I suck. How do I live with that?
March 15, 2013 7:25 AM   Subscribe

I recently finished a lengthy project. I thought I did really well, and nothing indicated during the process that there was anything wrong. But I just got my review and it was poor. I feel like dying. Basically, when you've really fucked up and got no-one else to blame for it than your own incompetence, how do you shake it off and go on with your life?

Sorry for needing to being vague about the details, but I guess you could say that this took place at a certain kind of intersection of work and education. I feel like an idiot saying this now, but based on the feedback I was receiving during the process I was expecting to get a stellar final review. In reality, it turns out I barely scraped by.

The people giving me positive feedback at every step of the process were different (and obviously had different priorities) than the people reviewing my work afterward. And it turns out the two groups of people disagreed completely, so that after months of green lights, enthusiasm, positive feedback and encouragement... I unexpectedly received a crushing put down and learned I actually did it all wrong.

I suffer from anxiety and perfectionism, so I'm taking this very, very hard.

I can't go back and redo any of my work. I will certainly take a harsh look at all my mistakes and try to learn from them. I didn't do anything unethical or hurt anybody else in the process, so at least there is that. I was just stupid, and wrong, and an idiot.

My question is, how do I cope with this overwhelming feeling of embarrassment, humiliation, shame and self loathing?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (48 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Go talk to the people who were giving you positive feedback. This reeks of politics. In all likelihood you didn't do anything wrong, it's just a spat between warring factions.

If you were getting positive feedback this whole time, it's not your fault. You're not a goddamn mind-reader who'd know what this other group wanted.
posted by Mercaptan at 7:32 AM on March 15, 2013 [68 favorites]

It doesn't sound like you did anything wrong. Either the people reviewing your work are wrong or the people giving you feedback previously were wrong.
posted by callmejay at 7:33 AM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

So did you choose who was reviewing your work on an ongoing basis or were those people assigned to you? Did you deliberately seek out positive feedback and shun negative?

If not, I'm not sure what you are supposed to take from an experience where those who are meant to be advising you during a project are completely disconnected from what the final reviewers are looking for.

Something is wrong here. You may have deluded yourself into thinking you were doing well or you may have been set up for failure by an ill thought out process. We don't have enough information to tell either way.
posted by rocketpup at 7:33 AM on March 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

From the perspective of working in professional industry, it looks to me like the only mistake you made was to wait to get buy-in from the right people until too late in the process. That's SUCH a common mistake that I see even high-powered, successful people make all the time. I listed it in another AskMe as one big difference between novice engineers and experienced engineers (note, I didn't say "stupid" engineers and "smart" engineers).

I know it's difficult to separate professional critiques from personal ones. Even if your work really did 'suck' (which it probably didn't, since you were getting good reviews from some people) - of course that doesn't mean YOU suck. I think this sort of catastrophic thinking in perfectionists is a defense mechanism - I certainly tell myself "I suck" to avoid having to actually develop and improve myself.
posted by muddgirl at 7:34 AM on March 15, 2013 [31 favorites]

a) "after months of green lights, enthusiasm, positive feedback and encouragement" ... "the two groups of people disagreed completely"

does not match

b) "no-one else to blame for it than your own incompetence"

unless there was some way for you to know that the priorities of the final evaluators were completely different than those of the final evaluators.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:34 AM on March 15, 2013 [8 favorites]

You could start by wondering what made you come to the conclusion that YOU are stupid, wrong and an idiot, rather than that the people giving the positive feedback and encouragement were stupid, wrong and idiots.

Were they? If they were not, then it follows that you are not either. If they were idiots, then presumably your mistake is mainly in character judgement.

If I was in this situation my emotions would mainly be ANGER at the people who led me up the garden path.
posted by emilyw at 7:36 AM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Don't be so hard on yourself. We all have blind spots, but it isn't uncommon when you are getting positive feedback to think everyone is happy. It is also easy to think everyone is upset when you hear a minority of negative responses. Without being defensive, relay to your manager how you were paying attention to the wrong signals and how you are making an effort to broaden your radar in future projects to discern everyone's needs and reception of your work.

Naturally, you can't please everyone and it sounds like someone is being a bit hard on you about this. The best you can do is suck it up but take some comfort that some people genuinely appreciated your work. No one can take that away from you.
posted by dgran at 7:37 AM on March 15, 2013

Its hard to not take this personally since you invested so much time and effort while working on this project, not to mention were receiving positive and encouraging feedback that the denouement feels like a huge slap in the face.

