How to Recover from Painful Negative Feedback, in 5 Steps

There it is.

That feedback you’ve been so terrified to receive. The one that makes all your self-doubt demons shriek: “YOU SEE?! WE TOLD YOU SO!!!”

You know which one I’m talking about.

Ouch, ouch, ouch.

I’ve written here and there about strategies to deal with this sort of thing, and I’ve addressed coping with constructive criticism. But today I want to give you a straightforward, step-by-step first-aid procedure to follow when that very painful rejection or piece of criticism hits.

Step 1: Breathe

It may sound trite, but it’s the most important and most effective thing you can do right now.

Close your eyes and draw a deep breath to the count of four. When your lungs are full, rest there on the top of the breath for a moment, then let the air out to the count of four or six. Rest again at the bottom of the breath when your lungs are empty, then draw a new breath. Repeat this several times.

Breathing this way is not just a woo-woo spiritual thing; it’s neurobiology. Our brains interpret criticism as a threat, and they react to it exactly as they would to an attack by a saber-toothed tiger. Your heart starts pounding, your breath gets shallow, your hands and knees feel rubbery, you break out in a cold sweat, your vision narrows, your senses sharpen, and you might find it hard to think clearly. This state of alertness is constructive when we are, in fact, dealing with a saber-toothed tiger. But we’re not. We’re dealing with some painful words. We can’t respond constructively to them when we’re in this state.

The good news is, you can hack that neurological response by deepening and slowing your breath voluntarily. This sends a message to your brain that actually, there is no saber-toothed tiger in the vicinity, and no physical combat or swift escape will be necessary for your survival, thankyouverymuch. This deactivates the stress response and bringing us back to a state of calm.

Like I said: breathe. It works.

Step 2: Create a Positive Association

This is my second brain-hack: my “rejection reward system”. Here’s how it works: every time I get a rejection, or a negative review, or painful criticism, I reward myself. Not for being rejected per se, but as a reward for daring to risk that rejection in the first place. I keep a bag of mini chocolate bars around for this purpose.

Why does this help? It creates a positive association, however trivial, with receiving negative feedback. Instead of just sitting there in the gloom and shame of the rejection, I have a little something to enjoy about it.

The moments at which this helps the most are the moments where I’m about to click “send” on the next submission. “BUT WHAT IF THEY HATE IT?!” my self-doubt demons scream. (As you may have seen before, self-doubt demons are not very good at maintaining their indoor voices.) “Hey, what’s the worst that can happen?” I ask them. “Either they accept it, or they reject it and I get chocolate. Win/win.”

Chocolate might not be the best idea for everyone, of course. If you have issues with comfort eating or are afraid you won’t have the self-control–or, if you deal with rejection and criticism on such a regular basis you’re afraid it’ll be too much–find a different way to treat yourself. Maybe keep a “rejection jar” around and put a coin or bill in it for every rejection, and when it’s full, use it to buy yourself a gift.

Step 3: Reach Out for Empathy and Support

Brené Brown says to take a one-inch-by-one-inch square of paper and write down the names of the people in your life whose opinions really matter. If the names won’t fit on this tiny piece of paper, you are counting too many.

The people whose opinions really matter are the people in your life who you trust to stand with you in your worst moments with nothing but empathy–no judgment, no shaming. They’re the ones you call in moments like these.

As Brené says: shame cannot survive empathy. Call that friend or sibling or mentor or whoever it is who will listen, calm the self-doubt demons, and connect you back to your confidence and hope. Bonus points if they will also make you laugh (see below)!

By the way–this person doesn’t have to exist in real life. I once got the most helpful feedback from my favorite imaginary friend character in my upcoming novel, By Light of Hidden Candlesby writing myself a letter from him. If you don’t have such a friend in real life or in your imagination–make one up and write yourself a letter from her. You can call her Daniella. 😉

Step 4: Call on Hope

We’ve been over this, right? Hope is the main key to resilience. This is when “getting your hopes up” becomes a tool for healing.

There are lots of different ways you can call on hope:

  • Keep a record of any positive feedback you get, and read over it in moments of doubt.
  • Engage with your work and remind yourself what you love about it. Be careful with this one, though; if the criticism is too raw, you might see nothing but flaws in your work and that’ll make you feel worse. If you find that happening, try something else.
  • Start a new project, or plan one. This gets you thinking about future possibilities unrelated to the piece that was rejected or criticized.
  • If you’re feeling confident enough about the current piece–send out more submissions!

Step 5: Self-Care

When the world is being cruel to you, you have an even bigger obligation than usual to be kind to yourself.

The key to taking care of yourself is learning how to ask, and answer, the question: “What do I need right now?”

Start with the basics. Are you tired? See if you can arrange a nap or an early bedtime. Are you hungry? Treat yourself to a healthy and delicious meal. Have you been drinking enough? Stay hydrated!

