#597: How do I learn to take criticism better?

Illustration of Godzilla and another lizard battle over the Golden Gate bridge.
Jerkbrain and Rageasaurus battle for control of the emotional landscape. Godzilla movie concept art by Frank Hong.

Dear Captain,

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!

-Paper-Thin Skin

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.







178 thoughts on “#597: How do I learn to take criticism better?

  1. Excellent advice – there are some really good tips here that I plan to use.

    This is my favorite part, though:

    “Come back to it when you are calm, have slept and eaten a food,”

    I love that phrasing. “A food.”

  2. I cried during a performance review once. No one thought any less of me, and a few people confided in me that they have cried during reviews too. Being emotional is not a weakness or particularly uncommon.

    1. Oh, buddy, I have too! And the worst bit is, if I start crying, and the other person is nice to me (especially if it is an older fatherly sort of male person) I will start crying harder. The only way out is for me to make fun of myself or for the other person to tell jokes.

      1. Oh god me too. Sometimes when I get upset I have to tell people not to indulge me or I’ll never stop crying. During my peak PhD meltdown I cried at the oddest person on staff (probably the last person you would think you’d cry at) and it was great (well not great but you know) because he just didn’t react to my tears.

  3. Wow, I could have written that letter. I talked about similar issues (perfectionism) with a therapist a while back, and one of the really helpful things I learnt from it was to try giving it some rational scrutiny. For any given panic (like, “this work is going to be terrible), you step through the possible consequences of it and think seriously about how likely they are. Is the work actually ‘terrible’? Probably not. Even if it was, would you get fired? No, your boss would probably just talk to you about it, which would be embarrassing but cope-able with. Would everyone hate you if they saw that this piece of work was a bit average? Definitely not. And so on. It doesn’t always work — sometimes jerkbrain just wins — but it can be useful for calming down or interrupting an ‘I’m an awful person’ spiral. I think you could probably apply something like that to when you start panicing over criticism: Is it actually going to produce consequences? Will the person concerned think the worse of you as a person? Good luck, LW.

    1. Well, here’s the thing: you might get fired for the failure. It happens. That’s when thinking about the absolute worst result can sometimes help. That’s because even if you’re fired, or people laugh at you, or your lover breaks up with you, or you’re not as successful at [thing] as someone else. or or or whatever dreadful thing you think of: it’s usually possible to survive and even thrive.

      While that might sound cold, like the Captain’s method of allowing herself a timeboxed period to wallow in the misery of it all, it usually calms me to take this perspective.

      I admit though, that I know even if it’s not death, other people observing me failing at something hurts horribly. I get past my misery and self-consciousness best if:
      – I can try to learn to do the thing I failed at without observers
      – I can remember the cool stuff I have succeeded at
      – I can let myself recognize that this event was really terrible and hard, and it might take a while to regroup.

      Mostly the last is what helps me. Maybe because it’s recognizing that I too am allowed to have weak points. I’m a person.

      1. I totally agree that these things work for me now – though they didn’t very much when they were advocated by well-meaning adults when I was younger. Back then, the idea that I’d just be able to Survive, Thrive and Make It Through after something so devastating as – gasp! – failing a class, going through a breakup, just the fact of getting a bad review in and of itself – was pretty much impossible to think about. After I’d done a couple of these things, and then a couple more, it got a whole lot easier to believe.

        1. Yeah, I feel similarly. As much as it irritates other people in my life, sometimes I just have to learn things through my own experience. It may mean things take me longer and I have to deal with extra pain, but learning that The Worst Case Scenario is Not Actually That Bad is something I could only achieve after years of anxiety and stress (and I still often struggle with) and isn’t something that is instantly going to click just because someone tells me that.

          I love the Captain’s advice, especially the list of questions, which I might well copy down and stick by my computer. I think writing things down and saying “let me think about that” is an excellent way to give oneself breathing space, and particular space to allow the jerkbrain to have its say then deal with it (I find I just cannot shut my jerkbrain down but with practice I am getting better at listening to it and thinking critically so I come to a more helpful conclusion – yay for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy!).

      2. “other people observing me failing at something hurts horribly.”

        I deal with a lot of the same issues as the LW, and this is a big part of it for me: I am convinced that if/when I fail at something, EVERYONE WILL KNOW, and all of my collected enemies will gather together and enjoy it so much. (Most of them don’t even know each other; some of them probably hate each other more than they hate me.) It’s terrifying.

        1. Hey I lived that nightmare, once! Storytime!

          In school, I had a math class where we’d take a multiplication drill every day. It was 100 questions and we had only a couple of minutes to complete it. The questions were the standard 1-12 multiplication range, it was supposed to be more about memory than actually working out the math. I was terrible at it. When the time was up, we’d trade papers and the teacher would rattle off the answers. Then we’d get our papers back, wait for our names to be called, and announce our score for everyone to hear. It was absolute torture.

          It got even worse everyone else started getting 100% but me. I’m pretty sure that a lot of kids were just getting their friends to fill in the remaining answers, but maybe they weren’t and I was just really the dumbest person in that class. My bullies were in that class. Now I was an ugly loser *and* stupid. My test results got worse because my anxiety became more intense and I would panic and shut down during the drills. Sometimes I’d hide my head in my arms and sob quietly at my desk because I could absolutely not prevent the crying fits but I didn’t want anyone to notice. They noticed.

          Wow. It actually made me upset just writing that out and thinking about that again.

          1. Oh gosh, I’m so sorry!

            We had something similar but with the major difference that we didn’t have to announce our score (what is that even?) but just got our paper back so I could be angry at myself in silence.

            Also, as a fellow supposed ugly loser I sympathise on the deeper level of those who are bullied. Jedi hugs if you want.

          2. That is an awful and unfair thing you went through! I can understand why remembering that would be upsetting, it was upsetting to read. WTF with that teacher?!

          3. Aw thanks everyone! I thought it was pretty messed up at the time, but I kept getting variations of “don’t be so sensitive.” There are a few comments here about bad student experiences. I think someone should start a topic in the forum about crappy things that teachers did mostly through accident or lack of sympathy.

          4. SketchedLilly, are you me? I don’t think we had quite the same drills in class but I spent many a math test in tears because I was convinced I couldn’t do the work. Which led to not completing the test or making sloppy errors. Which led to not gaining math aptitude. Which led back to the rampant test anxiety. And crying in class. All the crying in class.
            This is why I don’t keep in touch with anyone who knew me in grade school, even if they weren’t the ones making fun of me for being Mary Ann Spier.

          5. This is terrible. WTF is wrong with teachers like this!?? I had a similar experience(s) and had horrible anxiety prior to EVERY math class well through high school. Nightmare.

        2. Yeah, I used to think that too, but then I learned a performing art or four or five. Turns out? Most of the time, if you just don’t tell anyone you screwed up, chances are they won’t notice. 🙂 Nobody else has got the sheet music to your life. You’re fine. Chances are, a lot of your wrong notes just sound like accidentals to everybody else. Err… not accidentals as in accidents. Accidentals as in notes that aren’t in the key signature but are still right.

          Fun fact: when I first started doing solos for jazz band on the alto sax, I made a lot of weird squeaky noises while I was playing. Including during performances. But instead of freaking out, whenever it happened, I just sort of leaned into the sound a little so everyone would just think I was being “jazzy.” It was like a musical equivalent of “I meant to do that!” Totally worked, too: everyone loved my solos. XD

          I mean this isn’t always applicable — like, in a work setting, sometimes it’s important to own up to your mistakes so that they can be fixed — but it works surprisingly often.

          1. “I meant to do that” is one of the most important tricks you can learn as a performer. I figured it out when I was learning to sing, not quite yet ready to perform, and hung out at a lot of open mics. “Hmm, I probably wouldn’t have noticed that mistake and definitely wouldn’t have remembered at it if he didn’t wince and smile.”

            And yeah, passing tones are your best friends.

      3. hmm, I think this worst case scenario thing is pretty YMMV. Works well for some people, because they think, “even if I’m fired, I’ll survive,” but others get too focused on the worst case scenario and think it’s actually going to happen, so then they can’t start anything. Some things are definitely fireable offenses, but it’s probably not good to convince yourself that every task you need to complete is a fireable offense if you mess it up. For me “I likely won’t be fired even if I mess this up” is more helpful.

        1. I think the trick to the “What’s the worst-case scenario?” strategy is that you have to be able to identify the realistic worst-case scenario. We anxious people tend to default to thinking of the worst thing that hypothetically could happen, which in my experience is usually built up out of a spiral of assuming that everything else you’ve ever done or will do will also go the maximum possible amount of wrong — “What’s the worst-case scenario if I turn in this work assignment with an error in it? Well, since I assume that everything else I’ve ever turned in was also full of errors, and also that the reason my manager has never mentioned any of those errors is that he hates me and has been quietly storing them up to build a case against me, obviously THIS WILL BE THE LAST STRAW AND I’LL GET FIRED. And then I’ll never get another job! And I’ll lose my apartment! And… [on down the line until I die alone and am eaten by rats, etc.].” So, yeah, to some extent assessing the worst-case scenario is an anti-anxiety trick that depends on you already having a little bit of control over your anxiety, such that you can cut off that spiral before it gets to the eaten-by-rats stage and back it up to a more reasonable worst-case scenario. The therapist who taught me this trick recommended a couple of follow-up questions to myself, which made that easier:
          — What is the worst thing that could happen?
          — How likely is that? (Frequently the answer is “Really unlikely, actually, if I stop and think about it for a minute.”)
          — What can I do to prevent it? (This came with some additional work on letting go of anxiety when the answer is “Nothing, it will either happen or it won’t regardless of my input.”)