But, as everyone is saying, try to find a way to a place where you are able to separate the outcome and its acceptance/rejection from your personal self.

YOU did NOTHING wrong.

Based on your work, progress, directions and feedback you were receiving you were on the right track.

Two sets of people disagreed on the original brief set forth to you, for your deliverable. Whether its politics between these factions or whether somebody somewhere dropped the ball, it really is one of those cases of being simply blindsided.

I've been here. And the best that you can take away with you is your experience gained. That is, you can be sure that never again will you begin something without ensuring that all decision makers/evaluaters etc are on board with the brief BEFORE you begin a project, much less reach final deliverable.

Its hard and it hurts. But yes, it happens.

I'm sorry it happened to you.
posted by infini at 7:41 AM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Look, it is entirely possible that you did an unskillful job. The thing you are missing is that being bad at things/incompetent and self-love are *not mutually exclusive*. You don't have to be good at things to love yourself. Say to yourself "these actions of mine were unskillful, and I regret that. However, I deserve compassion and love." You can use critical thinking and compassion at the same time. This will save you from having to tie your brain in knots trying to somehow justify yourself or make it somebody else's problem in order to save your ego. You can save your ego without being good at anything at all - practice self-compassion.
posted by facetious at 7:43 AM on March 15, 2013 [24 favorites]

I really sympathize with your feelings here. Like other commenters are saying, this does not seem to be a matter of suckage. It seems to be a matter of politics and of everyone not being on the same page.

However, you still have all the experience and knowledge that you gained from working on this project. Set it aside for a while and then go back and think it over. Make a list of your accomplishments and "wins" with this one. Those wins go on your resume or become talking points in interviews. The people who gave you positive feedback and appreciated your work will likely be people who help you find your next job or agree to act as a reference.

The crappy review sucks ass, I know it does. Give yourself some time to be sad over it, but know that the feeling is temporary.

And do some satisfying activity - clean the bathroom or go for a run or clean off your desk ... even a mini-accomplishment can help you feel better sometimes.
posted by bunderful at 7:45 AM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Note: the thing that will blow your mind, if you try this, is that you will still want to do a great job, even if you realize that you can have compassion for yourself whether or not you're any good at things. It's a win-win.
posted by facetious at 7:46 AM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

My question is, how do I cope with this overwhelming feeling of embarrassment, humiliation, shame and self loathing?

Yeah, based on your description, it was the process, not you. The best you can do now is look at revamping the process or in the future, ascertaining exactly who will be the final deciders of whether the project is good. In this case you might have been in an impossible position, where the people deciding the work and the people assigning a grade had different goals that could not be met.

Take it as a learning experience and move it. Some of my best learning experiences are when things go wrong. So step, look at what happened and figure out what, if anything, could have helped you get a good final review and then do that.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:50 AM on March 15, 2013

This is about a broken process in your organization, not about you sucking as an employee, professional, or person. You were doing the right things--getting and listening to feedback, confirming that your project was on the right track. Your organization screwed up.

One way to rebuild would be to talk to your manager about what went wrong in the review process, and maybe even spearhead an effort to fix the process. This shouldn't happen to anyone at your company ever again, and you're in a good position to explain how it happened and how to fix it.

I mean, it's not the end of the world to have a project go poorly--and maybe your final reviewers had good points. It's just that those points should have been made earlier in the project, alongside the positive reviews, so that you all could work out exactly what direction the project should take.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:53 AM on March 15, 2013 [7 favorites]

I'm with muddgirl on this: From the perspective of working in professional industry, it looks to me like the only mistake you made was to wait to get buy-in from the right people until too late in the process.

I agree that it's a very common mistake, and it's easy to fix. On the next project, find out (or make them decide) who will be the final arbiters of quality, and go to them, and only them, for your feedback while you work.

This has nothing to do with you sucking or even the quality of your work. It's a political thing and a very common mistake that I see people making all the time.
posted by ceiba at 7:54 AM on March 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

My question is, how do I cope with this overwhelming feeling of embarrassment, humiliation, shame and self loathing?

