I don't even want to know how bad I am.
June 27, 2012 9:36 AM   Subscribe

How do I get over my fear of criticism, especially in an academic setting?

I'm a graduate student, and if you look at my past posting history, you'll see that I have issues with anxiety, ADD, and depression (for which I am medicating).

This was brought on by a specific event, but in general, I have trouble taking criticism. Not so much in the, "Fuck you, I'm perfect, you just don't understand me" way. This is more about not being able to stomach it without going into a panic attack. Whenever I get comments back on a paper, or a performance review, or anything along those lines, I completely shut down. Any sort of constructive criticism guts me, even if I know it comes from a good place.

I hate doing a second read on my papers and editing, because I see all the stupid things I've done. I criticize myself more than I get from others, but both seem to shut me down. I hate showing work to people for help, because I'm afraid of what they'll think. Then I just hide things until it's too late.

In my undergrad, I turned in a seniors honors thesis for that got rejected. I got a letter from the department chair outlining the problems, but before I read more than a paragraph, I just ripped it up and tossed it out. I couldn't read it. I still, to this day, am not sure what happened with that paper.

The specific event this time was a paper I had to turn in to get to the next stage of my PhD. I passed (based on previous performance, I'm pretty sure), but this paper was not my best work. I'd procrastinated it, and I definitely was not happy with what I submitted, but I hoped... actually, I have no idea what I was hoping for.

When I met with my committee they (very nicely, because they're educators in an education field) slammed me for a bunch of things, from structure to ideas to technical issues (like tense). It gutted me. I left the room and went to go hide out for a bit. I actually couldn't write and could barely go to class for a week afterwards. I finally pulled it together, but I had a stack of edited/marked copies of my paper that I couldn't read.

And I still have them, 7 months later. I haven't gone through and read them, because even reading the first page (and seeing stupid mistakes) makes me want to retch. I'll do anything but read these, but I know I need to to get better.

I want to be an academic. I know that involves receiving criticism and editing. I know it involves growth and learning. I have the kindest advisor and committee in the world, and they're all willing to work with me and help me, but I just hide away. Every time they see a weakness, I turtle in and hide, because I don't want them to see any more.

How do I fix this? How did you fix this? How do you become more comfortable with criticism, especially in the context of learning from it and growing? How do I read this stack of criticism and process is constructively while not throwing it all into a fire?
posted by SNWidget to Education (18 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
IAAP, although IAN any of your Ps.

1) Nobody enjoys criticism. I'm an extremely shy person, the sort who normally avoids conflict under any and all circumstances, and I certainly recognize and empathize with your feelings of horror whenever someone catches me in an error (especially if it's an error I should have caught).


2) Nobody is criticizing you. They're criticizing what's on the page.

I've done a fair amount of writing/publishing at this point in my career, and there's always something that can be improved. Sometimes the referee/editor is snippy about it; sometimes they're extremely kind. Here's my process:

*look at criticisms/complaints/requests for changes*
*wander around the room, waving my arms, crying out about the injustice of the world*
*eat chocolate, play NetHack, whatever*
*go back and reread*
*make requested changes*

The mantra you have to develop as an academic is: it's not about me. It has nothing to do with me. It has to do with these marks on the page. This doesn't necessarily make it easier to read criticism, but it eventually helps create a mindset in which you can think about your project as an entity apart from your sense of self.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:47 AM on June 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I know AskMeFi is famous for telling everybody to seek counselling, but it sounds like you would really benefit from counselling. Your procrastination and avoidance issues seem to be at the root of this, so if you can get some professional help with those, other things may fall in line as well.

As for the marked-up copies of the paper: you need to read them! You say you want to improve, but you're willfully not pursuing a perfect avenue for improvement (out of fear that you will be hurt). It's okay to feel that way, but you need to overcome that fear and take a look at these papers. A lot of good people who care about you took specific time and pains to help you. Read them!

Not reading them sounds like one of those weird defense mechanisms we all fall prey to sometimes where we set ourselves up to fail because it's less risky than trying.