          1. Oh yes! Reminding myself that my worst-case scenario is highly unlikely is a key anxiety-management strategy. It does not make the anxiety go away, but it does make it possible to do the thing I have to do and let the anxiety ride along in the passenger seat. So I can go from “The librarians will hate me forever and laugh at me and throw me out of the library for having this large and ancient heap of unpaid fines” to “The laughing at me and throwing me out of the library part isn’t likely, and how they feel about me isn’t my business as long as the interaction remains professional” to “I am now walking toward the desk even though I really really really don’t want to be doing so” to “I now have less cash, but I can check out books again and I totally survived the hell out of that interaction.”

          2. I actually always tell myself “the worst that could happen is everyone could die” which usually distracts me with trying to concoct a (generally unbelievable) way my failure to water a plant/do incorrect paperwork/know an answer would result in the annihilation of the human race. Once I’ve done that I feel a little bit calmer about realistic bad outcomes.

        2. And, of course, if the worst thing *has* happened to you (or a friend/family member) – you got fired and you lost your home and you had to survive well below the poverty line and nobody hired you for a year and you got into debt just paying for groceries and the utility companies threatened to cut you off… then thinking about worst cases *isn’t* helpful at all.

          And humans being resilient it’s perfectly possible to crawl back from a place like that and eventually end up with friends, family, job, income etc etc; but when ‘losing [almost] everything’ is no longer hypothetical but is part of your experience-space, people saying ‘it’ll never come to that’ are not helpful because they deny something that, in your experience, is very much real.

          1. hmm, both this and Elsajeni’s comments were helpful for me to read, thank you.

          2. Thank you! I’ve been unemployed for years, and I finally got a job that leaves me living paycheck to paycheck. Every mistake is confidence destroying because I feel so close to being fired- and in that case I have a lot to lose. I know it really isn’t good for my mental health to worry that forgetting to refill the soap containers could end up with me fired and on the streets, but what if I do get too cavalier?

          3. Well, depending on what the “worst thing” was that happened to you, knowing that it’s already happened and that you got through it can be really empowering. Is is possible (not necessarily probable, but possible) that I could lose my job over this? Yes? Well, I’ve been unemployed before and it sucked but it ended, and if it happens again I already know how to deal with it.

            Extreme scenario, but I know a woman who was widowed when her kids were teenagers. Absolutely nothing shakes her now, because she’s already lived through the worst.

        3. My jerkbrain works (or used to work) exactly like this, so my therapist taught me a variation. Instead of imagining just the worst case, you imagine the worst case scenario, then the best case scenario, then a scenario that’s somewhat in the middle. Generally speaking, the middle case (or something close to it) is the one that’s most likely to happen. It made it much easier for me to learn to assess what the actual consequences of a mistake would be, instead of panicking and getting stuck in an anxiety rut. I still have serious problems with perfectionism and an extremely self-critical jerkbrain, but the anxiety of ‘any mistake I have will be The Worst and everyone will absolutely hate me for it’ has been alleviated so much.
          P.S.: I can absolutely vouch for what the Captain says about noticing other people’s mistakes. Just doing that relieved so much of my anxiety about ‘I MAKE THIS MISTAKE AND NOBODY ELSE DOES AND IT’S SO OBVIOUS’. Which, no, actually, I’m not the only one and it’s not obvious.

        4. You’re right that YMMV with what’s the worst that could happen. I usually use the “Is someone else going to die if I screw this up?” question instead. If I flub up photocopying things, answering phones, or forgetting to actually draw detail #60, other people will not die – which means if I screw up it’s embarrassing but not fatal. Embarrassment I’m learning to deal with.

  4. I feel your pain LW! My own work history was pretty spotty in the early days because I was only able to find temp work with bosses who were always ready to place the blame (and subsequent loss of job) on the temp. It didn’t take me long to go from fairly confident of my skills to gibbering wreck who has a tiny mental breakdown everytime they make the tiniest error.

    Thankfully, I am now employed in a good, supportive environment. I was jittery at the beginning, but my manager really helped me along with changing my perspective towards mistakes.

    One thing I might add about mistakes in the workplace is to objectively consider how the mistake happened. In my early days at the workplace, I made a lot of mistakes, but these mistakes were compounded because the system was convoluted to begin with, so EVERYONE was making the same mistakes. So, I took it to my manager and got a cookie. ^_^

    1. A good or bad work environment can make so much difference. In my last job my boss had decided to use me as office scapegoat because she knew I’d been diagnosed with depression (and she was making a lot of mistakes because of her heavy drinking and needed someone to take the blame). So it was “Oh this thing has gone missing – it’s Neddy’s fault – that crazy girl gets everything wrong.” 99% of these things were not my fault, and my depression had been very well controlled with meds – but of course that kind of scapegoating sends jerkbrain into a frenzy of agreement – “Why yes, you are the actual worst! See!” We got into a vicious circle of her claiming I was useless because I was miserable, me getting more miserable and blaming myself, and getting more miserable, and being blamed… and then suddenly I had a breakthrough and realised that I actually wasn’t going through a major depressive episode – I was just very very unhappy with circumstances. So I quit that job and moved on.

      I’m in a lovely job with lovely people now and it’s so different. But for at least the first year in this job I was slinking around like a dog who expected to be kicked at any moment. It took a long time to get my confidence back.

      LW, you probably aren’t in this kind of situation. But it’s worth considering if you are, because some work situations can only make the situation worse. Also: I completely know where you’re coming from with phone calls. I’m a hardcore introvert on the autism spectrum (which screws with both my ability to process voices that are slightly distorted by the phone line, and my working memory – so I forget what people are saying as they say it). These problems are probably more common than you realise and they’re not something to beat yourself up about. I get around it by picking up the phone with a pen in hand and noting down every single thing that is said – person’s name, company, who they want to talk to and why – because I know I can’t hold these details in my brain very easily. If that’s something that you need to do then just doing that is a much better idea than berating yourself for not being someone who doesn’t need to do that! (And yes, I’ve taken the second option sometimes as well.)

      1. It’s not just an introvert thing, either – I’m extroverted, but I find phone conversations very hard work and exhausting because anything tactile or visual is way more interesting than anything auditory. So I am easily distracted by anything on the screen in front of me, any other bits of paper with writing on, the sensation of my own handwriting, the texture of the surface of my desk, the feeing of the phone against my ear, that thing I keep on the side to fiddle with… I have to work so, so hard to make the voice in my ear the thing that I am concentrating on! It took me years to realise this, and to actually teach myself to pay attention on the phone.

        But it is totally OK to ask people to repeat themselves, or to clarify details or whatever. You aren’t losing at phone conversations because by the time you get the end you’ve forgotten that they started off with, “hi I’m Amy and…”

        One of the things that worked for me when I had a reasonable amount of incoming calls to take was having one of those pads for telephone messages – I wouldn’t necessarily remember someone’s name, but if I had a form in front of me to fill in with name, number, company, message, do they want to be called back or will they call again etc., it was way easier to remember what I was doing. And there’s no reason not to use those when you’re putting people though if they’re helpful for remembering the details you need, or even creating sheets of them yourself in Word.

        1. This is why I hate phone conversations too, and it took me decades to figure out what the problem was. I take notes for anything important that I need to remember. I need something visual to focus on, even if it is a piece of paper and a pen and notes, because otherwise my attention will be caught elsewhere.
          As a side effect or other annoying thing about being so very visually oriented, I can not deal with a tv on in a room where I am supposed to be conversing with someone or listening. If the TV is BEHIND me, or tuned to certain kinds of sports that I find boring, then I can deal with it to a degree. Otherwise, my eyes get caught by the story, or by my brain’s attempt to make up a story that fits.

  5. Also, can I add an AMEN to High School teachers being stopped from doing evil crappy assignments to students? My highschool gave two students in my class PTSD when we attended a camp led by some pseudo-intellectual-psychologists who made us all imagine that our best friends, parents and loved ones were dying in front of us to the sounds of the saddest music ever in order to “unlock our deepest regrets” or something like that.

    I wish I could go back in time and slap them before they got to start subjecting 13-year-olds to this.

    1. Don’t make students perform emotions for you, it’s creepy is a good rule outside of acting classes.

      1. Sometimes even WITHIN acting classes. I had an acting professor in college who was much beloved in our theater department (including by me, for a very long time), but her class had a much-celebrated reputation for tears being shed. Not because she was mean to us but because she encouraged JUST THAT MUCH emotional intensity, even in the early exercises where we weren’t playing characters yet. The first time I broke down in class, the word used was “breakthrough.”

        It’s probably as well I’m not much of an actor, because I’m no longer sure that was a good thing.

        1. So…take a growing human who is at their most hormonally and emotionally flip-floppy stage and force terrible triggers onto them and squeal with delight when they snap? Sounds like a safe thing to do to children in your care….

    2. Wow. WTF? That…doesn’t seem ethical as a required high school assignment. (Perhaps because it reminds me of my own ex-shrink, referred to as Dr. Unethical, who had ties to groups that probably did crap like that.)

      1. My English class Senior year did something like this once a week. We were given a prompt, almost always subjects that would be emotional minefields, and required to write for a half hour on this week’s Trauma Story. Every week without fail I wrote something to the effect of “You are not a licensed psychologist. This is not therapy. You can’t make me.” Thankfully I had my mom’s full support on that stance. So, yes assignments like that aren’t unheard of.

        1. OMG, yuck! When I taught college freshmen, I specifically designed assignments so that they *didn’t* trigger emotional minefields. I wish I could say it was out of concern for their well-being, but mostly it was out of concern for my own — I didn’t want to be in a situation where I was acting as therapist, since, I was not a therapist, but an English teacher. Why would a teacher do this?

    3. True story: When I was a freshman, my health class did a whole thing about drunk driving, and part of the assignment was to pretend we were dead (ostensibly from drinking/driving, though it was never specified) and write a letter to our family, ostensibly to force us all to realize how much we’d hurt our families if we died….? idek. It sticks in my head, though, because I happened to be borderline suicidal at the time, and the letter I wrote was very clearly an extremely bitter suicide note. In hindsight, it’s more than a little worrisome that nobody in the school thought they should maybe follow up with me to see if I was OK after writing it.

    4. In grade 7 (so, 12-13) we all had to perform dying in specific ways in front of the class! We were all assigned different methods of being killed, like shot/stabbed/strangled etc. At the time, I and the class thought this was *hilarious*, but in retrospect, wow that could’ve been really really bad.

    5. Yeah. Even the ones that seem not so bad (not nearly as horrifying as your example) can very easily go south. The version of the LW’s assignment that I got was that everyone in the class had to write (anonymously) a compliment about everyone else in the class. It was done on papers passed around with everyone’s name on it. That sounds all lovely and heart-warming in a lesson book, but the plain truth is that assholes given anonymous access to everyone in the class are not going to write anything positive on those papers.
      It was supposed to make everyone consider everyone else in a positive light. All it did was give me a clearer idea of the percentage of the class that hated me.

      1. My class did something similar on a three-days-trip thingy (god, I hated class trips but this one was okay), however, there was a big difference: At the beginning of the exercise, the whole class was presented with a bunch of questions/phrases of which each of us could pick five or so to write down on a big sheet of paper. These questions were all only of positive nature, though, like “That’s what I like about you:”. The papers were then passed to various people and so you basically only got nice answers by people you hadn’t really interacted with before. I still have that paper because it really warmed my heart and the whole thing was very well executed by the people responsible. (It figures, though, that the first person whose sheet I got was my toxic and abusive ex-best-friend whom I had just broken up with a few weeks before. Thankfully, that wasn’t a problem because I could just switch it with someone else’s, but ugh.)

        I’m kind of glad to see all these responses here because OF COURSE my nemesis in this class (for some inexplicable reason, she totally love me, and I hated her with the fire of a thousand suns, god, I still get angry when I hear about her and it’s been ten years) later criticised the whole thing on the basis of “Maaah, I really don’t like that there weren’t any negative options to choose from! It would be so much better if we could have told everyone what we DIDN’T like about them!”. Yeah. Delightful person, that.

      2. Yeah I think this only works at like the kindergarten level because the answers are things like ___ is nice or ___ shares their moon cake with me sometimes or ___ is good at soccer. Also even in those cases the teacher always looked over everything before anyone else in the class saw it.

      3. Oh, yeah. “Sensitivity training” was stylish when I was in high school so a group I was in tried it. I can’t remember if any teachers were involved because it was part of a special unconference-style school day. Anyhow, I was a shy and stand-off-ish high schooler which I found out that day was, well, not an admired trait. I got up silently in the middle of it and walked home to cry. Whether anyone there became more “sensitive” I don’t know but it certainly didn’t make me less shy and stand-off-ish.

    6. I had a class “retreat” in high school that the teachers actually had to take me back to school from after the first exercise (it was an all-day thing) because the first exercise was to break us up into large groups and have cards for each of us, and we had to write down things we liked about each other. My card was blank at the end of this first part of a multipart exercise, and then it got worse from there (i.e. people refusing to talk to me, etc). So much for team building!! I got brought back in tears and spent the rest of the day hiding and crying.

    7. Add my high school health teacher to the list. Splitting up a room full of teenagers into groups and assigning each group a mental health issue to present a little skit about? WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?

      What did go wrong was that one of the “hilarious” skits was triggering for me, [NB, suicide isn’t funny, ever, and for some strange reason it felt unsafe in that moment to explain to that teacher, in front of those classmates, exactly why it was extra unfunny to me] and then the teacher wouldn’t let me leave the room to go sit in the hallway, and then I pretended to have to go to the bathroom to escape and I think about that Every. Single. Time. the topic of trigger warnings in academic contexts comes up.

      1. I didn’t know what trigger warnings were when I was in school and I didn’t really have reason to think about them until I was in… I don’t remember exactly, my penultimate grade probably? IDK, it was late in my school life. The only real bad trigger I have is gore, I cannot for the life of me deal with that. And then we watched a video (in Religious Studies, of all things!) a fellow student had brought in (I despised that guy and that act was just more confirmation of that) and there was a… well, icky scene, to say the least. Thankfully, it was so disgusting that basically my whole class was in turmoil and shouting to switch it off but man, surely would have liked to be prepared for that beforehand.

        (TW for rape)
        I’ve become really invested in trigger warnings in academic contexts when my younger sister watched an adaptation of a well-known German book in class last year and there was a rape scene (which is not in the book! There isn’t even sex in the book in that instance! I’m still completely thrown by that. It changes to whole characterisation and motivations of the characters!). My sister was sexually abused in her former relationship and was completely shocked by that unexpected display of something like that (she never got into detail about it but by the way she was talking about this movie scene, I suspect it was similar to what her ex did to her) – I liked the teacher of that class a whole lot but I still find it super irresponsible of him to not watch that film beforehand and also warn about topics like these.

        In another class, they watched a video that was apparently really, really violent, so much so that my sister started crying in class and had to go out to throw up. But at least the teacher – who was one of my favourites when I was in school – was intensely sorry about it and actually tried to console my sister himself and took the blame because it’s been some time since he’s watched it himself and he had forgotten how bad it was. He also promised to change that in the future and warn for possibly triggering content, so… yay? A bit at least?

  6. Lovely advice. I tend to get defensive and want to justify anything right away. But I’m an introvert too and a master at coming up with rebuttals or defense two days too late. I like the tip to write down the notes to occupy myself.

    If I may add one note for work feedback: if possible, ask feedback to be emailed to you. A script for this could be “Could you please send me your writeup for my performance review. I’d like some time to prepare a performance improvement plan for myself so I’m prepared when we meet to discuss.” You loose the vocal tone which could be gentler but it will give you time to react to feedback in private. This won’t work for everyone in the office necessarily but if you play it write you can at least get your boss (the one with the most power over you) to agree to it.

    1. I do like the idea of this, though honestly if I sit on feedback too long without being able to process it aloud with the person who gave it, it grows horns and teeth and big yellow eyes and starts gnashing my self worth in its teeth. The gentle vocal tone and demeanor has sometimes been crucial for me in later being able to convince myself that in fact, they didn’t mean that as a humiliating insult to the deepest part of my person, they just need the forms to be filed A – Z instead of Z – A.

      YMMV, of course, and I definitely agree that it’s crucial to be able to sit on advice before acting on it.


        Just kidding, it’s actually against the site policies to correct people’s typos or grammar errors, esp. since we get many non-native English speakers as letter writers and commenters and also it’s just crappy and annoying if people do that to one another without addressing any of the content of their posts.

        1. Related to my comment below — Captain, I usually inhabit a very select group of comment spaces (here and my personal Tumblr network), and until I had a piece published on a lifestyle website last week I had forgotten how (very, very sadly) outside the norm the safehappy moderation here is. LONG LIVE COMMENT SECTIONS WHERE NO ONE SNARKS ON YOUR/YOU’RE! HIP HIP HURRAH!

        2. I really love that you have this rule. As a recovering grammar snob, I find it really helps me remember not to be a dick.

      2. @Christin — lately I have been so stressed I have started confusing words in my writing that have roughly the same first sound, not even homonyms. So tough/touch, gone/got, car/caught, land/lost . . . it’s the most bizarre thing, and makes for some very strange editing experiences.

  7. I and several of my friends are perfectionists like this. We’ve had numerous discussions about having to manage the deeply entrenched belief that we are somehow not good enough, while also managing our unrealistic expectations that nobody will ever love us unless we are perfect (and thus having outsized reactions to failure). Most of us eventually had to take up hobbies unrelated to our careers in order to manage it — specifically, things we cannot even realistically expect to be competent at for years, and things where we also do not expect ourselves to be “naturals” at — i.e., there is less identity and ego bruising when we fail.

    Since we are brainy women who perceive ourselves as such, our hobbies have invariably been physical — they require frequent and regular practice in conscious ways that we tend not to notice when we do “think-y” stuff, and they involve some degree of minor physical embarrassment in manageable doses, along with instructors who both desire your success and are patient and good at teaching. When I began several years ago, I used to almost have panic attacks when I thought about going to class and having people watch me not be good at something. I thought not being good at something I had just begun to learn meant I was unworthy of their time and that they would hate me for wasting it. But I kept going, the embarrassment and anxiety eventually faded away (the anxiety especially after I realized it was a barrier to improvement), and now I am actually quite competent at my chosen hobby. In addition to that, placing myself in a more explicit teacher-student relationship helped me deal with criticism — by putting myself in their class I was making myself consciously open to their feedback, and at least for me, part of my self-esteem issues manifested by seeking out highly critical people in some subconscious hope that they’d eventually tell me what was REALLY wrong with me. The teacher-student situation was a much healthier way for me to cope with that urge and I found myself dropping judgmental and critical people once I learned what “healthy critique” felt like; this also made it easier for me to accept/reject criticism based on its merits rather than spiraling into a shame cycle over any and every type of negative feedback I received.

    So, in closing, I 100% agree with Cap’s advice (especially the part about therapy; I eventually found my ‘source’ and am working on it now), but I wanted to add my own suggestion for things you can potentially do now. As for more concrete suggestions: any kind of group fitness activity (martial arts can be especially good); learning an instrument in a group is also a good one. I imagine things like group art classes and so on are equally helpful. The last thing I’ll add is that I found applying a growth mindset the single most helpful mental shift for breaking out of bad habits. http://michaelgr.com/2007/04/15/fixed-mindset-vs-growth-mindset-which-one-are-you/

    1. I love that phrasing, a “growth mindset”. I teach private music lessons and I often see this sort of destructive perfectionism in my students – “I can’t do it the first time -> I suck at this -> I am a terrible person”. Of course you can’t sing the song perfectly yet, that’s why you take lessons and practice!
      Part of the problem, I think, is that most people seem to think of music as a thing you’re good at or not rather than a skill that you have some level of aptitude for and can improve on.

      My orientation is not towards perfectionism – I’m much more of an incremental problem-solver – but I have a tendency to jump to be sort of pre-emptively accommodating. It’s weird and uncomfortable and it exposes in me a really ugly assumption about people: that you have to appease them at all costs or they are going to go apeshit on you in some awful way. This is in some ways a safe way to behave, because some people ARE going to go apeshit on you if you displease them. But it’s also a weird and counterproductive position to approach a relationship with a reasonable person from.

      Anyway, LW, it sounds like you are not working for/with the nasty apeshit people. Maybe try making an assumption of good will instead of bad? It’s been really helpful for me.

    2. I took a Waldorf class with my daughter at which the parents all had to do crafts. Uggggggh so painful I complained to everyone and it was so embarrassing bc I did everything wrong and so many other people’s crafts were so lovely. I hid my felt flower baby on the last day. But the teacher sort of insisted everyone stick with it and I am sooooo proud of my flower baby now that it is home and not next to everyone else’s. It’s like a little talisman of what I get if I just carry on through my own terrible terrible the worstness 🙂

      1. I think this applies to everyone who is shy about crafts/art!

        If I keep comparing my drawings to everyone else’s on the internet, I will keep on hating them. If I flip through my sketchbook, I can appreciate the growth that I see there. There is a long way to go but darn, those are some decent drawings right there! 🙂

      2. Yay crafts!

        This is the point to say a big, big THANK YOU to Kate who keeps organising the London Awkward meetings because at some point I lost my inhibitions of ‘but I’m really lousy at drawing’ and I started to just _draw_. And I found that if I’m following instructions on ‘how to draw’ that my drawings, too, become recognisable for what they’re supposed to be, and I’m getting glimpses of what it might look like to be able to draw. And I’m not good at drawing because I a) never had the right instruction and b) haven’t practiced, but the first isn’t my fault, and the second, well, I have only myself to blame for it.

        But, yeah. Making things is not a competition. Who’d have thunk?

    3. I was going to suggest something like this. I think I used to be a lot like LW and I’m much less now, and the letter got me wondering what were the milestones in getting there. Something that sticks out in my mind was learning to surf. I am very bad at sports, and team sports trigger all sorts of horribleness for me because I feel like my ineptitude is pulling everyone else down and they must hate me. However if you’re bad at surfing it’s just you that’s affected. And I am very bad at surfing. I’m so bad at surfing that the guy who gave me a lesson at the start of the summer, still remembered me out of all the people he taught that summer several months later. Please understand that I’m a person who regularly falls over their own trousers. I had about 6 surfing lessons (most people have 1), and I never managed to stand up on a board.

      But it was fun. I went with my friends. They were all way better than me. They laughed at how bad I was. I laughed at how bad I was. But it was fine. There was no consequence for me being bad at surfing. My friends had all seen me fall over my trousers before, so there was no surprise there! I found it very freeing to allow myself to be totally shit at something. I highly recommend it!

      1. Hi five to a fellow terrible surfer! I was never a huge fan of team sports (aside from hockey, but no one on my team took it even remotely seriously). But I do really enjoy individual sports where I get to determine what counts as success, and “failures” only affect myself. And with surfing in particular, I always feel that even if I do nothing but fall all day, hey! I’ve still spent an hour or two outside at the beach. That’s fun in and of itself!

        1. And the comprehensive muscle soreness you feel afterwards means you really were exercising, even (and possibly especially) in abject failure. One time I got up to my knees… it was amazing! Then I collided with my friend and the two of us laughed so hard we nearly choked. I’ve nearly enjoyed being shit at something so much!

    4. Putting in a plug for folk dancing (English, Scottish, Contra, and Square dancing all are done with partners in “sets” with other dancers but are not couple-oriented) as a fun example of a physical activity which you can learn gradually over time and enjoy in a community that will be happy to see you learn and grow. Just as another idea for people who think this sounds like a good idea but don’t know what they can do.

    5. I highly recommend Carol Dweck’s book Mindset (which that linked article talks about). I found it to be immensely helpful for the kind of thinking that LW is demonstrating.

      And LW, for the phone thing–I never answer the phone anymore without a piece of paper handy and a writing utensil. It helps.

  8. “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.”

    I’d go into a serious funk if I let the jerkbrain have control for 15 minutes. 15 seconds would be plenty for me!

    LW, one thing that can help salvage professionalism at work is to follow up on criticism later. Say your boss tells you that the TPS reports need to be done that way, not this way, and it goes poorly and you get visibly upset. The boss will be less concerned about your ability to take feedback if you come back the next day (or a few days later) and say “Hey, I’ve been thinking about the TPS reports, thanks for the feedback and I’ll be making the changes you suggested.” Keep it short and sweet, no need to rehash the whole conversation, just let them know that you listened to the feedback and are implementing it. That way the boss knows that your emotional reaction was only that, and your GoodWorker!Self is calling the shots in the long run.

    1. I find that it works really well for me, too. For me, at least, when I screw up, I sit down and really tear myself apart, like a real two-minutes hate. I find that it’s not actually giving my jerkbrain power, it’s doing the opposite–it’s coming from the part of my brain that *doesn’t* believe these awful things I’m saying about myself, which makes them seem absurd and totally co-opts my jerkbrain’s attempts to use them against me. It’s not giving my jerkbrain control at all, in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

    2. I do the same thing. When I get criticism from my boss, if there’s any tension or defensiveness in my reaction, I come back to her later and say “I thought about what you said about X and I’m doing Y and Z [things that will resolve the problem].” My boss has always reacted very well to that, she seems to value knowing that I took her feedback to heart and am working to do better.

      1. Bonus: If you’ve already established yourself as a person who does that, you have leverage to disagree with your boss*. If they know you as the kind of person who generally thinks carefully about problems and comes up with solutions, your opinion on their evaluation of a problem might have actual value. Which is THE BEST.

        *assuming your boss doesn’t conjure power struggles out of the air

    3. I’ve been through years of my partner and I supervising teachers and administrative assistants in her tiny school. Almost everyone we have hired has been very very defensive about taking (gentle appropriate) feedback. Speaking for the boss, it would be fine if someone was a little upset at the moment of feedback, but such a huge relief if they then came back to say, “I’ll make sure I do it the other way the next time.” That’s really all that’s wanted! And it sounds like you are doing a lot better than many of our employees who have done things like write indignant letters to the board saying that my partner (the director, head teacher, and their boss) had the temerity to (gasp) tell them what to do. Sigh.

  9. Joining the chorus of people who have clearly been there, done that, and got the t-shirt emblazoned with their past mistakes. LW, you are so far from alone on this, and so so many of us struggle with being able to take feedback to heart. Even if – nay, ESPECIALLY if – you know you’ve done wrong, having someone else acknowledge it can just seem like the worst. thing. ever.

    The Captain’s tricks are all great. I especially love the series of questions, because it helps reframe the feedback into just choices that you get to make about how you’re going to live your life, and not especially damning choices, either. Feedback and advice can feel like a curse, but as you learn to accept that mistakes are okay to make, and that all anyone (worth trusting, at least) cares about is whether or not you hear them out and make a reasonable decision about / steps towards making a change in the future, it’ll get a whole lot easier.

  10. I’m the same way. For me, this meant I wouldn’t ask how to do something that I thought I should know about already. (Hint: everything!)

    What’s helped me get over that hurdle to actually asking directly how to do things is adding “Just to clarify” in front of a question. My ego is satisfied, because I’m not showcasing that I don’t know everything EVAH like I obviously should by now, GAWD; I’m just clarifying. Double-checking. Covering my ass. Sometimes I’m stretching the truth a little adding that phrase, but it gets me to ask questions-and get the answers, and enable me to do my job better, so I feel okay with that.

    1. Yes. So much this. “Just to clarify -insert question about thing that I’m unsure of-” is perfectly OK for me to say to my boss. Especially since I’m a horizontal thinker and he’s a straight logical path thinker and therefore there’s mutual frustration on both sides at being unable to understand where the other person is coming from. “Just to clarify” has been amazing for keeping me from being reduced to tears of frustration and him to frustrated anger.

  11. I’m going to weigh in as “the girl who cries at work all the time,” because that was totally me. I worked at a call center where we were graded on our calls — we had to sit in a room, listen to our recorded call alongside our coach and team leader, then get point-by-point feedback on every single thing we did right or wrong. Essentially hell on earth.

    I cried in those sessions, frequently. Big ugly tears. I was not the only one by any means, either.

    My thing is that I cry easily when embarrassed, or angry, or frustrated. I frequently don’t have any control over it. But it always makes things worse when someone is nice to me about it. The sympathy/pity thing just wrecks me. So I quickly got into the habit of saying: “Hey, sometimes I cry when I get a little overwhelmed, please ignore it and I’ll get my shit together in a couple minutes.” and sometimes they’d look at me funny but mostly they were cool with it and learned to look at something else while I pulled myself together.

    Moral of the story: Being the girl who cries at work is not the worst thing. Also, this is a situation where Using Your Words can relieve some of your immediate awkwardness.

    (BTW, two other practical tips. If you happen to wear glasses and haven’t figured this out already, deeply and focusedly cleaning your glasses on the hem of your shirt gives a lovely cover for tearing up, and it doesn’t look too weird if you rub your eyes a little before you put your glasses back on.)

    1. Yeah, I’ve cried at work before. Sometimes for unrelated reasons (famous people I admired died, breakups), sometimes because my co-workers were being unreasonable assholes, sometimes because I screwed something up. It’s okay.

    2. I think the worst thing about crying at work are the people that want to make it better by hugging. Don’t touch me! Just go away and let me pull myself together.

      Onto mistakes and feeling like a failure: I’ve started keeping a small victory record. “Today I spoke to -person I don’t like- for 5mins and maintained my happy-professional persona. Yay!” No buts (ie. “but I let my frustration show on our next encounter”).

  12. It took me a second to be sure I hadn’t written this letter in my sleep or something. The giveaway that it wasn’t me was the terrible high school assignment; I remember some tough ones, but that exact nightmare of an experience did not happen to me. I think I will try the timer thing. If I can’t do it in the moment, but I end the day feeling like it was a bad day, I can set the timer to limit the amount of time I spend thinking about what mistakes I made that made it feel like a bad day. I also like Christin’s suggestion of getting a hobby with healthy critique built in for practice.

    LW, if you are a similar perfectionist to me, a thing may happen if/when you get the recommended therapist: you might initially feel like you have to perform even there, like you’re going to be graded on your ability to be a therapy patient or something. At some point in my first appointment I told my therapist that I was feeling that way, and we talked it through. Hopefully the feeling will pass and you’ll soon be able to cry at your therapist’s appointments over stuff you think is kind of absurd to cry about or have your face turn red or whatever and it will be totally fine because you’re in therapy and your therapist is cool. So if this being-a-perfectionist-at-therapy thing happens, you’re not alone, and if it doesn’t happen, awesome, you can start talking about the work stuff that much sooner!

    1. *sibelius’s suggestion about hobbies, sorry; I scrolled up too far. Mistakes ALL OVER this here thread about recovering from mistakes, y’all.

  13. Dear Letter Writer,

    Like the Captain I <strike> am terrible </strike> find it really difficult to get feedback on my work. Criticism or suggestions for improvement? I cry. Praise? I cry more. Awkwardness all around.

    But here are a few things I have learned and are helping me.

    1. “Thank you for pointing that out.” Or some other thing which acknowledges what they said without apology, regret or defensiveness. You may not say it out loud. A lot of the time I type it at the start of my email and then I delete it. But saying “Thank you for pointing that out” (even if it is just quietly to myself) really helps me de-personalise the criticism and remember that the person didn’t say YOU DID THIS THING WHICH WAS TERRIBLE YOU ARE A TERRIBLE PERSON AND ARE TERRIBLE AT EVERYTHING HOW TERRIBLE. They just pointed out an error or a mistake. Even if it was YOUR error… you are not that error. You are not the mistake you made. Take a deep breath, say “Thank you for pointing that out”.

    These days I am finding it much easier when people find problems in the work I have done. It still hurts a lot if someone catches me on an off day but saying “thank you for pointing that out” helps me draw a line between ME and THAT MISTAKE.

    2. Practice acknowledging your own mistakes on your own terms. Don’t you hate that sinking feeling when you mess something up and then you try and fix it and it messes up more things and then it’s a race against the clock before someone FINDS THE MESS YOU MADE and they are going to be SO MAD and then you work yourself up and everything is terrible and not only did you make a mistake but now you’re crying and everyone thinks you are a weirdo and you should just quit and go and join the circus except you would be bad at that too everything is terrible? I HATE it when that happens.

    But I am now using the times I notice the mistake I made as an opportunity. I use that space between “I know I messed up” and anyone else knowing I messed up to compose myself and then, on my own terms where *I* am in control of the conversation, I acknowledge the mess-up. Sometimes it is a thing that I need help fixing. Sometimes it’s just a conversation where I say “oh gah I messed up this thing and I shouldn’t have because it was so obvious, how silly am I? haha”. Sometimes it is just “hey I know I said I’d do this other thing but I messed something up so I’m still working on the first thing, I’ll let you know as soon as I’ve fixed it!”. Sometimes it is a thing that is REALLY messed up and I need someone to help fix it. But even though it seems REALLY SCARY to call or email your boss and say “HELLO PERSON WHO PAYS ME TO DO A THING IT TURNS OUT I MESSED UP A THING” I have found that most of the time it turns out not to be so scary once you have done it a few times.

    3. Notice that other people make mistakes. Not in a mean way or keeping score or trying to make yourself seem better than other people. Just collect evidence to use against your jerkbrain when it claims that YOU ARE THE WORST PERSON EVER NOBODY ELSE WOULD MESS THIS UP YOU TERRIBLE LOSER. I work a lot on the phone and it used to be really REALLY hard and I would mess up people’s names and mis-hear where they were from and be nervous and feel SUPER unprofessional. But over the 10 years I have been using the phone for work I now have a really excellent phone manner and part of it is just because I collect and remember a few times that other people messed up.

    A. This one time someone called my work (We made websites – all of our clients were businesses) and they were calling for someone else at work and I said “where are you calling from?” and he said “home.” And I realised that other people give awkward responses on the phone sometimes and I’m not the only person that does it. I say “This one time” but this happened A LOT. And I didn’t think any of those people were terrible failures at life or incapable of adult or should just not bother and stay in bed or ANY of the things I tell myself when I do something like that.

    B. This one time I met someone at a business meeting and after the meeting the four of us who had been in the meeting went out for coffee and the very next day I had to call the person I’d met the day before (and we had spoken on the phone a bunch of times before we had met in person at the meeting) and I rang her and I just said “Oh Hi [Name]! It’s [my name] how are you?” and she said she was fine and we exchanged pleasantries until she said “Sorry, where are you calling from?”. And I said “Sorry! From [company] we met yesterday” and she said “Oh! Sorry! Of course haha I’ve had such a busy morning and spoken to so many people” and I said “oh I know what you mean I am really bad at voices!” and we had a chuckle and then we discussed the work stuff we needed to discuss.

    C. This one time I called a client and the person who answered shared my first name and so she said “Good morning [company] this is Elise!” and I said “Hi Elise it’s Elise calling from [company] in regard to [issue]” and she said “Oh hi Elise the best person to speak to would be [x] but he isn’t here so I will leave a message” and I said “Thank you so much Elise!” and then we both started laughing because we had obviously both been trying SO HARD to remain professional while repeating our own name over and over referring to someone else.

    Other people make mistakes. Other people struggle with this. Notice the way you think about those people when they make their mistakes and (assuming you’re not a jerk to everyone else who makes mistakes and I am sure you are not) try and remember it and treat yourself with kindness and understanding when you’re the one that messes up.

    I also have some phone-work specific advice as I have ALWAYS been someone who is nervous about using the phone and it was frequently a point of teasing and comedy (amongst others) in my house growing up because I was scared of the phone and wouldn’t answer it and hated to make phone calls. (Wow hang on my family were jerks. I was like 8 years old, what even the heck?)

    1. When someone tells you their name repeat their name back to them. This will help you remember it. The handshake of a business-to-business call should go something like this.

    “Hello [Company A] this is [Person A]” (or whatever their script is for answering the phone)
    “Hello [Person A] this is [Person B] calling from [Company B] regarding [issue]”
    “Hello [Person B]… [appropriate response to issue]”

    I haven’t worked public-facing phones for a long time but it’s basically the same without the company name on one side!

    Have a pad and pen near you to scribble on at all times and write their name down when they say it and say it back this will make it MUCH easier to remember it.

    If you forget their name you’re allowed to say “I’m so sorry, I’ve forgotten your name already haha” and unless they are a really weirdo jerk they will not judge you or hate you or think anything terrible. They will just tell you their name again.

    2. Sometimes people will not tell you their name and they will just ask to be transferred to someone else and you either have to say “who are you?” or transfer and say “I don’t know who it is”. Here is my magical script for that scenario: “who shall I say is calling?” I use this at LEAST once a day at work and I wish someone had given me this line on my very first day. “Who shall I say is calling?”. I can often accompany this with “Is [pronoun] expecting your call?” and/or “is it something I might be able to help you with?” if I suspect that the person is just asking for someone because they think that person is Important and wants to get past the gatekeeper but actually needs to speak to someone else.

