Seeing Clearly: How to Learn from Mistakes, Rejection, and Negative Feedback

You hear it all the time: “Failure and feedback are the best ways to learn.”

But this advice ignores a big element of those experiences: failure, rejection, and critical feedback can be incredibly uncomfortable.

A few weeks ago, I experienced this firsthand. After sharing a some of my writing with a new group of people, I received some blunt notes of very negative feedback. (It essentially said: “This is bad, and you don’t know what you’re talking about.”)

Upon reading this, blood rushed to my face. My heart started racing. A heavy sinking feeling dropped into my stomach.

It’s amazing how quickly this involuntarily reaction took place.

I felt embarrassed for sharing my work with this group of people. Critical self-talk engulfed me in a torrent of unworthiness.

As I sat with those feelings, I became curious and took a step back to examine my situation.

Reading this critique didn’t change the fact that I was proud my work. The writing was clear, and true to my experience and understanding of the topic.

If that was the case, why did I feel so terrible?

What it feels like when we make mistakes, or receive negative feedback.

False Narratives Cloud Your Perception

In the heat of the moment, I was wrapped up in a false internal narrative about what had happened: “These people critiqued me. That must mean I am no good at this…”

I failed to see the simple truth of my experience: Some folks had critiqued something that I wrote.

Since my ego was wrapped up in the work, my unconscious reaction to their critique created a story about me instead of the work itself.

“I can’t give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time.”
— Herbert Bayard Swope

Seeing Clearly

It’s easy to forget that most “bad” experiences are not inherently bad. They’re just uncomfortable. They don’t have any lasting negative consequences.

When I removed the label of “this is bad” from my experience, I could read the feedback with a fresh set of eyes. In doing so, I saw the feedback for what it was: A learning opportunity, in the form of someone else’s perspective.

After letting the feelings of discomfort and unworthiness pass by, I found multiple ways to improve the work I had shared! The whole process sharpened my understanding of who gets the most value from my work. Both great learnings!

Find Truth to put Your Best Foot Forward

When you let yourself get pulled down by events in your life, it blinds you to the learning opportunity at hand.

Stay aware of this as you go through your week. When something “bad” happens, ask yourself: “What can I learn from this experience?”

Some people refer to this as “The Silver Lining”, but that misses the point. The experience itself isn’t flawed, it’s your characterization of what’s happened that brings you down.

Seeing the truth in the situation sets you up to put your best foot forward.

Let’s look at a few examples of how this might play out.

(Before diving in, I wanted to let you know about my Mindful Morning Jumpstart Checklist. Life takes unexpected turns. Unfortunately, that’s out of your control. But how you start each day is in your control. Use this guide to craft a morning routine that helps you be your best self on a regular basis.)

At Work

  • What happens: Someone gives a stinging critique of a piece of your work.
  • The story you could tell yourself: “I’m no good at this…I’ll never be successful…”
  • The opportunity you have: Learn from their critique to get better! Take it one step further and proactively seek more feedback. Ask your colleagues how you can be more helpful to them. Listen with curiosity. Don’t let your ego get wrapped up in the process. Feedback is a way for you to improve, not an attack on your character or worthiness.

During a Workout

  • What happens: You fail to perform a movement/exercise at the same level you could previously.
  • The story you could tell yourself: “I’m regressing. I’m never going to get stronger. It’s no use.”
  • The opportunity you have: See the reality of the situation: based on your behavior, and the state of your body, you’re able to perform at this level today. There are many variables involved! Perhaps you need to shift your training schedule, modify your diet, or simply get more sleep. Either way, all that matters is making this workout the best it can be. Meet yourself where you are.

In Meditation Practice

  • What happens: You miss a few days of meditation practice.
  • The story you could tell yourself: “I’m a failure. I’ll never be able to keep this habit. I’m not a good meditator.”
  • The opportunity you have: Understand that all that matters is taking the next step. Use the awareness of your missed days as an opportunity to re-commit to your practice.

Uncomfortable but not bad

It’s uncomfortable to put yourself in a position to fail, get rejected, or receive negative feedback.

But feedback and failure are your best tools to learn and grow!

So, next time you get some negative feedback, or make a mistake…

  1. Take a moment to pause.
  2. Be present to the emotions and feelings that arise.
  3. Acknowledge that they are temporary.
  4. Remind yourself that this feedback is in service of your goals: to learn, grow, and be the best you that you can be!

It takes courage to be vulnerable. But like everything in life, the more you do it, the easier it gets.

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