Set yourself some baby-step goals, like "I will read one of these papers per week until they are done." As a chronic procrastinator myself, I know how easy it is to beat yourself up for not getting everything you want done immediately. But that's not how this works. Take baby steps. Get through one of the papers this week, and congratulate yourself for being strong and knocking one thing off your list.

Keep a list, and don't stress if some things stay on there for a long time. Look at it frequently and pick something to do that you feel like doing. Be genuinely proud when you've tackled anything off your list.

You are way too hard on yourself, and I really think some sort of professional help would be great for you. Academic settings are likely to have ample cheap or free services in this area. Don't be afraid to take advantage of them. I would also let your supervisor know about some of these issues and that you are taking action on them. As you said, this person cares about you and wants you to succeed. You need to reach out to them, and realize that we're all afraid of failure. The trick is to be willing to fail anyway.

Anyway, good luck. You are much more capable than you think!
posted by hamandcheese at 9:51 AM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't think of it as criticism, think of it as suggestions for making things better. If you approach your education as a cooperative effort, where you and those who are working with you are working together to perfect your output.

It's normal to freak out when you make errors, or could have done something better. Personally, I die a little inside when I screw up a spreadsheet. But accept that you aren't perfect and frankly, no one expects you to be.

Mention your anxiety to your professors. Make a joke out of it. If you get something back and it's covered in red scrawl, pick it up as though it were contaminated and say, "Oh my! It' looks like I've got some work to do."

Meet with each individually and pick their brains about your proposed topics.

It's not easy. I used to cry after each performance review because they weren't perfect. Now I accept that I'm not perfect, and even if I were, a performance review will always have something for me to improve on it. I just smile and sign. It's just not that important.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:55 AM on June 27, 2012

I hear you. I'm also an oversensitive grad student and feel similarly when I get negative feedback/ my work isn't perfect.

I've noticed a couple of things after editing manuscript as an RA:
-the professors who I work for make a huge number of mistakes (spelling, formatting, conceptual) in the first drafts of their work. The difference between my work and theirs is that they have a group of coauthors and graduate students to help them edit those mistakes. But many of the mistakes are pretty much the same. Recognizing this has made me more tolerant of my own errors--no one writes a perfect paper by themselves.

-while my professors are obviously interested in the research that they're doing, they are also a bit detached from it in a way that I find difficult to explain. Criticism is viewed as a good thing because it helps them work on their material, which is all a part of a larger body of research that they want to contribute to. As a student, I often find that I'm working on things that aren't a part of a larger research agenda that I care about, but more short-term projects that are intended to get me further along in the process of getting my degree, passing a class, and so on. So it's easy to lose a sense of proportion about the importance of the quality of a particular paper in the grand scheme of things. But in the grand scheme, most of what I've written in grad school may never be published, and would certainly not go anywhere without serious revision.

-They care about the concepts that they are trying to explore when they write, and while the form in which the information is presented is important, it takes second place to the substance of the argument or idea that they are presenting. Even a paper that has problems with form can have a great deal of substance. I suspect that your committee sees some of that going on in your work. Style is completely different, and a skill that you acquire over time. You can write a paper with a shit ton of errors that still has a lot of really good ideas.

Generally I think that grad school sucks because you're working your ass off to accomplish a lot of short term, exacting goals set for you by other people that don't necessarily have much to do with what you're actually interested in. At the same time, you are at the entry level for work that you really want to do in the future and the accomplishment of those goals is somewhat important. I think a sort of anxious procrastination is common for grad students because of this. You are in a highly stressful situation and shouldn't beat yourself up for being really stressed out and making mistakes.
posted by _cave at 10:08 AM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I used to be like that. Even a generally positive performance review would leave me in tears. I got over it without therapy but it took a long time and A LOT of performance reviews. I think the things that helped me most were a) learning to view criticism as criticism OF MY WORK, not as a judgment on my self-worth; b) looking critically at my own work with a view to improvement, not with a view to criticism; c) taking a lot more criticism, and really listening and evaluating the quality of the criticism, and thinking about how I can use that criticism to improve my work (and, sometimes, discounting the criticism as invalid - your critics make mistakes too!).
posted by mskyle at 10:11 AM on June 27, 2012