By taking yourself out of it and looking at the situation from the outside. To me, the biggest mistake you made was not getting feedback from the people whose opinions mattered -- the end reviewers. I don't think this means you did the project incorrectly or that you are bad at your job. It sounds to me like you are somewhat new to this organization/project, and have never been through this process before. So it's natural that you're not going to completely understand how business gets done (even if the way it gets done is somewhat inefficient and slightly counterintuitive). Learn from this, so the next time you can maneuver getting some input from the decision makers. Concentrate on the fact that you probably developed some skills related to your actual work on this project that you can use on the next one -- so the project is not a failure.
posted by bluefly at 7:56 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree that something is off here, politics, miscommunication that isn't your fault, or something else.

One more thing to look out for, beyond the issues pointed out above, is that sometimes managers during a project process will give negative feedback in a fairly subtle way, mixed with positive. This works in some cases, but not for everyone. I sometimes have done this myself and what I've found is that not everyone actually gets the negative feedback when presented in this form, or they get it to some degree but don't act on it because they don't quite see it in the right proportion (or somewhat more problematically, don't think independently about the feedback).

Evaluation almost always has to be more direct than interim feedback, so sometimes people get surprised at the end -- when this happens, I think this is a failure of communication, not of the project per se, in which both parties are responsible to some degree. (I've personally tried to change to be more direct with negative feedback, which can have its own issues with other sorts of people, but may be better in the long run.)
posted by advil at 7:57 AM on March 15, 2013 [7 favorites]

As Facetious and some of the others were saying: You are not your job. You are more than a performing monkey. Having realistic expectations of yourself can be hard. Not beating yourself up when you fail to meet unrealistic expectations is fairly normal, but pretty unhealthy. Bottom line: A failure, no matter how deserved or undeserved, just or unjust, does not make you a failure. How you recover says a lot more about you.

Stop punching yourself in the face :)
posted by Jacen at 7:59 AM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have so been there.

It's okay if it takes some time to grieve, even if what you're grieving is just the hope that everything would go OK, the hope that you would succeed extravagantly, the hopes for what would happen after your success.

What helped me then was:

-Reframing the project as much as I could in my mind, so that I focused less on my own failure, and more on what the project had taught me; deciding that it wasn't that I had failed, it was just that I was on a much longer road than I had previously thought.

-Making a plan. I don't know to what extent this unexpected review is going to impact whatever plans you previously had, but if your plans have been greatly disrupted, then it will really help to make new plans, so it's not just "I thought I was going to do X but I FAILED and I CAN'T" but "I thought I was going to do X but, well, heck, I guess I'm going to do Y instead, so the first thing I need to do is...."
posted by Jeanne at 8:08 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Make them give you another chance.
posted by amtho at 8:09 AM on March 15, 2013

We are learning all our lives, starting with our first smile, and stopping when we die. Everything we do is learning.

In the process of learning we go through phases of ability from "never tried" through "beginner" and "journeyman" and onwards. No teacher worth their salt will say "You are a stupid idiot because you are not yet an expert at this thing I am teaching you". That's clearly a fallacy! It's saying "you're too stupid to learn, why bother" instead of simply "you are still learning, keep going".

It's only by practicing repeatedly you will learn. By definition you will not be an expert while you are learning - and if you stop practicing, then you never will be.

You can never be perfect until you accept that you will have to be imperfect a lot first.
posted by emilyw at 8:10 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

If this is some kind of dissertation or final academic project - there's a strong possibility that Positive Group simply has a really different ideology than Negative Group. Positive Group are Lacanians, or reader response theorists, or really believe in open source software; Negative Group are Freudians or New Criticism scholars or....er...not open-source enthusiasts. If you're young and inexperienced, this may not be readily apparent to you from the outside. To Positive Group, you're meeting their norms, being formed as a scholar in their tradition, etc; to Negative Group, you're focusing on totally the wrong things, your theoretical underpinnings are useless, etc.

I assume that this is not something that is mission-critical to your organization, because why would you have had no contact with the actual end users/supervisors/evaluators? It seems likely that you were getting advice from a personal mentor (like a faculty member you've worked with before, for example; or the director of a nonprofit whose work parallels your academic work) precisely because there was no structure set up for you to meet with the evaluators. That's really poor planning - and certainly characteristic of certain kinds of academia. (Small liberal arts program, perhaps?)

Like everyone else is saying, this is very unfortunate, but it's not your fault. It would have been great if you'd already had the skills to say to yourself "who should I be meeting with about this? I have not been given any directions to contact them or any information about involving them in this process, but I will pro-actively do so" but that's not - to me - a normal expectation for someone starting out in their career.

What should you take away from this?

