This week we welcome guest writer Alexandra Muskat to talk about handling criticism from a professor and bouncing back.
Early in my law school career, namely first year, first semester, about halfway through, we had a civil procedure midterm. Up until this point, I hated law school. I felt like everyday my schedule would shift, or swell. I felt overwhelmed by everything; I hated taking the train in and out of Boston, and my weekends were filled with a noxious amount of anxiety.
Then this midterm approached. I can still remember staring at the essay question and my blank page on Examsoft and thinking, “What the heck am I doing with my life?”
Two weeks later, our professor stood before the class telling us how surprised he was at how terrible our answers were and that anyone who had gotten a C+ or below, should come see him. I got a C flat, so I made the appointment and sat with him in his office one afternoon when my classes had finished.
This is what you need to understand about this man: he was the most charismatic person when he taught, and up until he opened his mouth in this private discussion, my favorite professor. The moment I sat down, I realized his affect in class was a complete facade. He was, in fact, the coldest man I have ever met. And as we went through my exam, he told me that I should drop out. I explained to him that I was a creative writer, used to writing long form, and he told me creative writers did terribly in law school. Then he told me that based on my midterm score and writing, I would not pass his class, nor would I pass the bar, and that I should consider another form of career.
I am not ashamed to say I cried from the minute I had my back to him until the second I walked in my front door an hour later.
Below are the steps I took to become resilient in the face of this criticism – steps I didn’t even know I had taken until I studied positive psychology during third year.
1. Reframe your Thoughts
That day, I got home and decided to shift how I felt about what he’d said. I decided that instead of being negatively affected by his criticisms, I would use it as fuel. I took it on as a challenge, and I was ready to prove him wrong. To reframe your thoughts effectively, flip the meaning behind the criticism, use it as a challenge, hold on to that flip in meaning and make it fact, then recover. Doing this, I was able to put his criticism behind me. I focused on it only when I was trying to motivate myself to study, and when I sat down for his final.
This kind of reframing also taught me to revert back to the way I knew I learnt best. I thought, hey, if he already thinks I’m going to fail, what does it hurt to do it my way? My way was getting better sleep, eating better, and waking up early, before the sun, to read for the day, taking notes in the margins and coming up with questions for him.
2. Train your Brain
Part of becoming resilient is learning that thoughts or events only have the power to alter your life, or your path, if you give it to them. When a professor criticises your best efforts, it’s hard to not ruminate on the words they used or the effect it had on your spirit. But if you try and retrain those thoughts, your mind will give up that negative narrative and allow you to truly flourish.
Since being told I would never pass the bar exam, and then failing on my first attempt, I have consistently used brain games to retrain my brain’s automatic responses. My favorite one is the alphabet game. Pick a category – fruit, vegetables, animals, cities in the US, etc. – and then go through the alphabet, finding a word from that category to match the next letter. By the time I’d finished, there were no negative thoughts, and I had taught my mind that the narrative it was agreeing to was false.
3. Get physical
Being resilient means dealing with your stress, and sometimes the best way to do that is to start moving. Physical movement is one of the best ways to destress because it takes your mind off the constant thoughts and focuses it on the activity you’re doing. Go for a walk, run on the treadmill, hit up a boxing class, anything works, even if it’s just for 10 minutes.
I joined a gym the night before that dreaded civil procedure midterm, and it became my mini home all throughout law school. I made it my mission to join classes, meet people outside of school, and spend a few hours a week focusing my mind on something besides law. All of which allowed me to better control my stress.
When anyone criticizes your efforts, especially when it’s a professor, you are trying to impress and hope to one day call your colleague, it can feel overwhelming. I know my mind ran through thoughts of dropping out, how I’d tell my parents, the waste of $25,000 I’d spent on my first semester, and what it would be like to continue and then fail the bar. It was on repeat until I decided to focus my efforts on changing how I did things and not caring what my professors thought about my work ethic. I knew what I was doing was more than enough and I couldn’t fault myself for the outcome. Interestingly enough, when I stopped trying to people please or worry over what other people thought, my understanding of the material soared, my grades were stellar, and I was better capable of handling my bar failure than I would have ever thought possible.
So the next time a professor criticises your effort, take it with a grain of salt. Change your mind and your perspective of the encounter, and move on. You’re more resilient than you know.