I had a great creative writing class where we alternated critique of our own work with that of published geniuses. It was so illuminating to be able to poke holes in the published work, and to see what I had issues with that other students didn't, and vice versa. Everything can always be better. Try examining the works of others very closely. Notice how in most cases, they get it good enough and then send it out into the world.
posted by xo at 10:18 AM on June 27, 2012

I found it really helpful to grit my teeth and say 'thank you' every time someone told me something to change about my work because that stopped me bursting into tears. Also, making detailed notes helped to:
a) force me to clarify at that moment what steps I needed to take to improve - this was very important when I was getting overwhelming feedback like 'this structure isn't quite right - try again', which otherwise becomes a giant nebulous 'you're rubbish' that you can't work on
b) give me something to do instead of crying
c) give me a list of substantial work that needed to be done, which was always much shorter than I would expect from looking at a piece of work where everything seemed to be scrawled over in red
d) sort out the comments from different people that actually conflicted - you'd be surprised how often this happens and it goes to show that these comments are all suggestions. Some will be because you're flat out wrong (ooops) but sometimes it's them that's misunderstood. You still need to fix that because you clearly didn't explain well enough, but it wasn't wrong.

I also found it helpful to firmly put myself into the role of 'student'. This means you are paying them to allow you to learn. Every time you get feedback you are getting your money's worth - fab! That's also a marvellous get-out clause because every time you have a question or get something wrong, you can wave your arms in the air or shrug and smile and say 'Ooops, I'm still learning'.

I also found it helpful to have allocated time for breaking down and crying in the toilets once you'd managed to hold it together to receive the feedback. But after that I found I needed to read anything I had been given immediately, otherwise I found it started to fester and turned into something much worse than it needed to be.

In terms of editing what you have written, it really helps to never regard anything as finished until it is actually printed in a journal. I was hugely helped by this piece of writing called 'Shitty First Drafts' and by the thought that everything is a draft, it just gets slightly better over revisions. Every time I sent anything to my supervisors it was 'Here's my next attempt at . . '

I actually developed a method of writing that assumed I was going to re-write everything. Very few people write clear concise sentences the first time around and I've found that my work improves by writing a draft then going through and re-writing every single paragraph, getting rid of it if it was not needed and redrafting every sentence. I cut 50 pages from my thesis the week before I handed it in because I decided they contributed nothing.

I have a tendency to be verbose and every piece of work would be just as bad as this answer if I didn't rewrite 2-3 times. That's not failure, that's learning.
posted by kadia_a at 10:45 AM on June 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Can you afford to hire a copyeditor to go over your papers? That's what many authors, both academic and otherwise, do.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:48 AM on June 27, 2012

Posting this comment for a friend:

When I was in grad school I had the exact same tendency to avoid reading comments on my papers. It was really weird. I felt like I was too exposed ... their remarks would cut too deeply ... and when I forced myself to read them I invariably found that they weren't bad, they were helpful and constructive.

In fact, in seminars where there was just one paper that was submitted at the end of the semester, I didn't always read the comments, I might wait months to do so.

I was sort of broken of this fear by a professor who made us submit first drafts for his comment and criticism, then made us revise them and submit a final draft that was responsive to his criticisms. This made reading and considering the comments more routine, got me used to confronting them.

You might, if you have time, take the initiative to proactively seek comments ... turn in drafts early ... And then consider it just a mechanical, emotionless process to address the comments in your revisions. My theory if that if you are proactive, it will alleviate some of the shame/guilt/fear of reading the comments, because you will know you are seeking extra guidance. What do they call the therapy where you overload yourself with what you fear ... flooding? Take that approach with reading and considering comments.
posted by allnamesaretaken at 11:04 AM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm like you. This feeling got better as my career progressed.

But really, your advisors' job is to mold you into a scholar. They are doing so in the most efficient way.