That you can survive a serious setback. That is insanely valuable, especially to a perfectionist. Now you know what it is to fuck up - you know that the world doesn't end, you know that you still get up in the morning, you know that you feel bad but you survive. A lot of people don't learn that, and they spend their lives trembling in exaggerated and crippling fear of failure. You're going to look back on this when you're doing your next project, and it's going to give you confidence.

You've also learned that you can't trust your institution to have a good process and get things right - you've learned that you need to examine your plans from a meta level, you've learned that you need to build in lots of checks and redundancies. Again, it's really valuable to learn this early.

Don't think of this as "I fucked up, I am terrible and stupid"; think of it as "I have learned that I can't rely on my institution to have its shit together and I have learned that I can survive and grow from failure".

Failure is good. Failure prepares you for lasting success.
posted by Frowner at 8:10 AM on March 15, 2013 [39 favorites]

Did you really get a bad review ?

In my company, I'm expected to give something like 80% of my reviews as "meeting expectations" -- meaning, you're doing your job.

Problem is, far too many people think "meets expectations" is like getting a D -- a passing grade, but not an "A++++" and don't take it very well.

So may want to check yourself on what's a "bad review" in your corporate culture as well.
posted by k5.user at 8:11 AM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Also, you cope with feelings of self-loathing by telling yourself that you do not deserve to feel them. Are you history's greatest monster? No, you're not. Would you tell a friend who got bad information and made a mistake that they should feel self-hatred and crushing humiliation? Of course not.

I swear up and down that you do not deserve to loathe yourself.

Look, you feel really terrible now - do something to distract yourself. Sleep, have a couple of drinks (if that's something you do; don't get passing out drunk); watch something distracting; go for a run. In the first rush of shame and regret, these feelings can be overwhelming - but I promise that in a week or so, you will be able to pick this apart and recognize where you went wrong and where you were actually misled.

If it will help you - but only if it will help you and not throw you into a cycle of perfectionist self-hatred - sit down and make a list of "things I will do differently next time".

I'll tell you this - I've failed many times, sometimes crushingly. I've actually failed in a way which hurt others. Looking back, I can see clearly that not only were my feelings of self-loathing and self-hate totally exaggerated and harmful, but they actually kept me from moving toward doing what I cared about. In retrospect, I wish I'd been able to forgive myself for messing up (especially as I almost always messed up through inexperience and lack of information) and focused on moving forward. In a year, you'll have moved on to new and better things, and you'll be able to see how this one failure has given you skills and strength.
posted by Frowner at 8:17 AM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you are truly suicidal, please seek professional medical help, or call 1-800-273-8255 to talk to someone confidentially.
posted by agregoli at 8:24 AM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

I would sure want a post-mortum on this, because the guidance you received was incredibly poor and useless.

What I would want out of this is specific points that I could take away.

"I see here that I was downgraded for follow up, what could I do differently next time to get a better evaluation?"

We are only as good as those giving the instructions, and it sounds like there was a major disconnect between the feedback givers and the evaluators.

You got caught in the middle.

The test of our mettle isn't how well we do something, but how well we recover from failure. We all fail. I fail spectacularly on a regular basis, BUT, I learn a shit ton from it, and I don't repeat my mistakes. That's all anyone can ask.

So you either got a shitty grade, or you didn't get a raise. Other than that, how does this truly affect your life?

Unless you're being expelled from school, or being fired from your job, there are no real, long-lasting repercussions. And even if you are being expelled or fired, so what? There are other schools and other jobs. (I've been fired, you live.)

My attitude has always been, Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.

I suggest that you not take this to heart. It's one thing in the big, wide world. In the grand scheme of things, it's unimportant.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:32 AM on March 15, 2013

I suffer from anxiety and perfectionism, so I'm taking this very, very hard.

And if you need some expert guidance on working through this, find a professional counselor.
posted by infini at 8:39 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

What do the people who were mentoring you throughout the project have to say about the negative feedback?

My PhD advisor always used to say if my student does poorly in their thesis defense, then it's on me, because I have given them the green light to defend their thesis but failed to provide them with the appropriate tools or feedback to do so.

That would seem to be analogous to this situation. So question the people who signed off on your work.
posted by gaspode at 8:54 AM on March 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

When things go wrong I play the "why" game.

"I suck" (as you said in first post)
"Because my project was a clunker"
"Because it was reviewed poorly"
"Because...it did not meet the judge's criteria"
"Because...I didn't know what their criteria would be."
"Because... (?)"