    3. Ugh I had this terrible situation at one point where all the people who worked the support lines were dudes and I am a lady person. And sometimes if support were away or super busy I would answer the phone and then I would basically end up in an argument with someone about whether or not I could help them as they would treat me as a gatekeeper and say “sorry dear can you put me through to one of the guys in support?” and it was amusing but also frustrating because I helped build the product and I am the person that your request will come to and if you tell me your problem I can fix it faster than ANYONE ELSE and instead someone is treating me like I am just a magical transfer machine and I’m feeling stupid and giggling and flubbing names. RIDICULOUS SITUATION IS RIDICULOUS.

    I eliminated the “sorry dear can you put me through to one of the MEN” issue by deliberately lowering the pitch of my voice when answering the phone. I don’t sound like a dude or anything, but for me, using more breath and more diaphragm makes me sound (and, more importantly, feel!) much more comfortable and eventually I was able to project a strong sense of “I AM BUSY AND IMPORTANT” and people started making their requests much more efficient and less patronising. ALSO I started answering the phone with my full name because it makes me sound important. Important people have surnames! I mean I was important and I wasn’t being treated like I held the importance that I actually had. I wasn’t just trying to puff myself up or whatnot. But I really was way too busy and important to be patronised to on the phone and doing those things helped me feel like less of an imposter and everybody wasted less time arguing and more time doing things that needed to be done.

    And I don’t care if you’re a receptionist or your job really is to be a gatekeeper between the people who DEMAND THINGS and the people who FIX PROBLEMS you are still entitled to be treated with respect and you are important. Take a deep breath and use your grown-up voice as you answer the phone! It made an ENORMOUS difference for me!


    1. I like your collection of Other People Also Make Small Mistakes! When I worked in retail and had to answer our store phone from time to time, that kind of thing helped me a lot, too — I could listen to my coworkers answering calls and hear that they, too, occasionally grabbed the wrong mental script and answered the phone “Did you find everything you needed today?”, or forgot which of the two callers on hold was the one they’d been talking to, or — horror of horrors — went on autopilot and said “Love you, bye,” to our district manager. Phones! They’re surprisingly hard!

    2. A line I often use when I’m on the company phone is “I’m sorry, tell me your name again?” delivered pleasantly as if it’s no big deal. Because it’s no big deal. People don’t mind repeating their names. And if it’s a name outside of your name-familiarity bank, a “Could you spell that for me, please?” or “is that F as in Frank or S as in Sam?” (because for sure they sound the same over the phone). Captain’s right: you can take more time than you think you can in call-handling. If another line is ringing, you can put them on hold. Nobody’s freaked out by being on hold (or if they are, it’s their jerkbrain, not you.)

      As a side tangent, I’m reading that phone comfort is a thing that’s widely eroding as we have so quickly transitioned to a text/email-based comm world. LW’s discomfort is less likely due to introversion than it is to lack of practice. And LW ain’t alone in that at all.

    3. Adding love for the phone scripts. I’m an extrovert, but I have INTENSE phone anxiety. In my old job, twice a week I had to cover the reception desk to answer phones and I both looked forward to it joyously (an HOUR where I could BE ON THE INTERNET or READ A BOOK and get paid for it!) and with deep terror that I would Say Something Wrong.

      Here are some additional tips that helped me out:
      1) If you find yourself having to answer a lot of calls with similar scripts, *write them down.* Even if they’re silly. Even if it’s just something like, “I’m sorry, but [boss] is unavailable, but I can take a message. Can you please repeat your name and phone number and a good time to reach you?” You might feel supremely silly reading something so “obvious” off of a piece of paper, but the person on the other end will never know and having the words in front of you will increase your confidence.

      2) Similarly, keep a list of frequently used extensions/instructions/directions in the same place. I know that every second that I left the person on the phone hanging while I rifled through papers to find the extension they needed made me feel like I was just THE WORST and the person on the other end was judging me. In addition to having that list handy, saying something like, “Hold on one second while I look up that extension/information/etc” buys you time and takes off some of the pressure to have it IMMEDIATELY like some sort of phone robot.

      3) As above, absolutely do not feel embarrassed to ask someone to repeat themselves. Just say it as plainly and professionally as you can manage. “I’m sorry, can you repeat your name, please? And your company? Thank you so much.”

      4) If you can, get or make up one of those little memo pads where you fill in “Name, number, time, reason for call” etc and keep it by your phone. Even if you don’t hand your boss/coworker/etc the physical paper, it’s a good way to make sure you get all the pertinent information.

      5) And, as above, remember EVERYONE makes mistakes. I felt so much better about how terrible I thought I was at the phones when I started really paying attention to other people answering their phones and to the people I talked to on the phone and realized that, wow–they’re clearly scrambling for paper and a pen. Oh, they asked me my name three times, I bet they forgot it like I do. I can hear them typing–I bet they’re looking up the extension.

      6) Finally, some people are going to be jerks and they’re going to make you feel awful. There are a lot of people in the world who think that being on the phone gives them free reign to treat the person on the other end like crap because they don’t have to look them in the eye when doing it. People will probably be mean or rude occasionally if you’re not quick enough or don’t have the information they’re looking for. THIS IS NOT A REFLECTION OF YOU, as hard as it is to get your jerkbrain to believe it. It is a reflection of them and their lack of manners and empathy.

    4. About your point 3, here’s my StoryTime:

      I was working at an ISP. I was the person who built, configured and maintained the email system, I knew it better than anyone else. I didn’t usually talk to customers but in rare cases when our (excellent) support staff weren’t able to resolve something, they’d forward the call to me.

      This one time a person from one of our large customers got me on the line and immediately sounded confused.
      “Oh, I wanted to talk to the person in charge of the email systems.”
      “Yes, that’s me.”
      “I mean, the person who does the tech side of things.”
      “Yes, that’s me.”
      “I mean, the guy who really works with them.”
      “Yes, that’s me.”

      After several more repeats of this, me getting more and more pissed off, I had enough. I muted my phone and called around the office: “Can one of you men talk to a client who doesn’t believe me when I say I work as an email sysadmin?” One of the guys took it, and for the rest of the conversation I only heard his side of it:

      “I don’t know.”
      “I have no idea.”
      “I’m afraid that’s something I can’t answer.”
      “No, I don’t know anything about that.”
      “….incoherent yelling heard throughout the office even though he wasn’t on speakerphone…”
      “Well, you already spoke to the one person who really knows everything about email and I don’t think she wants to talk to you again.”

      At which point the client hung up, and then sent a complaint to our boss – who completely backed us up all the way.

  14. Ooh, yeah, I have been there too. I’ve gotten a lot better at taking criticism, though I kind of went through the pendulum where I started at “everything bad anyone says about me ever is true, and I am worthless and will cry” through to the other side of “nope, anything bad anyone says about me is wrong/unfair, and I will ignore it or get angry.” I think I have come to a happier middle ground now though….but sometimes one or the other will surface!

    One thing that really helped me was reframing the criticism not as “them telling me something that is either *right* or *wrong* objectively” but as “this person’s perception of a behaviour.” (I don’t think this would be appropriate in all situations, but for creative pursuits or social situations it can work really well.) Like, if somebody tells me “hey, this wording in the story you wrote was unclear; also I really hate your protagonist’s first name and have a hard time getting my mind around it”…well, me trying to explain “no, the wording is totally clear if you read it *this* way, and the name is not objectively bad” might technically be true. But, that person has given me good information about how these things might be perceived. If the next person I show the story to says the opposite, then maybe it was just that one person. But if they give me the exact same feedback, well, regardless of how ‘right’ I am, I still might want to consider it as “hmm, people aren’t reading the story the way I want them to, maybe I should change that.”

  15. Oh I wish I read this post and the comments ten years ago! There are two things I’d like to share that might be helpful to you.

    1) The person giving you the criticism could very well be as upset as you when they are on the receiving end – or even when they are giving it to you! I can relate so well to what you write, but I was always able to hide it very well. I found out recently that many people in my life have always considered me very capable and intelligent…and boy did that come as a surprise because underneath it I was a mess! I was even the supervisor of a crew of about 20 and it was my JOB to pass on constructive criticism and tell people to get moving, in spite of the quaking in my boots. I quit after a year because it was getting me depressed. Nobody’s perfect, even the people who might seem perfect. Nobody likes to get told that something wasn’t quite up to standard, but nobody likes saying it either.

    2) I had kind of an epiphany about taking things too personally and while it wasn’t quite flipping a switch, this thought was a major turning point for me: “I AM NOT THE CENTER OF ANYONE ELSE’S UNIVERSE.” I know it seems completely obvious, or maybe even cold, but for me it was so freeing. Seriously ponder what it means for a while…to know that you are NOT constantly under a microscope because everyone else around you is busy living their own lives, of which (at work, anyways) you are a very small part! The boss has a comment? It’s one of likely many small things they’re passing on to several employees in order to keep the business running smoothly. Forgot someone’s name on the phone? People make lots of phone calls in a day! They likely forgot about it by the end of the call. A co-worker say something negative? Probably has a lot more to do with their own headspace than your work. You get the idea. It takes a bit of thinking and practice but for me, realizing that I’m just not SO important that everyone around me spend their time examining my every move and filing it all away made life a lot less stressful. Which generally has the happy byproduct of making fewer mistakes. 😉

    (Of course, you really are important though! As everyone is – but it’s you the PERSON that’s important – your being has nothing to do with how many tasks you complete, how many few mistakes you make, or how many questions you get right on a test. You will still be you.)

