Our inboxes: why academic ‘suffering’ needs accepting, not fixing…

Have you ever felt like you were ‘bracing before impact’ the moment you decided you should be opening your inbox? Maybe you were* dreading the people who expected to hear back from you. At other times, you may have felt nervous because you were expecting a peer review or a response to an application for research funding. If your experiences resemble mine then you know that the phrasing in those emails can affect your day (to put it mildly)…

Our academic environment may seem very ‘normal’ to us, especially for those of us, who’ve entered the academia directly after graduating. It seems entirely ‘normal’ that our mentors and supervisors (when we are students: our teachers) and our peers tell us ‘how we are doing’. It may also seem entirely normal that our mentors, supervisors and peers use ‘clear’ words in their feedback.

But frankly… most academics could do with brushing up their ‘people skills’ and really connect with other human beings, and surpass the communication method of ‘hit and run’ by choosing more empathic manners. After all, we academics are human beings too. And really connecting with the Other takes both time and courage. We all catch ourselves telling ourselves from time to time that we are just too pressed for time to really ‘connect before correct’ – a helpful guideline in non-violent communication – when we in our turn review work or supervise our students or colleagues.

Ideally, ‘feedback’ is served as a sandwich: a slice of bread (a positive comment), the innards (the critical comments) and then a slice of bread again (something positive again). As we have all experienced our ‘reviewers’ are sometimes ‘concise’ and give us the innards up-front, surrounded by an opening and salutation line.

Especially when we receive feedback from peers that have invested in the same themes, topics, fields as we do, that feedback can sound antsy, extremely direct, and yes… aggressive even. As they share your field, they are not only out to provide ‘corrective feedback’, they are also likely to defend their investments.

So, this proves academics are human beings too 🙂

We are not only rational, we are also (very) emotional. Especially when we spend time in a particular academic field, we run the risk of becoming ‘prisoners of our own stories’. Instead of staying open and curious, we receive the work of others in our field as a potential threat to what we’ve been ‘building’. Instead of seeing research as a continuous dialogue between hypothesis and refutation, we’ve probably all caught ourselves trying to clutch to ‘rock solid stories’.

In the case of harsh and aggressive feedback… well… that is basically a ‘tell’ regarding the ‘investment’ the peer reviewers have done in our fields. We have a lot to gain by recognizing the tone of the ’emotional’ feedback as a reflection of the investments of the one giving them. And a whole lot more, still, if we can sort of accept the tone as is, without wanting to fix or alter it, and just listen to what is being shared in such, okay… granted… unhelpful and unfortunate words.

If we, on the other hand, shield ourselves from this kind of feedback, and ignore it, or belittle it because of the tone, we are basically telling ourselves that we are not sturdy, not vigorous enough to boil the noise down to attune to the needs and investments of our peer reviewers. And you know what: we are.

If you are reading this post, I know you are powerful enough to see the potential of personal growth in dealing with feedback with a sense of healthy self empathy. Especially if we learn to move beyond understandable feelings such as defensiveness and self-protectiveness.

In order to understand the Other… we need to be inviting, kind and curious towards whatever feelings are aroused in you. You cannot hear the Other, as long as you are invested in emotions, i.e. the kinds of feelings that call our attention quite forcefully and will not let themselves be ignored. Cultivating empathy with yourself is how you invite all of your emotions, without judging them.

To be sure: it is totally fine to be a human being first, and an academic second. Especially if we can process our emotions without hurting others. It would only be wonderful if we slowed down to such an extent on a daily basis that all of our e-mails were kind, thoughtful, compassionate, helpful and inspiring…

So. Imagining this with me for a moment: you are expecting feedback, you are feeling nervous, and… you are… bracing for impact. You open your inbox, and unfortunately you find a rejection of your application or harsh words concerning your draft.

It makes you feel… er… well… what?

