Once upon a time, I was run out of a grad program because of a paper.
Despite years of solid work, I had failed in the eyes of my Ph.D. supervisor. I was 40 years old and had been an academic advisor for over a decade, and the department had allowed me to pursue the degree as a part-time student. I had been in the program for three years and was on the verge of taking my comprehensive exam.
But when I went to his office to turn in a research paper I had rewritten from the ground up at his direction, he screamed at me. It was as if he was an enraged parent and I was a kid who had wrecked the family car. And then he sent out an email telling all my faculty that I wasn’t cut out for a Ph.D.
It was devastating. By all accounts, I had been successful up until that point. I had excellent grades and semester evaluations from all of my professors and had never as much as stumbled. No one had ever even hinted that I was in any jeopardy — not the faculty graduate advisor, the graduate coordinator, my supervisor. No one.
Yet at that moment, years of very hard work (and my dream of a career as a professor) went up in flames.
This happened over a decade ago, but it’s a trauma I still carry with me. And as I grapple with how it has impacted me over the years, I’ve learned things that I can share with others.
Dealing with soul-crushing criticism
At some point in our lives, someone has stomped on our hearts or crushed our dreams. We all know the words ‘fired,’ ‘rejected,’ ‘failed,’ or ‘ lost’.
Working with an EMDR therapist, I discovered that the incident with my supervisor is one source of my anxiety with writing. A person in authority condemned me because my writing wasn’t good enough? Yep, that would do it. Since those days, I have a fear of failure that can be crippling at times. It’s only now that I’m starting to understand where it came from.
And that makes me realize how much certain events affect us, often more than we realize. Losing a job, getting a rejection letter, or failing to pass an important exam are all traumatic moments that can undermine our confidence and self-worth. And those events become even worse if there’s a specific person in charge of delivering the bad news.
Then, even years later, the memories of the event can trigger feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and even terror. This is particularly true whenever we engage in activities that our brains tie to those traumatic moments — even if on the surface they seem completely unrelated. These incidents can change how we view our bosses, teachers, or other authority figures for years to come, and can impact our ability to succeed in the future.
Introspection is important
When my supervisor forced me out of the program, I tried to understand why he did it. I wanted to know what I had done that could have deserved such unabashed rage. I never did find out, though later I learned that he had run off other students in my cohort in a similar manner.
What I didn’t do: consider how it all affected my opinion of myself. And that’s where I went wrong. I allowed myself to internalize the criticisms and feelings of inadequacy. Instead of seeking counseling, I let all of the pain linger and dig its claws into my psyche, and didn’t fight the subsequent self-recrimination.
So when you fail, don’t just rage against the system. You need to also explore what bothers you the most about the situation. How does it make you feel about yourself?
Don’t give them power over your emotions
In many ways, I regret allowing one person to have had such a profound effect on me for so long. Even now as I think about him, it generates an emotional response, which is one of the reasons I’m writing about it. I need to convince myself that his opinion of me doesn’t make one bit of difference to who I am today or what I choose to do with my life.
So when you look inward, challenge any negative thoughts. Don’t give hurtful people the ability to undermine your psychological well-being and sense of self-worth. Never take one person’s opinion as gospel. Everyone you meet only sees a small part of who you are, and if at some point they condemn you for something you’ve done, it doesn’t actually mean you’re a terrible person.
I know it’s easier said than done, especially if you had a long-term relationship with that person (romantic or otherwise), but ultimately you have a choice on whether or not someone has emotional power over you. Choose to cut the emotional umbilical cord between you and your new enemy.
Choose a new path
I’m one of those people who thinks everything happens for a reason, even if you can’t see the reason in the heat of the moment. When my dream of a Ph.D. came crashing down around me, I was lost and angry for a few months.
But I chose to be resilient and find another way forward. Instead of academia, I dove into computers, WordPress and digital marketing, and that changed my life. Now, when I look back, I’m glad I didn’t finish my Ph.D. because I am much happier (and likely more successful) as a freelance writer than I ever would have been in academia.
So take it from me: if you suddenly run into a roadblock on this trip called life, don’t despair. Take a personal inventory of your interests, your skills, and what you might like to do that’s different from what you were planning. If your grades aren’t good enough for med school, what else could you pursue? If you suddenly get fired from the company that seemed like the place you’d stay until retirement, what other options might you consider?
My article on career changes (below) can be a helpful way to approach the situation.
Sometimes rejection and failure have lasting effects no matter how hard you try to get over it. You might even think you’ve put it behind you, as I did, only to find out that deep down, it still makes you angry or causes you to second-guess yourself.
If you’re not able to move forward, or you do but you sense something is still holding you back, I’d encourage you to seek some form of counseling or therapy. Just talking to someone objective can help you recognize what you’re feeling and find ways to move forward.
And remember: no matter what happens, you’re still awesome. Don’t believe anyone who tells you anything different.
Jackie Dana is a freelance writer, editor, and novelist based in St. Louis. Although she has eclectic interests, her focus is on articles designed to help people find their way through an uncertain world. She published her first novel in 2015. In addition to writing, Jackie might be brewing herbal potions or reading a great YA novel. For her latest articles and other tantalizing goodness, be sure to subscribe to her mailing list.