholar, your criteria for "good work," and your definition of success, you will gradually find yourself influenced by the inevitable negativity and one-upmanship in your environment.
THIS WEEK'S CHALLENGE
This week I challenge each of you to do the following:
- Ask yourself: Is the negativity in my environment getting to me?
- If so, take five minutes to write down what's bothering you. Then figure out what items on that list really matter and what items you can just let go.
- If you have haters in your department, develop a ritual or mental trick to protect yourself from their pitiful put-downs.
- For the items that really matter, determine the heart of the problem and use the negative information as data to determine how you can move forward.
- Ask for support if you feel overwhelmed.
- Stop to celebrate EVERY piece of positive feedback you receive.
- Begin to develop your own definition of success. Consider writing it down and keeping it in a place where you can regularly see it.
- Keep up your daily writing. The best way to insulate yourself from rejection and negativity is to have plenty of work in the pipeline.
I hope that this week brings each of you the energy to cut through the negativity in your environment, the compassion and clarity you need to deal with your haters, the wisdom to keep negative information externalized and focused on the problem at hand, and the absolute confidence that emerges from an internally-generated definition of success.
Peace & Productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore