I have always been way too sensitive to criticism. In high school we had an assignment where we had to ask our loved ones what they thought our best and worst personality traits were, and EVERYONE told me that I take things too personally. I terrified of looking dumb in front of anyone, even strangers, so I hate anyone calling attention to the fact that I’m less than perfect.
This is true for criticism of a personal nature, an artistic nature, and a professional nature. Blunt or tactless questions are awful, of course, but even much-need criticism framed in a very constructive way can put me on the edge of tears.
This has been a problem lately at my work, because I’ve gone from part-time to full-time, which means (a) more time at work, so more time to mess up/get blamed for something, and (b) getting called upon to do tasks I’ve never done before or tasks that I’m TERRIBLE at (like covering phones, which is a nightmare to an introvert, especially one so bad with names she routinely forgets the caller’s name mid-transfer). I have a tendency to get defensive when I’m corrected on something, especially if it’s something I usually get right or that I wasn’t responsible for, even though absolutely no one is putting me on trial. They just want it fixed. Or I get so flustered that I just make more mistakes, get more criticisms, etc ad nauseam. Today at work I screwed up something I didn’t know I was supposed to do, and getting called out made me too upset to talk (one of my coworkers walked by and marveled at how red my face got), when a more rational response would probably have been “now I know I need to do that next time”.
How can I take criticism better? I NEVER want to become “the girl who cried in the office”, and when it comes to things that I really want to get better at, I know that hearing and responding to criticism is an important step. I’m just so bad at it. Help!
Dear Paper-Thin Skin,
Please know that you are not alone in this, and that every one of us is trying to figure out how to take criticism with better grace. Everyone. Me. You. The person who is giving you the feedback at work. Everyone.
One troubling thing I am seeing in your letter is about self-perception, where “making a mistake” or “executing something less than perfectly” or even “being an introvert” means that you are “TERRIBLE” at certain things, and that state of TERRIBLENESS (thin-skinnedness, sensitivity, terror) both result from and become fixed traits. For instance, being an introvert doesn’t make you inherently bad at covering phones, it just means that you’d generally prefer not to and would benefit from some downtime to recharge if you had to do a bunch of it. You are connecting “I made a mistake” or “I have a difficult time with x” to “I am bad at x” to “It’s because I am (bad in some inherent way).” Hiring you from part-time to full-time bespeaks a confidence in your abilities and a desire to keep you around. Have you even stopped for a second to celebrate your promotion and feel good about it?
Oh, by the way, that high school assignment sounds like a shitshow. No one should put high schoolers through something like that! WTF were your teachers thinking?
Not only are you making some pretty extreme leaps, they are leaps that inconveniently leave you with no way to improve, because once you decide that you are inherently a fuck-up your Jerkbrain says”Mission accomplished! Let’s stay here and not do anything! That will show them!” The overly defensive responses are happening when someone says something innocuous that wakes up your Jerkbrain, who unhelpfully translates “Could you print this chart out in landscape” as “Could you print this chart out in landscape, YOU WORTHLESS DISGUSTING WORM” and then your Rageasaurus wakes up to say “Hey, wait a second, that’s not fair!” to protect you. The person giving the critique ends up caught in the middle of a confrontation between Jerkbrain and Rageasaurus and has no fucking clue what’s going on. They can see that some crockery is getting smashed in your mind palace, but not why, so they either back away slowly or join in the dust-up but without really understanding the stakes.
I think it’s worth meeting with a counselor if you can to see if you can figure out the origin of some of these bad assumptions and unspool these negative tapes that are playing in your head. That’s the long-term fix, where you say “I think I am overly critical of myself in a way that is sabotaging my relationships” and a therapist says “hmmm” and you work it out over time. I’ll steal one phrase from my therapist to give you a sneak preview, because it’s a question he’s asked me over and over again (because I needed to hear it asked over and over again) and that’s “Do you think you could be gentle with yourself around this?” Is it really necessary that you beat yourself up on top of the criticism you receive from others? Do you have to jump into that shame-blame cycle? It has definitely helped me to see how much of my automatic shame cycle is a habit and not an unchangeable force wrought from my own inherent mediocrity.
I can’t unpick all your emotional stuff or make peace between your Jerkbrain and Rageasaurus in a blog post, but as an advice blogger person and an art teacher (and former art student) I can give you a process for listening to and applying critique that might make it easier.
True story: I used to cry when people critiqued my short films in my first production class, even (or especially) if the feedback was positive. Praise OR criticism was just too much attention focused on something that was so vulnerable and scary. If I could catch it in time I would Napoleon Dynamite-run out of the room to the bathroom, and if I couldn’t I would just sit there and sob through the critique like I was at my own funeral. It was SUPER fucking weird and embarrassing, but to this day, none of my classmates have ever brought it up to make fun of me. The more I showed work and received and gave critique, the better I got at dealing with it, but it also helps that my teacher gave us a structure to work with. That structure is:
1. Write down everything that people say to you when they give feedback.
If you can’t do it right when the feedback happens, grab a pen and do it immediately afterward. If you need to interrupt the flow to grab a pen, do it. “Let me stop you for a second so I can get a pen.” Writing it down gives you something to do with your hands and an action to focus on, and it helps you remember it later. Whether or not you agree with it, whether or not you deserve it, when another person gives you feedback on something they are giving you information. Listen to it. Write it all down.