Frame it as - these brilliant people are spending their precious time trying to MAKE ME BETTER because they think that I could join their ranks one day.
posted by k8t at 11:51 AM on June 27, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice, everyone. This is one of those things that's been killing me. I see that stack of papers every day, and it's been haunting me. I finally cracked one open (the one from my advisor, which I figured would be the easiest to stomach). It was awful, it was painful, but I did it. Yay?

The mantra you have to develop as an academic is: it's not about me. It has nothing to do with me. It has to do with these marks on the page.

This is one of the biggest issues I have. I intertwine myself with my work (and musicianship, to a lesser extent). It is me, and I need to learn to separate the two, or I'm going to beat myself into the ground. Those comments seem so personal, as opposed to comments on work I've done. Suddenly, a verb-tense mistake becomes a judgement on who I am as a person.

force me to clarify at that moment what steps I needed to take to improve - this was very important when I was getting overwhelming feedback like 'this structure isn't quite right - try again', which otherwise becomes a giant nebulous 'you're rubbish' that you can't work on

I think this is part of the issue for me, at least. I have these piles of comments and critique for my paper, and without reading them, I just assume the sum total is "You suck." I've been avoiding them, so I don't know what I need to do to improve my academic writing. They've liked plenty of stuff I've given to them before, so this was a weird duck for a lot of reasons. Just making those mistakes so publicly makes me want to bury them and go on.

Can you afford to hire a copyeditor to go over your papers? That's what many authors, both academic and otherwise, do.

Not really. My wife's my copyeditor generally, but when it comes to issues with formatting in APA style (tense issues, etc.), she doesn't know them. That's my job, but I just waited too long with this one. She does help me a ton with just clearing out the first draft(s).

In fact, in seminars where there was just one paper that was submitted at the end of the semester, I didn't always read the comments, I might wait months to do so.

At least you went to get the papers. I usually just ignored them and never went to see my grade or the comments.

You might, if you have time, take the initiative to proactively seek comments ... turn in drafts early ...

I've done this before, and it does help. The first few drafts are the hardest to send, but then I get into the groove and start cleaning things up. Once the dam opens, it's fine. But then I'm on to the next project, and the block starts up again, and I'm back to square one.
posted by SNWidget at 12:14 PM on June 27, 2012

Setting aside the level of effort you invest, the amount of material you put out, and the fact that you may have a serious personal stake in getting your readers to like you, getting comments on academic work that you think of as being intertwined with who you are has a number of things in common with getting feedback from AskMe on what are essentially personal issues: some comments will be junk and/or represent some bĂȘte noire of the commenter's; some comments will sting; you've reached a point in life where you need these comments to move forward on some issue; there's generally an etiquette that keeps things from getting really ugly; and in theory some comments may help you if you're able to listen.

To put that another way, in spite of the substantial differences in context, you may be able to borrow on the spirit of what you're successfully doing here (opening yourself up for input) and trick your self-consciousness into treating it similarly.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:18 PM on June 27, 2012

I'm the same way - I have mini panic attacks whenever I think what I'm doing isn't entirely perfect.

Sometimes it seems like we're surrounded by all these perfect people who are perfect without effort, but usually others are thinking the same thing ("I'm surrounded by geniuses! How the hell do I pass?!").

Try to rethink the entire process - you say that your committee is very nice, but they "slammed" you? No! They took time out of their schedule to recommend changes. They thought you were WORTH that time and effort, because they think you have something!

No one is perfect, and any form of criticism is a learning experience. You're a student - if you knew everything you wouldn't be a student.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 4:54 PM on June 27, 2012

Seems to me that you could benefit from developing a more realistic idea of what is you vs. what is not-you. This is the basic distinction, and getting it wrong mucks up all kinds of things.