Slow down, think of such an email, such ‘harsh words’ and how you felt….

stupid** | sad | angry | unhappy | depressed | desperate | uneasy | agitated | scared | worried | hateful | defensive | aggressive | ashamed | done in | defeated | broken | alone | miserable | ignored** | misunderstood** | lost | insecure | amazed | alienated | full of apathy | vindictive | furious | antsy | nervous | sensitive | withdrawn?

Do print this list of feelings. Check those that apply next time you need to recuperate from an insensitive e-mail. Add feelings that apply as well… Please feel free to leave those words as comments to this post 🙂 The whole idea is to learn together in how to cultivate environments of academic (self)care.


Are you there with me?

Have you imagined yourself in this vulnerable spot?

Then, please, take a deep breath… and read my words…

I believe in two things:

  1. Nobody can make you happy or sad.
  2. Our academic ‘suffering’ does not need fixing: it needs being accepted.

I would find it totally human and absolutely normal if you were expecting to read my sympathy or support given your circumstances of suffering. And sure… if you really want my sympathy and support you have them. No problem. Or actually…er… a bigger problem, if we are being honest.

In the end, the worst thing a human being can do to another is confirming their feelings of victimization. Because feeling victimized ‘immobilizes’. The point is, to cite Albert Einstein:

While you imagined to be on the receiving end of a rejection of your application or harsh feedback, I would totally understand if you find my two beliefs extremely annoying.

I know… they are rather pointing the finger back at ourselves, instead of our extremely annoying colleagues.

So, bear with me.

Nobody can make you happy or sad

While you are suffering, what I do have on offer, is to just sit with you and hold space while you work through your feelings to reach your unmet needs. Because nobody can make you feel happy or sad. No matter how unfortunate the choice of words of your colleague is: nobody can make you feel sad or angry. So let’s slow down, and look at what’s beneath that surface of feelings. What needs do you have that are not being fulfilled?

If it is ‘acceptance’, which would be totally fine,

what can you do to help yourself fulfill the need of ‘being accepted’ today?

If it is ‘the space you need in order to grow as an academic’ – and yes, getting your application approved helps as well… –

what can you do to help yourself fulfill this need of growth and development today?

So, whatever you do, please, take a moment to recuperate from the feelings that were triggered by the feedback, and slow down to such an extent that you can make space for your answer to the question:

What would a wise woman/man/person do in this situation right now?

This is my golden ‘back-up question’ whenever I feel totally confused, lost or in ‘high emotions’.

Our academic ‘suffering’ does not need fixing: it needs accepting

Given the pressure in our day-to-day jobs that we can feel – even if we are not actually doing that much except worrying maybe*** – we do not even come up with the idea to cut ourselves some slack in the department of dealing properly with rejection and negative and harsh ‘judgements’. Even if you only sit with your suffering for 4 to 5 minutes, before moving away from it, before moving on, please take the time you need to breathe through whatever it is that makes you feel: [whatever you checked in or added to the list above].

Don’t build a reservoir of (old) grudges. Grudges weigh heavily on us – not on the ones giving us the ‘shitty’ feedback. If we want to keep our balance on our bicycles we can do without ballast.

So, let’s not fix our suffering. Let’s just be aware of our suffering, the moment it occurs. Let’s slow down to such an extent that we can befriend whatever unfulfilled needs lie just beneath the surface of our feelings.

They are just the ‘smoke detectors’ of our deeper needs.

And your needs are not to be denied, cast away, hidden, bullied. They are there to be addressed, by you, with a sense of healthy self love, a little bit of humor and above all the proactive attitude that you are in this business of reaching your highest potential. And that – lucky us 🙂 – can be a project for a life time.


* Let’s do this ‘past tense’, shall we… I am trusting that we will find use for the list of feelings at some point in our futures…

** Yeah… okay… for NVC-hardliners out there… I know these are not feelings really 😉

*** Never underestimate the time that we need to process data and developments in order to get to the core business of writing, editing and reviewing. Even if it seems that you are not really doing anything… don’t kid yourself: you are processing. That’s slow, and not really ‘tangible’, but very necessary. So if you feel a deep need to be staring out of a window: please…. stare out of that window…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.