by Daniella Levy
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, thank you very much. 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 Candles, by 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.
Daniella Levy is the author By Light of Hidden Candles (Kasva Press, 2017) and Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism (Guiding Light Press, 2016). Her blog, The Rejection Survival Guide, explores the creative life and resilience in the face of rejection. She also blogs about Judaism and life in Israel at LetterstoJosep.com, and her articles, short fiction, and poetry have been published by Writer’s Digest, Reckoning, Newfound, Rathalla Review, arc (journal of the Israel Association of Writers in English), the Jewish Literary Journal, Silver Birch Press, and more. Learn more about her at Daniella-Levy.com.