It's harder to get it wrong if you develop more body awareness. So a good place to start would be with exercise - vigorous, sweat-inducing, solo exercise. And once you've built up a good healthy sweat, spend a few minutes slapping yourself on the chest while saying "I am this" and then looking at some random object that isn't your body and saying "I am not that". After a few months of that that process you should notice that it's getting easier to separate yourself from the things you make.
posted by flabdablet at 5:21 PM on June 27, 2012

Stop thinking so much about you and think a little more about your advisors. Have you taught classes yet? Probably, right? Or if not, you want to. So you are, or you will be, the one who is scribbling red marks all over papers. Will you want your students to be paralyzed and unable to learn from what you have offered them? Will you think that they are horrible or pathetic because they have made errors or can improve in certain areas?

If you haven't taught much then at this point you may still spend hours agonizing over each paper. This will change for you, just as it has for your advisors. Giving comments on papers, even very extensive ones, becomes routine. You are one in a very long series of students they will see and every single student, even the ones that you imagine are far more brilliant than you, will have red marks on their papers. You are giving your advisors too much power over you. Read what they have to say and learn from the red marks that make sense. If there are things you don't agree with then figure out why and how to defend this.
posted by Cuke at 6:04 PM on June 27, 2012

Hmm. I have extremely low self esteem, but somehow never translated criticism of my work to criticism of myself. (Except for that one time I was wrongfully accused of plagiarism by an online professor who hadn't even submitted my paper to one of those plagiarism checkers. I was devastated to think that someone I'd never met thought I was a cheater. In retrospect, it was a silly reaction, particularly because I spent the rest of the semester dumbing down my work so I could avoid further accusations.)

Ultimately, you are in control of your own response to criticism. Even if someone meant something as a personal attack, it's up to you to shrug your shoulders and see if you can learn anything from it anyway. I'm always really inspired by people who take criticism really well--recently a feminist critic named Anita Sarkeesian endured death and sexual assault threats, attacks on her work, appearance, and personality, and having her Wikipedia page, Kickstarter project, and YouTube channel defaced all because she intended to form an opinion in the future about depictions of women in video games. Her posts on these incidents and her determination to move forward with the project are heartening and inspiring.

In this situation, I'd try facing the red marks with a notebook and pen in hand after a few deep breaths. Write down how you feel about the critiques; think of it as a project. Split your reactions into two parts--critiques of your ideas vs. critiques of technical issues with your paper. The important thing is the process. Face one page at a time. Or, if you can't handle that, one red mark at a time. Check in with yourself and try to be aware of your anxiety level. As yourself, before you begin, what the worst possible consequence would be of facing this fear. You'll vomit? Have a panic attack? Die? Your answer doesn't have to be rational, you just have to be aware of your responses and fears surrounding this stress.

And yeah, therapy. Maybe try the anxiety and phobia workbook; this helped me get over my fear of driving after avoiding it for 10 years after I had a car accident that could have been fatal.
posted by xyzzy at 11:24 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Criticism is a great tool. It's a map to help you navigate where to go. Without it, it's easy to be lost. With it, it's easier to know what's working and what needs more time.

Criticism, properly received and given in the right spirit, is a gift.
posted by Murray M at 3:58 AM on June 28, 2012

One easy way to manage anxiety of the kind you describe (can't read a page) is to break it down into even smaller pieces. Set something very pleasant and enjoyable nearby - you are about to do something difficult so rewarding yourself should be quick and easy (I often use Facebook games as my "reward"). Then read the first critique. You'll get that sick feeling inside, and the growing panic. Then do the fun, relaxing reward - you read the first critique even though it was difficult! Go you! Once you notice the sick feeling receeding, feeling a little calmer, read the next critique. Then do the next fun, relaxing thing! When you reach the point that the fun, relaxing thing takes twice as long to calm you down as when you started, stop for the day and give yourself a lot of credit for facing up to your anxieties.

Often what happens with things that provoke anxiety is that we minimize the negative effect it has on us while we repeat insults to ourselves over and over because we're experiencing the negative effect (I'm so pathetic, why can't I just do this scary thing!). This actually makes it harder to accomplish the goal, not easier. "Tough love" with yourself is very, very often counter productive, while a little love, understanding, and self-praise can go a long way.
posted by Deoridhe at 11:37 AM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

« Older How do I respond when people insult themselves...   |   Prefixes in a series--help! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.