Beyond basic needs: what’s one kind thing you can do for yourself today? A nice hot shower? A relaxing walk in the park? Ask someone to give you a massage? If you’re too stressed out and busy to do it now–give yourself a pledge, and schedule it in.

Two strategies I particularly recommend, both of which make excellent use of YouTube:

  • When I feel emotionally overwhelmed and like I need to “reset” myself, I lie down and do a guided meditation. YouTube is full of them and you can find one at any length you like–5, 10, 20 minutes, an hour, however much time you have.
  • When I’m feeling down and want to try to pull myself out of it, I look for something funny to watch on YouTube and get myself laughing. Laughing is great: it gets you breathing, releases endorphins, and generally makes the world a better place. I recommend staying away from political humor for this purpose, because while it is funny and might make you laugh, it is also usually quite stressful. Stand-up is my go-to.

I’d say I hope you never need this post… but actually, I don’t.

My friend, author Saadia Faruqi, quipped to me that you’re not a real author until you get a bad review. I got my first bad review for By Light of Hidden Candles today; I’m popping open the champagne!

So, I hope you join the club of “real” artists–real, not because we have a stamp of approval from a higher authority, but because we are authentic enough to put ourselves out there and brave that kind of criticism.

I hope you need this post, because I hope you’ll dare greatly enough to need it.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll be off to have myself some rejection chocolate. 😉

The Creative Resilience Manifesto: How to Stay Strong in the Face of Criticism & Rejection

In my first post I introduced what I’m calling the “Creative Resilience Manifesto.”

It’s basically a collection of affirmations, beliefs that have helped me stay focused on my goals as a writer and weather the storms of difficult rejections.

The purpose of this post is to elaborate on them and explain why I think they are important.

If any or all of the affirmations resonate with you, you can print them out and post them near your workspace, on your bathroom mirror, or on your fridge. When you get a rejection, take a deep breath and read them aloud to yourself. (You can find the manifesto without the explanations here. I hope to create a pretty PDF version of it that you can print out–or to inspire a graphic artist to do so! How about you? 😉 )

I create because creation is an act of love.

Creation is taking elements that exist–words, paint, clay, musical notes, movements and gestures, mathematical formulas, whatever–and connecting and combining them in a way no one has ever done before, breathing your own life into them.

Like the Creator breathing life into Adam, this is an act of love. When we create, we channel the Divine.

When we create, we give expression to the dreams and thoughts and images and sounds from within us. This is an act of love for ourselves. We create because we love to.

When we share what we create, we give of ourselves to the world and leave our unique handprint on the tapestry of humanity. This is an act of love for the universe.

I share my creations because I believe in their worth.

When we share to seek approval, or to please or impress others, we make the worth of our work conditional on that approval. That means that when someone we share it with disapproves or criticizes it, we crumble.

Creation is an act of love, and true love is unconditional. A resilient sense of worthiness cannot be conditional on someone else’s feelings about our work. We must start out believing that our work is worthy to withstand disapproval, criticism, and rejection.

Not everyone is going to share that belief,
but the only opinion that really matters is my own.

Disapproval and rejection are always going to hurt. But they don’t have to destroy us.

We don’t need the approval of some “higher authority” to tell us that our work is worthy.

We have been trained to think this way. “If my book is published by one of the Big Five publishing companies–then my work is worthy.” “If my poem is accepted by a high-ranking literary magazine–then my work is worthy.” “If my piece is put on display in a prestigious gallery–then my work is worthy.” “If my piece is approved by an elite professor–then my work is worthy.”

This is BS.

When it comes to your work, you are the highest authority.

When I was a teenager and already the author of several novels, I thought I wouldn’t be a Real Author™ until I was published by a “traditional” publishing company. I thought I wouldn’t qualify for that title until I was “approved” by an editor in an office somewhere.

It took until just a few years ago, when I read one line by singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer, to realize that that wasn’t true. She says, “You’re an artist when you say you are.”

That’s it.

That’s all it takes.

“And you’re a good artist,” Palmer goes on, “when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.”

If you find an audience, even if it’s an audience of one, who believes in your work–you are a good artist.

And your work is worthy of sharing because it can cause other people to experience or feel something deep or unexpected.

This has nothing to do with the approval or validation of some “authority.”

That said, I embrace constructive criticism and opportunities for growth.

There is a colossal difference between believing that your work is worthy, and believing that your work is perfect.

Constructive criticism hurts. All criticism does. And you definitely shouldn’t take everything anybody says about your work as gospel. If you do, you’ll end up creating only what other people think is good, and not what you think is good. And remember whose opinion is the only one that really matters?

If someone says something negative about your work that does not ring true to you–ascribe it to a difference in taste, toss it in the garbage, and move on. If it does ring true, though, and starts to give you a vision of a way your work could be better–seize the opportunity to engage with your work and play with it some more. (After all, why do we create in the first place? Because we love it. See item #1!)

