Thankful for Surviving the Biology
of Negative Feedback
As someone who has come to writing as a second act I found myself returned to a world I hadn’t visited in many years. The sphere of self-doubt and fear of failure and it made me pause and reflect.
I was teaching a lesson on the Electron Transport Chain to my tenth grade biology class many moons ago, when I was interrupted by the Assistant Superintendent’s knock at my door. That in and of itself was enough to cause concern. I didn’t even think he knew my name. “Wayne’s taking a leave next year and I’m assigning the AP Bio course to you,” he announced.
“Sure,” I said, “be glad to…” Gulp! Me? Insecurity swamped me. Teach the equivalent of a college biology course? I’m not a real scientist. Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach!
Now, a little background is in order. I was one of only two females in a science department of twenty. I was the new kid on the block, and the man who’d been teaching the course for the past twenty-five years was generally regarded as the consummate educator in the department. You practically had to kiss his ring.
The new school year began. I surveyed the clientele. The average GPA had to be 99.999, the future valedictorian and salutatorian staring at me from front row seats. As the weeks went on they began to annoy me. They asked a million questions, sometimes about the most obscure concepts. I was convinced they were trying to trip me up, to catch me in a mistake. I kept thinking, they probably have thirty IQ points on me.
I soon realized that was not the case, they were simply incredibly interested…in everything! My sixty students blew up that AP test. Every kid earned at least a 4 or 5 as opposed to years past when the former teacher got maybe one or two student scores in that range. Again the Assistant Superintendent arrived at my door. “How in hell did you do that?” I smiled, confidently.
Actors lament that when reviews come in, even if they are overwhelmingly positive, they tend to fixate on the negative. When I stepped into this new world of writing I quickly found my insecurities getting the best of me. I don’t have an MFA. I never even took a creative writing class. How could I possibly hold my own against those who’ve formally studied the craft? I’m an impostor! A fraud! Everyone will know!
But I buckled down, did the work, suffered and learned from critique, and it finally paid off.
Why is it so easy to embrace the negative and dismiss the praise? I remember as a young woman someone once said to me, “You need to learn how to take a compliment. All you need to say is thank you.” It seemed so simple when he said it, but so hard to do. I felt that if you acknowledged a compliment it meant you agreed and were therefore… well…conceited. Conversely, it’s easy to accept negative criticism because we have a tendency to think the person who levels it is smarter, more accomplished, more honest than those who give positive critique. We subsequently give more credence to negative reviews.
So, science brain in gear, I did a little research.*
Well, it turns out that biology has a lot more to do with this basic sense of insecurity than I ever imagined. There’s an evolutionary basis for it: to protect us from harm. We give more weight to negative feedback because it alerts us that something is wrong and that our very survival is endangered. Positive and negative feedback is even processed in opposite hemispheres of the brain. A negative comment on the side that facilitates thinking and problem solving, and subsequently the information is processed more thoroughly and slowly. It also triggers physiological responses: sweaty palms, increased heart rate and pulse, butterflies in our stomachs. This response is even evident in three-month-old babies and animals. The effect of negative commentary has been measured to actually be twice as strong as the effect of positive critique and it lingers longer manifesting as doubt. And doubt thwarts progress.
There is a well-known management tool called the criticism sandwich- offering praise, then the problem, then adding a few final words of praise. A little bit of sugar makes the medicine go down? But this has been shown to not be as effective as previously thought.
The newest research tells us that:
People can only process ONE negative comment at a time.
When giving criticism follow the 5:1 rule, five positive comments for every negative one.
Consider your audience. If you’re told you’re going to give a lecture to very smart people, your anxiety level will be much higher and you’ll have more negative inner dialogue. Nix that!
Just knowing this may help us better deal with the bad stuff that inevitably happens, and, personally, I found this research reassuring. So I’m thankful that I’ve left the crippling effects of fear and self-doubt largely behind me. Again. It still rears its ugly head now and then when a review is less than stellar or your editor says, “Seriously? This part has to go…” Well, damn, that was one of my favorite scenes!
Hopefully, you’ll keep the biological response to feedback in mind when you either receive or give critique in the future. And when your first book hits the Bestseller List you’ll embrace the positive and consider the negative with the proper mindset. Read it, contemplate it, and then take what’s useful and toss the rest into the virtual trashcan in your brain. DNA considered, you’ll survive!
*For an excellent summary of the science, I highly recommend the following two articles:
Olivia loves her new immortal life, her friends and especially Drew; she never thought she’d fall in love on the other side of death. But when Olivia learns she bears the mark of Lucifer and has powers that tie her to the Underworld, she worries that perhaps she’s done terrible things in her past lives and dark secrets are being kept from her. And those damn wives, what do they want from her? Olivia endures unspeakable tragedy in The Wives of Lucifer and when she discovers what fate has in store for her...she suddenly understands that being immortal doesn’t guarantee you’ll live forever.
God, how I hated the dank, dreary Astral Plane, the land of perennial twilight. It always seemed like the sun was just about to rise or set, but nothing ever actually happened. The first time I’d arrived it took a while to figure out the terrain. Most of the newly dead appeared distorted and gray, as if merely extensions of the mist. After I’d been here a few times, I understood no one had control over what came nest. We could only linger until The Powers That Be got around to assigning our next placement.
Caryn McGill has immersed herself in a lifelong study of religion, astrology, reincarnation, and past-life regressions. This otherworldly journey coupled with her decades spent teaching science has produced her debut novel, The Wives of Lucifer.
Born on New York’s Long Island, Caryn McGill resided on its bucolic East End until a recent move to Richmond, Virginia, where she's currently finishing her second novel.
Find Caryn McGill online:
FB at carynmcgillwrites.com
Former blogger at www.writeonsisters.com