    (BTW I’m an artist too – it’s still hard to get comments about my work, because art IS personal…but it’s personal to me and no one else is me so of course they might have a differing opinion on it. Also not every work has to be masterpiece. There isn’t and never was an artist in any medium that has produced only masterpieces. And if you think of one – they definitely created more but only the good stuff is still around! That’s what’ll happen to yours and every artist’s work eventually. 🙂 )

    1. I am struggling OH SO HARD with an ‘incident’ that happened EIGHT MONTHS AGO at work. Someone was highly critical of me and to this day I have not been able to decide whether I actually did something wrong, or if that person was unreasonable. I lean towards the latter, and my boss agrees – but the fact remains that I made her very angry and it is part of my job NOT to, so it WAS a failure, no matter what the reasons.

      The thing is, the critiscism started to get very personal (the thing I did wrong was the wording in an e-mail, which has never resulted in anything actually going wrong after the fact which in itself should mean I can stop thinking about it so much because IT DOESN’T MATTER) – she started to list all the ways that EVERYONE on this project I had been working for for a year had this opinion that I acted superior and spoke as though I was better than them all, and they had all gotten together and spoken about how terrible this was and how awful I was (according to her). So this time it feels like I CANNOT rationalise this with “I AM NOT THE CENTER OF ANYONE ELSE’S UNIVERSE.” Because clearly these people were very, very interested in the idea that I was rude, and weird, and annoying. I have actual evidence that these people thought of me in a bad way.

      Now, I’ve talked over and over this in my head, and I know that their opinion of me is completely and utterly wrong. I don’t know how or why they came to the impression, but the fact is it is NOT how I am inside, and I have NEVER had anyone mention this to me before. My feedback has always been how friendly I am and how at ease people feel when I am trying to help them with difficult technical stuff, and how good I am at explaining techy things in more human terms for non-techies.

      So this new feedback was just SO BIZZARE to me that my initial reaction was to completely discount it as nonsense. This team of people do have a reputation for being totally insane, so all signs point to me being fine, here, and this is completely not my problem at all.

      The issue is that this is eight months ago now, and I CANNOT GET OVER IT AT ALL. I am physically afraid of ever encountering this woman ever again. I asked my boss to take me off this project immediately, which happened, and I haven’t seen her since. PErhaps that hasn’t helped, becuase I wasn’t able to get closure or something – wasn’t able to work with her normally again after she had gotten over her anger and chilled out a bit. All she is to me now is this extremely scary and horrible woman who in my head I can only imagine is constantly thinking about how terrible I am and must of course be going on and on about it all the time to anyone who wants to listen. I spent a few months coming to work at a weird time so I wouldn’t encounter her, until I realised my route clearly doesn’t match hers at any time so relaxed. But I do check her calendar to see if I might pass her in the meeting room area and actively avoid stuff because of it. THIS IS TOTALLY STUPID AND I NEED THIS BEHAVIOUR TO STOP NOW. For goodness sakes I was in an online meeting that she was in and I was unable to make any comments because I felt that she would read it and her hate would penetrate me through the computer screen using only the power of her mind-judging.

      WHAT THE HELL BRAIN. I feel like this will never be over, and I may have to leave my job because of it, and it makes me remember all the ways I am useless and I wish wish wish I could get over it and move on 😦

      1. Gloveslap, have you considered the possibility that, to this woman, you might be a bitch eating crackers? By that I mean that she might have taken a dislike to you for some random reason and developed an animosity towards you out of proportion to anything you might have done wrong?

        I ask because I have found in my own life that there is a very small contingent of people who suddenly, instantly, and irrationally dislike me and react much like this woman did, with personal criticism about how I act like I am “better” than they are.

        The thing is, once you become the bitch eating crackers, there’s nothing you can do to fix that. It’s helped me to get past these incidents by realizing that it’s not so much about me as it is a sort of chemical reaction in the other person that can’t be altered. It’s not personal. And it’s not about me, but about them.

        Of course, if these incidents were happening all the time, I would be worried that I was causing them somehow with my behavior, but they come up so infrequently — maybe once every five to ten years — that I can’t be too concerned. If this is the first time that something like this has happened to you, I would chalk it up to “bitch eating crackers” and stop wondering what caused it.

        Incidentally, in my experience, the other people who supposedly think you are soooo awful actually probably have no strong feelings about you at all and just agreed with your critic to get her to shut up. It might be worth it to reach to them in work-appropriate ways on projects and see if you can demonstrate your value to them independent of her. If you choose to go this route, don’t bring up the critic or her comments at all–just engage on the work and be your awesome self. This is one of those situations where the high road will serve you in good stead.

        1. This is something I had considered. It doesn’t help when my logic-dependant brain just cannot accept this. I NEEDS REASONS, DAMMIT! I am hoping that I will get over this eventually. I think I have to do a few more awesomesauce things to prove to myself that I am brilliant at work again to even out the impact she had. The worrying thing is that I am not even going for a promotion that’s come up. I sort of don’t want her to know I got promoted, like it would feel embarrassing? Hella messed up. I just want to hide and be unassuming. Eugh!

          1. Would it help to focus more on the fact that your boss agreed with you on that matter and also that you, as you say, otherwise only ever got positive reactions? That doesn’t directly erase the problem you’re having (where I’m inclined to agree with miss_chevious) but some positive thoughts might help to battle your focus on her and get back into “I’m brilliant at work” territory.

          2. Yeah, I know how it can really eat at you–it’s maddening because you don’t deserve it and it doesn’t make sense. I second the recommendations of Astral and Myrin below, because it’s one thing to be upset by someone being a hosebeast to you, but it’s another thing to hurt yourself by not taking work opportunities because of how this person (who doesn’t have supervisory responsibility over you) is making you feel.

          3. A thing to consider: some people are UNCANNY in their ability to discern the quality about you about which you have some pride, and just ZERO in on that when making criticisms. It’s meant to discombobulate you or deflect from them their own shortcomings. Or both.

            I once worked for a dude who was absolutely incompetent, and widely viewed as such throughout the company. When somebody from another department needed something from mine, they called me (as my reputation for competence was sterling and something I was proud of). One day, one of the financial group called me for data, which I agreed to supply. I told Bozo what I was doing, and he hit the roof. (Besides being lame, he was one of those ‘all other departments are The Enemy’ delights). He couldn’t muster a real argument to deny the requested info, so he screamed at me that forking it over would crash my reputation. His scream took me aback and made me second guess if he might be right. Until I thought it over and saw it for what it was. Manipulation.

      2. I know when I get caught up, hanging on to an incident like this, and I can’t logic myself out of it with all the good explanations exemplified in the other comments to this thread, it usually means that it’s triggering something from the past. Is there someone you could talk through that possibility with?

        But it’s certainly not “stupid”! We’ve evolved a brain that is sensitive to the criticism of others, and in some of us, due to the luck of genetic+environmental factors it’s too sensitive for what we wish and jerkbrain goes into looping mode. It’s really healthy that you do realize that the person/team was toxic!

        Maybe this is one of those “Gift of Fear” types of reactions that is telling you something about the larger organization. Someone did something similar to me in my first couple of months working at an organization. My bosses were totally impressed at the way I handled it and assured me that she was a difficult person. However, it turns out that she was among the lesser of the toxic personalities, which included a leader who frequently screamed the f-bomb at upper management and a director of a department who basically admitted during a professional development team builder that she was malicious and another time openly explained that she planned to ruin someone’s reputation for inconveniencing her. Sooo not a healthy organization.

      3. The thing is, the critiscism started to get very personal (the thing I did wrong was the wording in an e-mail, which has never resulted in anything actually going wrong after the fact which in itself should mean I can stop thinking about it so much because IT DOESN’T MATTER) – she started to list all the ways that EVERYONE on this project I had been working for for a year had this opinion that I acted superior and spoke as though I was better than them all, and they had all gotten together and spoken about how terrible this was and how awful I was (according to her). So this time it feels like I CANNOT rationalise this with “I AM NOT THE CENTER OF ANYONE ELSE’S UNIVERSE.” Because clearly these people were very, very interested in the idea that I was rude, and weird, and annoying. I have actual evidence that these people thought of me in a bad way.

        Um, did you speak to/hear from any of these people about it, or did she provide actual quotes or anything? Because this sounds like it could easily be her projecting, otherwise…

        1. Yeeeahhhh, I was thinking the same thing. Her projecting, or her blowing up minor criticisms to be far more than they were, or her making the whole thing up.

          And if it was as big a deal as she was making it out to be, how did she let this go for a year before saying anything?

          1. The latter is my question exactly. If you let it go on for a year, you really are not allowed to complain. And it increases the probability that you will react like … well like her to something minor.

          2. You’re allowed to complain. As per some great recent discussions here, putting up with something you don’t like doesn’t mean signing a contract agreeing to put up with it always. What’s not okay is delivering your complaint with the fury of a thousand suns going supernova simultaneously.

