Reacting Strongly to Professional Criticism

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Q. I am a graduate student. I have a mentor who guides me on my discipline. Recently one of my professors, who is also my advisor at school, contacted me to offer feedback. I was immediately terrified that I was in trouble and wouldn’t graduate. He didn’t specify the feedback, except that my mentor had evaluated me with lower scores than normal and wanted to discuss it. When I met my adviser, I felt like a little girl called into the principal’s office. I became defensive and started saying negative things about my mentor to my professor and blaming her for my challenges and why we weren’t a good match. Then I started tearing up. Fortunately, at that point, the professor reassured me that I was on track to graduate. He didn’t give me any more feedback at this time because I was so self-critical. I felt ashamed of being so sensitive, but also relieved that I didn’t have to sit through more of that scary meeting. I am very committed to learning and want to find a way to be more courageous and open to guidance, but don’t know quite how to do that.

A. It’s clear that you were affected by this experience. It is normal to feel apprehensive when being evaluated. There is clearly a power difference here. Professors and mentors do grade us, which determines our professional future. However, receiving feedback is invaluable at key junctures in our professional development. As a woman you may feel more vulnerable with a male professor calling you into his office. I am glad your professor paid attention to your feelings and gave you space rather than more feedback at a bad time.

You also want to look at your previous experiences of getting feedback, especially as a girl at home with your parents, particularly your father or other older male figures and teachers. Were you shamed and criticized? Did you receive negative consequences as a younger student or in your home that felt scary? How do you feel about other people having authority and power over you? This exploration will help flesh out some of your personal history that relates to your high reactivity.

In future finding the courage to tell your professor that you feel vulnerable and scared about this meeting could be very helpful. You could also ask for reassurance from the beginning that you’re not in trouble and will still graduate.

It is often the case that beneath the apparent self-confidence, many students are often quite fragile and self-protective. Both students and teachers need to learn non-defensive communication skills and create an enriching relationship.

Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist of Indian descent in the Bay Area. 650-325-8393. Visit www.wholenesstherapy.com

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