Usually no matter where you start, after about six "whys" (give or take) you start hitting some information that you can take constructively. Then I make a plan off the top two or three "end points" and move forward.

"I suck" is not a good take home lesson. Better ones would be (examples only) "I need to stay in closer contact with people who will be judging me" or "I need to self-verify proficiency at level 1 and competency at level 2 before attempting to work projects at level 3".

But yeah, you've got to break it down to smaller bites so you can digest the key points. "I am a failure" is like trying to swallow a turkey whole.
posted by 99percentfake at 8:56 AM on March 15, 2013 [11 favorites]

You were a bit vague, so tailoring an answer can be tricky, but seriously: learning moment. This is a good thing.

As mentioned above, maybe you just learned something about getting buy-in from the correct people. This is good. This is a useful thing to learn.

If this were more a more educational affair...look, many a student has looked at his grade, looked sad, and said, "but my mom/roommate/girlfriend read this essay and said it was great!" Which may be true, but they were also probably not the best group to get feedback from, because they were unaware of requirements x, y, and z in the assignment sheet, and these were the missed requirements that hurt the final grade. Those students may have learned something good about the value of study groups, and getting feedback from your fellow students/peers, not just whoever happens to be around.

I somehow managed to get some absolute shite early art oon display that I am embarrassed about now, because my friends said they were great! Do friends ever tell their friends that their art sucks? No. I've worked on getting feedback and feel that I now might be a better self-editor.

Even if you straight-up failed, and biffed this project, it really doesn't mean anything negative. It just means that you can learn something about you/politics/your situation. I think that as long as you are (gently, perhaps) reflective about what happened, you'll come out ahead, regardless of this particular outcome.
posted by vivid postcard at 9:00 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Stop beating yourself up. Go to the person who did the review, and ask for assistance understanding what and how you could have done better. It sounds like the process wasn't what it should have been. As an employer, no one should get a surprise on an eval., and this is even more true in education, where there should have been a plan and benchmarks. One of your strongest lessons should be project planning and feedback. Try to figure out what you did right, so you don't lose any good lessons from the experience.

People do sub-optimal work all the time, which is what this sounds like. Many people live in cheerful denial, which keeps them happier/ calmer. Recognize that you are very harsh in your self-review, and learn to roll with it by understanding that. Think about 1, 5 and 10 years from now, when it will just be a twinge, and, ideally, you can even laugh about it. and most of all, Stop beating yourself up.
posted by theora55 at 9:12 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

A former manager of mine that I respected once told me that there should be no surprises on a performance review (other than maybe good ones!). In other words, if there is a job performance problem, your manager should bring it to your attention in a timely manner, not at your annual review, or if you ask for feedback on how you're doing the issue should come up then. I realize that you're operating in a different environment from mine, but I think the principle still holds.

Everything above about breaking the connection between self-esteem and external gauges of performance is absolutely spot on. However, I do think your work environment sounds somewhat dysfunctional and I would also be inclined to suspect politics as other people have alluded.

If nothing else, I guess it's an opportunity for you to start learning how to gauge your own performance AND to realize that none of that has anything to do with your inherent worth as a person.
posted by Currer Belfry at 9:13 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hey, for whatever reason this project did not turn out well. Maybe you even did a bad job on this project. Even if that's true that doesn't mean you suck. It means you did a bad job on this project. Those are two totally different things.
posted by mskyle at 9:41 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've recommended this before here, but please check out the book Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff or her website at self-compassion.org. She talks about being kind to yourself, and not jumping immediately from "I received negative feedback" to "I suck," but stopping in between to say, "I tried my best. Everyone I was working with said I was doing great. There's no way I could have known that a different group of people would be evaluating me by different standards at the end. What can I learn from this? If I think it will have negative effects on my reputation at work, what can I do about that?"

From what you've said, you are NOT stupid, wrong, and an idiot. You are someone who is understandably confused and upset by a process that clearly did not work well. You can move past this. I agree that talking to the people who gave you positive feedback along the way might give you a different perspective on why this happened.
posted by chickenmagazine at 9:47 AM on March 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

Nthing what other people said.

I've been in this position before. And something that made me feel better is that I made decisions, stuck with them, and followed through with what I believed to be appropriate. If nobody more senior than me was going to course-correct, then my decisions were what they got.

That's what leaders do.

They don't always make the right decisions, but they have to make decisions.