Constructive criticism is just that–it builds you rather than destroys you. Once you get past the initial wave of hurt, you may find that the criticism actually inspires you.

After I wrote my latest novel, I actually found myself craving constructive criticism. I had so much fun writing the book that finishing it was like losing a friend. Finding opportunities to improve it meant that I could go play with my imaginary friends characters some more.

I cultivate hope.

This is a big one.

So big, I wrote an entire guest blog post on the topic of hope for poet Trish Hopkinson’s blog. You can check out the full post here, but here are the highlights:

I used to be terrified of hope.

Well, I was actually terrified of disappointment. But I saw hope as a seductive and deceptive force that enticed me to climb higher, making the inevitable fall hurt that much more…

Here’s the thing… maybe [hope] entices us to climb higher, and maybe the fall from that place hurts more. But that place it takes us is not just a place we fall from. It’s a place where we see farther, where we breathe better, where we reach higher.

Hope is the basic human emotion that keeps us moving forward, that keeps us striving for a better future, and that fills us with a sense of purpose in life. We deserve to feel it in our lives. Which is why…

I refrain from the use of “prophylactic pessimism” to numb myself to disappointment.

“Prophylactic pessimism” is forcing yourself to expect the worst outcome in order to avoid the pain of disappointment. As I write in the guest post I linked to above:

I became a pro at “Don’t get your hopes up.” In fact, I made an art of killing hope at every opportunity. When an unread e-mail with the subject “Re: Query” would pop up in my inbox, I would automatically assume it was a rejection. Usually I was right. Occasionally, I was pleasantly surprised with a request to see more material. When I found myself fantasizing about The Call, I immediately shot it down by imagining how awful the rejection of that full request would be. I wanted to be prepared for the let-down, so I practiced it. This system—preventing disappointment by preemptively shutting down hope—seemed to be working well for a while.

Until it didn’t.

We all do this sometimes. Because disappointment hurts. The greater the hope, the more we wanted something, the more it will hurt, and we want to protect ourselves from that hurt by suppressing our desire and our hope.

This may seem reasonable, but here’s the problem: when we numb ourselves to negative emotions like fear, sadness, disappointment, and anger, we also numb ourselves to positive emotions like joy, hope, love, and excitement. (If you haven’t seen Brené Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability, you need to get on that pronto.) I believe that we deserve to feel the highest heights of these positive emotions even at the expense of having to experience the negative ones. That’s why…

I invite myself to feel everything.

Experiencing the negative emotions can give us invaluable gifts: empathy, understanding, self-compassion, self-nurturing. We deserve to cultivate and experience these things alongside the positive emotions.

I think we are so afraid to feel pain because we haven’t been taught how to care for ourselves through the pain. We have been taught to numb it or to “stick it out” or do anything we can to make it go away. We have not been taught to be kind to ourselves, to ask ourselves what we need to heal, and give what we need to ourselves as generously as we can.

When we learn how to do this, when we trust ourselves to be there for ourselves through the pain, it becomes a lot less threatening.

Read more about the case for hope and against prophylactic pessimism here.

Getting criticized or rejected means
I dared to hope,
I dared to create,
I dared to share my work,
and I dared to face disappointment.

How many people do you know personally who have ever dared to risk getting a creative work rejected by an agent, editor, judge, or curator, or criticized by anyone at all?

If you can count them on two hands, you hang with an unusually awesome crowd.

The vast majority of people don’t do it. Most people are too afraid of exposing themselves and making themselves that vulnerable.

I give myself permission to mourn the loss that each rejection represents: the death of a dream.

Every time we submit something, we give birth to a dream–a dream that our work will be accepted. When we get a no, the dream dies.

It’s okay to grieve for it.

In our culture stoicism is often mistaken for strength. It does not take strength to shove your grief under the rug and pretend it never happened. It takes a lot of strength to face your grief head on and let yourself feel it. This is the only way to really work past it. When we deny our grief, it comes out in other, sometimes harmful ways. The only way out is through.

I also give myself permission to honor that I dared to dream in the first place.

If you have ever created something, you are brave. If you have ever shared something you created with somebody, you are very brave. If you have ever tried to get your work in front of an audience, you are unbelievably brave.

I celebrate the incredible courage I showed in trying to make that dream come true.

Life won’t always reward you for your courage, but you can.

I keep a stash of mini chocolate bars in my closet. I call them “rejection chocolates.” When I get a rejection, I treat myself to one. It may seem silly, but it actually makes a big difference for me. It associates rejection with something positive to look forward to, however small and insignificant. And it makes rejection into something more than just the loss of a dream. It makes it a celebration of courage, too.

I highly recommend this practice.


Is there anything you would add to this? What rituals or perspectives have you developed to help you handle rejection?