Mindfulness and Writing #6: Receiving feedback and criticism

My heart beats faster, I get nervous and anxious, and defensive thoughts arise and cloud my mind – that’s how I usually feel in the first few seconds when receiving feedback and criticism on a text. When I receive the proofread blog post, these symptoms start to arise even before I’ve opened the file. You might know similar symptoms when you get an evaluation of your work. But you might also be unaware of such symptoms and not worry about them much, since you have to worry about the comments on your concepts, empirical research, or interpretations. Depending on how flattering or dismissive the feedback turns out to be, the symptoms will intensify or be of a different kind. Critical and negative comments may discourage, or worse, for longer periods; positive comments may motivate.

I remember well the moment when I received the first assessment of my PhD thesis. The committee needed longer than planned so I was already anxious about their evaluation. After reading the first few sentences in the e-mail from the head of the doctoral school, I knew that the committee wasn’t yet satisfied with my thesis. They gave me a few months more to revise parts of it. That, of course, was the first attack on my scholarly ego. Now, my symptoms were in full bloom. I couldn’t believe what I read, because I expected to pass the first assessment. After hesitating, I opened the assessment report. Still nervous and anxious, my body tense and producing my usual stress signals, my mind was in a debate with the comments and criticism by the committee. With certain comments I agreed – above all, the acknowledging and flattering ones. With many critical comments, however, I did not agree at all. How could they possibly have understood it in a different way? Hadn’t I clarified this point? How could they say this? Did they even read the entire thesis? My mind was in defensive mode.

You might remember similar experiences when receiving peer-reviews on an article, a grant proposal, or individual chapters you gave to your PhD supervisor. Do you also remember whether and how you dealt with your reactions? It is difficult not to get involved with the bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions that arise when we get criticized. When we get involved too much and identify ourselves with our work – taking a defensive position – we will make the experience worse than it has to be. When we try to be aware of our experiences, however, we may decrease the impact of the evaluation.

Whenever I remember to do so, I try to be aware of my bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions as I described in the last three posts when receiving feedback. Although it didn’t help much in the first minutes of reading my PhD assessment, I was fully aware of what was going on in my body and mind. I wasn’t able to shut down my automatic reactions. That’s not the goal of mindfulness anyway. But I learned something about how I reacted and how I tried to defend myself. Whenever I feel these symptoms start to arise, I try to be mindful and try to relax at the same time. The reaction might still be the same, but my approach is different.

Even if it sounds impossible to change a natural reaction pattern, we can take the edge off. We try not to overidentify with our work so that we can accept and appreciate the feedback. We don’t have to agree with every comment, but we can approach them with a non-reactive attitude. Instead of getting too emotional and dismissive, we see the feedback as a good opportunity to refine our thinking and writing.

After the first shock and a few days after reading the assessment, I started to plan how I would act on the criticism that I needed to deal with. It didn’t take me long to rewrite and expand some sections. I still didn’t agree with most of the committee’s comments, but they allowed me to strengthen my arguments and defend my choices in the place most appropriate: in my thesis and not just in my mind. While I expected the committee to discuss the same arguments at the PhD defense, they didn’t do so. They accepted that I hadn’t entirely agreed with them and that I therefore kept on defending my position. The final assessment still contains many of their original criticism, but I can live with it. I’m sure that the symptoms might return should I reread the assessment of my PhD thesis. But by being mindful, I know what I’m dealing with and don’t take it too personally. The symptoms arise and, sooner or later, will disappear.

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