You did that! And you'll have to do that throughout your career.

That's a positive you can lean on.
posted by functionequalsform at 9:55 AM on March 15, 2013 [7 favorites]

Like others said upthread, you don't suck. It's not about you. The people you work for suck. It's a terrible way to learn it, but you know it now - so you can make an informed decision about what to do next.

I was set up in just this way in a previous job. I was given charge of re-vamping a website for the transportation company I worked for. I was a clerical worker with some computer background, but had nothing like the skills they needed for this. I asked my manager to choose someone else, but they insisted that I was the one to do this thing. I received nothing but conflicting advice and random input from a boatload of different people, and the goalposts were being moved on me daily. I tried to get a straight, consistent answer from someone in management about how I was doing.

My boss always affirmed me, said I was wonderful, just keep doing what you're doing, blah blah blah. I trusted him - thought he was evaluating my work. I later found out he was giving me a thumbs up because he had no idea himself what my project was supposed to look like. And he was busy with other stuff.

On the day of my presentation, his boss totally shot me down in a big meeting. I was beyond humilated - it was one of the worst days of my life. I looked over at my boss and he kept his head down, typing something on his laptop the whole time that I was having my ass handed to me in front of EVERYBODY.

It definitely felt like a setup, but that would have required a form of organization these people weren't capable of. It was just a cluster, having to do with incompetence at many levels and a system-wide lack of communication, complicated by some personality-disordered folks at the top, who were running the place into the ground anyway. None of it had anything to do with me.

Likewise, I realy doubt that you messed anything up here. You needed accurate information and some guidance at a number of stages in your project, which you never received. I would like to know - did anyone defend you after the debacle? That was key for me. When I saw that my boss refused to go to bat for me, after haven given me nothing but false bland encouragement, I realized I didn't want to work for him, or them, anymore.

So their reaction to your reaction is important here. Is your manager clear on the fact that you were let down? They don't necessarily need to apologize to you, but there should be some indication of culpability on their part, some gesture made, something said about giving you better support in future. Or any support.

If you feel you've been given adequate support and the confidence to pick up from where you left off, maybe consider staying. But if they're blaming you or scapegoating you in any way around this, that's a big old red flag. If I were you I would start quietly arranging my exit. Just don't turn it on yourself, you're not to blame. Good luck with this!
posted by cartoonella at 9:58 AM on March 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

I read this like Frowner did and just supposed that you got chewed up by a dysfunctional department in grad school. If that's even close, this is very little reflection on you. In fact, it's likely that people in your field know all about how that department is a mess and you'll get nothing but sympathy from your future peers. Grad school's a messed up world.
posted by advicepig at 10:09 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, one thing I'd observe: a lot of people are coming in to say that your company sucks or is dysfunctional. I know they mean well, but this doesn't seem helpful, because A) we don't have enough info here to really know that and B) just externalizing blame isn't going to be helpful.

I mean, yes: if you were put in a super dysfunctional, designed-to-fail situation, that sucks. It isn't your fault. If you are working with people who engage in harassment and unethical undercutting, that sucks. Get out. It's not your fault.

But what is the point in saying, "gee, the bureaucracy in this company blows. It's not my fault!" and then throwing up your hands?

Sometimes, miscommunication, bureaucracy, confusion gets in the way, but it's not really anyone's "fault." The value is - if you can recognize what your logistical constraints are, you can address them, and you know when to be gentle on yourself when things are taken out of your hands.

Because of bureaucracy, getting projects done at my organization can take much longer than they should. Instead of throwing up my hands, or feeling like a failure, I just know to add 2 extra months to any project proposal schedule. It may not help in all instances, and I'm okay with that. But at least I know what I can do to help myself in this situation, and am not just accepting a situation of learned helplessness, or taking things personally that just aren't personal.
posted by vivid postcard at 10:14 AM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

If this is in an academic setting, it is quite common for mentors to sound much more positive than the final judges. A friend of mine was stunned to be told that her dissertation was "salvageable" after getting nothing but praise from her advisor. Who promptly said, "Hey, 'salvageable' is great, much better than they usually say!"

You say that you "barely scraped by" but this may be a situation where that's OK. You didn't fail. With your next project, you could try to foresee criticism more, or find beta-readers (or beta users or something) who would do that for you. But for now I'd say, view the negative criticism you can use as a gift and move on.
posted by BibiRose at 10:56 AM on March 15, 2013

My question is, how do I cope with this overwhelming feeling of embarrassment, humiliation, shame and self loathing?