2. You don’t have to (and in fact should not) respond immediately, or possibly at all.
As in so many situations, it’s more important to listen than it is to say the right thing. If you feel like the other person expects you to say something immediately, or if you think it will be helpful for you to say something to diffuse the uncomfortable moment, try, “Thank you, I’ll think about it” or “Thank you, lemme process this.” Go ahead and feel defensive, just, if you’re not sure of what’s going to come out of your mouth STFU until you give yourself a chance to think and come down from the shame adrenaline. If you can get a little better at controlling your behavior when you are criticized, it will help you gain some confidence.
That said, it’s not a crime to get flustered, by the way, and if you do, you can say “I realize I am getting a little flustered right now, because I get very embarrassed when I make a mistake, but I am hearing you” or even excuse yourself from the interaction. Believe me, as this blog has gone through some growing pains, this was a hard but necessary one to learn. Me + bad mood or headspace + shitty passing comment from a stranger = TURN OFF THE INTERNET FOR A WHILE, JENNIFER.
3. If you can, put it aside for 24 hours.
Come back to it when you are calm, have slept and eaten a food, and when you can look at it a little more dispassionately. If you still have a strong emotional reaction the next day, so be it, but you’ll be less likely to answer with snark or make the situation worse if you have a little distance.
Some critiques need even more time to process. Discomfort is a normal part of learning, so being conscious of that can help you ride it out. Whenever I make a movie, I love the footage as its being shot, love the dailies, love the first rough cut, hate the second cut, hate the fine cut, and then fall back in love with it 6 months later as I process all the imperfections and differences between what I dreamed and the reality.
4. Consider the source.
You should probably do what your boss says and improve what they say to improve. Your boss has power over you, and theoretically has greater knowledge than you do of what you are supposed to do and how you are supposed to do it, which gives them some automatic authority. But some critiques are just opinions, and it’s actually a good idea for you to grapple with which opinions are important to you. When we’re talking about peers, if one person says a thing, and you don’t agree with it, maybe it’s just their opinion and you don’t have to worry about it. Whereas, if you’re in a writer’s group and 8 people give the same note, maybe they are correct that paragraph x is a little clunky or y situation is not quite believable. At the very least it needs more work.
5. Before you respond or change what you are doing, evaluate.
Some questions to ask yourself:
- Is it fair?
- Is it valid?
- Does the person have the standing to make this critique?
- Is this person genuinely trying to help me?
- Do I give a crap what this person thinks? (As in, “Thanks for telling me my toes look weird, stranger on the California CTA platform! I will get right on acquiring new toes!”)
- Is there another agenda here? Is this person just concern-trolling or projecting their own issues onto me? (Thanks, Dad, for taking my toast out of the toaster and putting it back in “correctly.”)
- Is my discomfort because I’ve sincerely fucked something up?
- Is it possible/feasible to make the suggested change? What are the stakes here? For others? For me?
- Do I want to make the suggested change?
There are times when hey, you hurt someone’s feelings, or you need to shape up at work, or stop a harmful use of language, and doing the thing is clearly the right thing to do. There are other times when the correct answer is “Thanks, I’ll think about it” or “I prefer not to.” As someone who went to art school and as someone who teaches at an art school, I strongly believe that sometimes you can hear all the suggestions and notes in the world and the right answer is still “Cool, but I want it to be this way and that’s a good enough reason.“ For instance, I would hate it if my students changed something they loved in about their work because they thought it would make me happy. I try to make it clear that, while they may benefit from trying a suggestion in a duplicate editing sequence or in a middle draft of a work in progress to see what shakes loose, they are not obligated to implement feedback from either me or the class to get a good grade. As an artist, I’d much rather make my own mistakes than do perfect work on other people’s terms.
6. Forgive yourself for risks and mistakes.
This is another exercise stolen from my therapist. When you screw something up, set a timer and give yourself a set period to wallow in your errors and let your Jerkbrain have its say. For a minor work mistake like forgetting someone’s name on the phone, let’s say 15 minutes. Oh yes, you are terrible. Oh yes, you should have known better. Oh yes, you are a giant fraud and no one likes you and you smell of elderberries. Woe is you! When the timer goes off, write down one thing you’ll do differently in the future. “Next time I will write down the caller’s name as soon as they say it, and ask them to repeat it if necessary before I transfer the call so I am sure of who is calling” (Seriously, slow down, that’s probably part of why you are forgetting.) Then say to yourself “I forgive myself” and move on with the day. I don’t know why it works, maybe it’s just the boring absurdity of the negative tapes in my brain when I let them play out in full, or the ritual of putting an end to the time where they are allowed to play, but it does help me calm down and refocus.
To sum up, I think you would benefit from doing some work with a therapist or counselor around why you have seemingly outsized reactions to routine stuff, like a correction from a boss at a job you are still being trained to do and therefore do not need to execute with robotlike perfection. I also think you can work on your own on getting some more control over your behaviors so that you can make your (visible) reactions more appropriate. Bonus: Here is a past post about gaining more confidence at work. Best of luck, you are far from alone.