Why feedback sucks and what to do about it

I put off writing this blog because I thought some negative feedback had thrown me. But of course, that's a lie. Neither the feedback nor the persons giving it can make me, a grown woman, feel or do anything. It's always about what I make it mean. But rather than recognise that reviewer 3's words reflected their thoughts and feelings, I defaulted to an ancient thought error and made it mean something negative about me.

The first time in my science career that I got seriously negative feedback was in Honours. After a talk, one of the postdocs (whose name my brain has deleted in one of the better acts of its randomness), suggested that I reel back my delivery to avoid looking silly. I was outraged (1) and asked, 'have you ever seen me say or do any that suggests I'm silly?' -for those who know me, being dumb is one of my triggers. They said, 'frankly, yes I have.' And that's how it starts.

Except, no, that isn't how it starts. It starts when we unconsciously absorb all the negative programming about a woman's place in the world. Even raised by an atheist (Dad) and agnostic (Mum), there's no avoiding Christian culture in a western democracy. From Eve onward, women were a troublesome force to be contained. And in some warped way, I was sucked in by the tragedy of it all. Although my primary education was barely existent, Dad loved and insisted on the ARTs. So, at least once a year, the five kids were bundled into the Kingswood station wagon and driven to Melbourne -parents in the front, three older siblings in the back seats, my little brother and I sprawled in the boot (2). It was either the opera, ballet or a chamber/orchestral music performance. Some of my earliest memories are of tragic female leads; Swan Lake, Giselle, Tosca, La Traviata. By the time I was 21 and had read Madame Bovary, my programming was complete.

All that to say, it's no wonder we take feedback personally. The patriarchy means we are programmed to cede control to an authority. And who of us hasn't fantasised about being rescued from the excruciating and lonely work of true independence, self-reliance and 'extreme ownership' (3). Albeit, a good friend recently told me this isn't a gendered thing, that he'd like some rescuing too. He often challenges me because, in his view, current norms aren't great for men either; if anything, women have the advantage of it being socially acceptable for them to give up careers, follow passion projects, and choose family over profession. I value his friendship and viewpoint but clearly have more work to do!

So, given we can't change our culture or (regrettably) other people, what to do? I think the first step is to recognise and then dismantle our unconscious programming, not by beating ourselves up for having it, but by identifying its depths and treating ourselves more gently. The first and most deeply wired response to negative feedback is heightened anxiety. We are basically the most domesticated animals on the planet, and our primitive brain perceives any exposure that risks rejection by the tribe as a direct phycological threat to safety. But because we are well-versed in the gender-politics, we use self-help against ourselves and overlay being human with shame, thinking we shouldn't respond in this stereotypical way. So for me, as a middle-aged woman (with less f**ks to give with each passing year), my brain skips over the threat part and launches directly into angry, self-righteous and defensive, which is clearly terrible energy from which to write a rebuttal.

And when the feedback is in-person? or not even spoken but still perceived? For example, by being talked over, patronised, belittled or physically excluded. Each of which provides feedback that we don't belong. Well, I only barely stopped myself from sending the email -after one of THOSE meetings recently- saying, 'given my contribution to this committee has failed to make an impact in the last 5-years, I am happy to make all our lives easier by stepping down.' I briefly thought that an ECR with rose-coloured glasses might enjoy a seat at the table -and better cope with the gaslighting for not seeing it for what it is. I know, that was a bit mean. And easier isn't the answer.

The way to deal with feedback, that I have found most valuable, is to understand the workings of my brain. To unravel its unconscious beliefs and to know how it likes to default to programs that, while they may have served me once, are longer relevant now. Doing that work also makes it easier to understand where the feedback is coming from. Assessors' comments are always about them, how they see the project, grantsmanship, track record etc. All we can take from their comments is a recognition of the diversity (or lack thereof) of opinions and personalities in our discipline. And, if we so choose, how we might adapt our grant writing to suit that diversity better.

But to be honest, I don't really want to adapt all that much. Like traditional mentoring, which is too often a mechanism to maintain the status quo, changing ourselves to better fit the norm may not serve us in the end. If we truly believe in diversity and inclusion, as I do with all of my heart, we have to accept that it will be difficult. Because included in that diversity are people who won't like us and who will judge us harshly. Some people, as we see in daily evidence, will fight change with all they have. And whatever it is they say and do will always be about them, not us. Our job is to be more of ourselves, not less. Our unique edges may be just what the world needs from us.

My first attempt at video content, and as if that wasn't confronting enough, I shared it.

I recently completed my coach certification and am now finalising content for an intensive coaching program. Coaching has transformed my life, and I want it so much for others. It clearly doesn't stop me from having negative emotions -that wouldn't even be desirable- but it does give me the courage to drop my limiting beliefs and to live into a life and career, richer and more exciting than I would ever have thought possible. I hope you'll make contact if you’re curious or would like to know more.

1) I'm sort of proud of that previous version of myself for getting riled up, but it also brings up sadness. That person wasn't bad; they thought they were being helpful, that they were protecting me. The problem is that after a while, I stopped getting riled. Now when that sort of thing happens, I just feel tired.

2) These trips were an absolute luxury for us kids, not for the culture, but because we stopped in to get pizza on the way home. Children floating in the back without seatbelts was normal at the time.

3) I read that book when it came out to try to improve my leadership. At that time, I’d bought into the ‘think more like a man’ advice. The only thing I’ve taken from it and internalised is that the leader is always responsible. It’s a lot to live up to however.

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