When I felt this way about work, it was a sign that I should get more hobbies outside of work. That advice might not apply directly to you but it's something to consider.
posted by yaymukund at 11:01 AM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yes, this is definitely a failure on the part of the place you worked/people you worked for, not at all you personally. If they wanted something different, they needed to be giving you that feedback all along, not just suddenly and unexpectedly at the end.

If you want to feel better, try reading through this thread, where the sentiment is--it's better to be out there doing something, however wrong, and learn from the experience than just doing nothing.

However, in this case I wouldn't even mark it in my own book as you doing something wrong or failing--far moreso the company you worked for and the people who were giving you the feedback. Nevertheless you were sticking your neck out and doing something, and in the end you learned something valuable if difficult (maybe that no matter how hard you personally work and what good work you personally do, either people can still manage to foul up the works somehow), and that is worth a lot more in the long term than sitting on your thumb and doing nothing.
posted by flug at 11:56 AM on March 15, 2013

My question is, how do I cope with this overwhelming feeling of embarrassment, humiliation, shame and self loathing?

I have failed spectacularly, repeatedly, and more than once, in a very public fashion. At the time, I almost fainted and threw up from shame. There is nothing like having an entire convention hall of attendees start squirming in sympathetic embarrassment when your huge splashy hi-tech gee-whiz dog-and-pony implodes. And in my case, it truly was all on me.

I got over it by eventually retelling the story to myself (and others) in a humorous light. People love to hear tales of falling on your face. It binds us together.

In the short-term, though, I consoled myself in the knowledge that I did the best I could with the know-how I had at the time; and that taking on that big project had been a huge leap of faith in myself; and that after all, SOMEONE had to do it, and that ANYONE could have effed it up.

Be of good cheer. You're human. You're allowed to err and to learn.

(Though I mostly agree with others who suggest that something hinky is afoot in your organization that actually has very little to do with your work on that project.)
posted by nacho fries at 3:22 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

So it sounds like maybe you were interning or something along those lines and were getting positive feedback from your supervisor, and then you had to submit some final project for a professor and not the "real world" supervisor.

I strongly doubt that it's as catastrophic as it seems to you now. I know the feeling, and it's never as bad as all that.

I do agree with others that it's messed up that you received such mixed signals on this project. Either they had completely different goals and standards, or the initial supervisors were total spineless morons who avoided constructive feedback. I wonder if this is a "real world" v. "academia" problem. Sometimes those two worlds can be a million miles apart -- even in the case of professional degree programs.

Give yourself a few day to recover. When you can look at this with more of a clear head, I'd talk it over with supervisor groups A and B with a "I'm just trying to learn from this experience" approach (not accusatory or blame-shifting ... even if they are to blame). Maybe they have a different read on this than you, and that's worth knowing too. If there's an anonymous evaluation for the course, I'd include reference to this incident. I might also approach a dean; again, not to try to change your review or to shift blame, but to figure out what happened and how it can be avoided the next time -- either by you or the next poor sucker who participates in this project.
posted by murfed13 at 5:38 PM on March 15, 2013

I made a lot of mistakes early in my career and cornered the market on beating myself up. Then recently I watched this: http://www.ted.com/talks/brian_goldman_doctors_make_mistakes_can_we_talk_about_that.html
It really made me realize that all professionals make mistakes especially when they are starting out. Try not to beat yourself up it doesn't serve any purpose.
posted by bananafish at 6:12 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I feel like an idiot saying this now, but based on the feedback I was receiving during the process I was expecting to get a stellar final review. In reality, it turns out I barely scraped by.

Without knowing the exact situation, it's impossible to say if what I'm about to say applies to your case, but there are contexts in which these things are not mutually exclusive.

If the project was something that is really super hard to do, and that many people fail at, then your advisers during the process might have been telling you your work was amazing simply because it was of an acceptable quality. For example, if you are writing a book, many many people write stuff that will never be publishable. Maybe even the vast majority of people. So if you are producing publishable work, your agent and other readers might be giving you gushing feedback. But once it is published, the bar is raised. You can get bad reviews, or reviews that are kind of neutral, for a published book that is still much superior to the vast majority of draft manuscripts out there. It's just that the set of comparisons has changed.

Similarly in academia, competent students (especially at lower-tier schools) often get really positive feedback from advisers while writing their dissertation, especially if the adviser is used to working with students who produce terrible drafts. But then it is not unexpected for external examiners or reviewers of the work once it is published, to be much more negative. This is because they are measuring the work against a different standard: against the standard of fully fledged academic research, not student work. In that case, a "barely scraped passing grade" is still a badge of honour and still makes your dissertation a million times better than the ones that are never finished, or that don't pass at all.

Anyway, it's hard to know whether these hypothetical examples are at all comparable to your situation, but if so, the way forward is to recognise that the fact your project has been accepted or passed (or whatever "scraped by" refers to) is good. It says your work is acceptable. Then you take the negative feedback as the reviewers doing a really thorough job and making sure that your next project will be even better.
posted by lollusc at 7:52 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Or another possibility is that the reviewers you got, or the people who review such projects in your area generally, never give gushing reviews no matter how good the work is. Maybe the industry norm is to be super critical. So your interpretation of a critical review meaning you "barely scraped by" may not be accurate.
posted by lollusc at 7:54 PM on March 15, 2013

A few learnings from that episode could be:

1/ Understand the structure and hierarchy of your team. Work out who really is in charge and work on keeping them happy by understanding exactly what they want.

2/ It may be the people who were cheering you on where giving subtle hints about things that needed changing and you didn't pick up on them. Reflect back if there were any cautionary notes in there. What were they? A lot of people are really bad about giving feedback that is not positive. They can't bring themselves to call a spade a spade. Not all of us pick up on the more subtle hints these people give.

3/ Especially inexperienced people easily attach themselves to people they get on with and rely on their guidance. What they often fail to appreciate is that these people may be incompetent, may not be well informed about what's going on, not be rated highly by their peers and superiors or be very influential. If some of that is part of your situation realise that you're at work not socialising. You need to get on with people you work with, you need to find a way to work with them, you do not need to like them. You also need to differentiate between who's fun but full of hot air, who's in the know, and/or competent, and/or in charge...None of these need to be the same people in your organisation.

4/ Seek clear guidance on how to address the points raised by this review. Exactly what is expected, how did you not meet expectations and what are you supposed to do differently. Ask to check in with your reviewer regularly about your progress against the development points that were raised.

5/ Consider that the harshest experiences at work often allow you to learn the most. This experience clearly sucks but there is a vast amount of learning you can take from it and it will all help you going forward. So don't beat yourself up too much.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:14 AM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

The very fact that you encountered two different groups of people who had two very different sets of priorities about how to do this job should tell you that there is more than one possible way to do it. You chose to do it in a way that aligned with the priorities of one group of people, but not the group of people that ended up evaluating you. This is a far cry from objectively sucking.

I've been there. When I was in grad school, I had to take a comprehensive oral exam. All of my preparation and pre-exam meetings were going well. But then the actual exam did not go very well - I passed, but they weren't that enthusiastic about it. Here's what helped me:

- I scheduled meetings with my committee members to talk about what had gone wrong. We were able to identify the mistaken assumptions on my part, as well as the ways in which they had failed to correct those mistaken assumptions, that led to the problem I had. This was very helpful for me, because it allowed me to say, "here's a chain of unfortunate events that happened," instead of "I'm dumb."

- I spent some time thinking about how I would react if this happened to a friend of mine. I know that I would never think less of that friend for what had happened, so there was no reason to be harder on myself than I would be on someone else.

-I looked outside of grad school for other sources of meaning as a way to get perspective. This is especially important if you're inside of academia. It's such a bizarrre, insulated community that the stupidest things seem like such a huge deal.

-I moved quickly on to the next thing, as a way of getting my confidence back. For me, the next step was a dissertation proposal. So I threw myself into that, as a way of reminding myself that I was still capable of producing good work.

-I made a list of what I could learn from the experience. This involved reminding myself of something that I tell my students all the time: school is a place to identify what you don't know and then learn those things, not a place to demonstrate the things you already know. For me, the next situation that would be like my oral exam was going to be my dissertation defense, three years later. I made sure to write down the things I needed to do to make sure my defense went better than my exam. It worked! My defense was awesome.

Hope that helps!
posted by Ragged Richard at 12:58 PM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

The most important thing is to start looking for work somewhere else. Your oersonnel record at this place and your motivation level have been damaged by this bad review, but nobody outside this little bubble even knows the review was bad. Go somewhere else, because fuck these clowns, start with a clean slate.
posted by w0mbat at 11:20 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

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