        2. Exactly what I thought as well. This unpleasant person telling you how everyone secretly hates you really isn’t something that can be considered “actual evidence”. Of course it could be true, but it could also be that she’s simply lying, or it could be something in the middle where others once said they think [x] about you but don’t really have any opinion of you whatsoever.

      4. I have actual evidence that these people thought of me in a bad way.

        No you don’t. All you have is the word of a woman who clearly dislikes you. This woman has proved by her own actions that she is neither discerning, kind, or trustworthy. Her word is most emphatically not evidence.

      5. omg, my ex-boyfriends step daughters treated me this way. They have a whole idea of me that EXACTLY matches “she started to list all the ways that EVERYONE on this project I had been working for for a year had this opinion that I acted superior and spoke as though I was better than them all, and they had all gotten together and spoken about how terrible this was and how awful I was (according to her). ”

        I worked for my Ex’s business for ten years and had to put up with these two mean girls. It finally destroyed our relationship, so at least you are not sleeping with the boss and having to deal with dysfunctional blended family dynamics. You can fall back on a professional atmosphere I hope.

        My Ex is either an Assclown, a Crazymaker or a Darth. He let them walk all over me and believed the lies they told about me, the speculation on my motives (always bad no matter what) and the office gossip usually about how awful I am. The needs of these two step daughters always came before mine. Got tired of them lording over me that I never got backing over them from the EX, even one time when I was right and there was no other solution. That was the day I left for good.

        Trying right now to get a letter of reference from this company, since I have a decade in this industry, but fat chance, right? Ex wants to get back together, I know better, haha

        Do not let those people get to you. The statement that a quiet, thoughtful person can be mistaken for a snob is typical and shows a true lack of understanding. People who do not even try to know you enjoy trying to judge you, it is ridiculous.
        But it hurts when your intentions are true and you are conscientious and try your best to do a great job that they will never appreciate! They are too busy being jealous of you and being the mean girls, just like high school. If your head sticks above the crowd, someone will come along and try to chop it off……

  16. This issue hit so close to home–I have been extremely hard on myself lately (new job!) and my inner critic has been blowing up even the most benign feedback I’ve received. But your advice was amazing and it made my day like a much-needed hug. I actually shed a tear of something I don’t know what to call other than relief. THANK YOU!

  17. I very much identify with this, because I grew up in a family where the main way that everyone related to each other was constantly being on the lookout for each others’ mistakes and then viciously mocking and/or punishing the mistake-maker. The idea that you could learn from your mistakes or forgive someone else’s was simply not present. I thought messing up meant the whole world would end, because when I did mess up, my mom would try to make my world end (up to and including disowning me, twice). I never learned any coping skills for dealing with criticism, just that I had to be superhumanly perfect or all love would be withdrawn.

    LW, I don’t know if you come from a background like that, but I bet there’s something in your past that therapy could help you unravel over time. It’s been super helpful for me in identifying when I’m equating criticism with total withdrawal of love and security or beating myself up over something using the words that my parents would use.

    In the meantime, a short-term trick that is sometimes helpful for me is pretending that a friend made the mistake that I just made or received the criticism that I just received. Would I think my friend should be ashamed for doing X or that she was a worthless person for doing Y? No, so why would I apply that to myself?

    I also very much agree with the Captain’s brief wallowing allowance. If, with practice, you can say something like, “Okay, now I know to do that next time” and keep your cool in public for a few minutes, then you can go feel upset in the bathroom, in your car, or, once you’ve practiced a lot, when you get home and you’re all alone. Feeling embarrassed about your reaction to criticism only fuels the shame spiral, so let yourself be upset about it without telling yourself that that reaction is unacceptable. Paradoxically, it’ll help you stop feeling upset sooner, especially with practice.

    1. Me too, me too! One of my sisters used to mock me mercilessly if I didn’t know what a word meant. So for YEARS I would NEVER admit that I didn’t know something. Not knowing something = stupid = failure. Basically, show any weakness and the circling vultures start divebombing. In my family, being with the vultures meant you weren’t the one being attacked so that became the MO. Find someone else’s weakness and attack before my own weaknesses are revealed. :/

    2. Jedi hugs from a person who once ruined Christmas by wearing the wrong coat. Also, your description of your family dynamics sounds like my elementary school dynamics, where public shaming of mistakes by both peers and teachers was the norm. So many valid sources of this angst. I like your tips!

  18. LORD GOD this one hits close to home. I think many of us with ongoing mental health issues struggle fucking MIGHTILY against our internal critic. (I once had a therapist say to me, “You have a whole panel of judges in your head.” At the time, the comment just irritated me, because of COURSE I do, how could I do anything RIGHT unless I RELIGIOUSLY AND FAITHFULLY AND VIOLENTLY scrutinized and criticized every possible detail of my life that I had gotten wrong????)

    An exercise that I recommend you try is thinking about how you would understand the criticism you just received if it were given to one of your friends — someone you love and care for and would like to see do well. This practice might not help in the moment, but it’s a good way to frame comments in a way that make it easier to see if they are intended to be helpful.

    I recently had some of my writing go up on a website that has seen a fairly vicious influx of MRA trolls in their comments section. The site makes money off of clicks, so the administration has no particular incentive to moderate or keep their comments sections safe for anyone. I was pretty scared, to be honest — some opinionated authors on that site have attracted hate followers that put long personal attacks after every piece they write.

    What I did was go to a bunch of other articles and read their comments and think: is this justified? Is this person actually criticizing what was written, or are they bringing some agenda or grudge to this conversation? Does this writer deserve this amount of disrespect and lack of kindness? The answer is almost invariably “No, of course not, these comments are absurd, and show a complete lack of empathy.” (A lot of the posts on this site are about people’s personal experiences, and a favorite tactic of trolls is to inform them that A. their experience is stupid and no one cares and B. the only reason they had that experience is because they are incompetent and fail at being an adult.) Sometimes seeing someone else be criticized can help you practice skills for weighing your own criticism more fairly and not giving it too much weight.

    LW: you have as much right to make mistakes and learn as anyone else in this world.

  19. I haven’t read through the whole thread, a script that has been helpful to me in the past in dealing with both concern trolling and constructive criticism is simply saying, “Thanks for the feedback.” I’ve said that to both a boss when he had good criticism (I still got flustered, and luckily I could say it in an email and then calm down before talking to him further) and to an aunt who was trying to tell me how to live my life. (“MAKE HIM PROPOSE NOW.” LOLNOPE)

  20. “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.’”

    Good advice, and not only for that situation. So many uncomfortable moments in my life could have been solved if I’d just gone meta.

    Many years ago, my roommates and I decided to throw a party. My roommates had just gone to Japan together, and they were planning to show slides of the vacation when the party started. I thought that would be fine for the guests who knew my roommates, but not so much for the new friends I’d made online, who didn’t. So I came up with a brilliant plan. I told my online friends the party would begin an hour later than it would actually begin.

    Brilliant … except that I wasn’t a big partygoer and didn’t remember that people tend to show up at these things late. So the slideshow didn’t get going until the mutual friends had been there a while, and people in my circle started trickling in. I remember one dude, who I’d never met in person ’til that night, staring at the slideshow with this “What the hell?” expression on his face. I just stood there in embarrassment, trying not to look too embarrassed.

    Obviously, I should have just told him and everyone else what had happened. To this day, I’m not sure why this didn’t occur to me at the time.

  21. LW, you indicate that you identify as a woman, so I (as a woman who has also dealt with this) want to offer this perspective on why you might potentially have such paper thin skin (as you put it).

    The short answer is sexism. Particularly the form of sexism wherein society (mainly men) put women up on a pedestal and then lick their chops in anticipation of when they topple.

    Basically–we women don’t get to be wrong. As women, any mistake we make is cast as evidence of the inherent failings in our entire gender.* As a woman of the sciences, I understand this very, very well–my (normal, completely understandable) errors, mistakes, or struggles, were all just more evidence to the (male) gatekeepers of my profession that I (and every other woman) was simply inherently unsuitable for the work. STEM professions are an easy place to point out this kind of mentality, but it exists across the board in basically any profession, art, or hobby. Remember that time in, say, elementary school, when Little Bobby sneered and said you couldn’t possibly get the basketball through the hoop, because you were a girl? And you said “Yes I can!” What did he say if you missed the shot?

    Confirmation bias is a powerful thing.

    As a result, pretty much every woman I know–particularly smart, ambitious women who chafe the most strongly against the roles society expects of them–get very savvy to the fact that any mistake or perceived inability on their part will be used against them to justify why they’re unsuited to be doing what they’re trying to do. Viewed through this lens, every criticism, even, no, ESPECIALLY, legitimate criticism, becomes a potential disaster. Not only (you believe) are you proving society/dudes RIGHT when they told you you were getting ideas above your station, you’re potentially fucking it up for other women in the world, too! You’re just giving sexist assholes more ammunition for their sexist asshole rifles!

    Damn, that’s a lot of pressure. No wonder our hackles go up at the first whiff of critique.

    I don’t have much advice to add, really, beyond what the Captain’s already said. That advice is solid, it will do you well. But I think it’s important to point out the role that sexism and gender dynamics play. As summed up in this xkcd comic (http://xkcd.com/385/), men get to be individuals, with individual strengths, weaknesses, and (most importantly) the capacity to learn–while women are fixed stereotypes incapable of growth. If you’re not already perfect, then you’re a complete failure.

    Of course you’re a person, though, not a stereotype, and your mistakes and learning process don’t define your worth or the worth of women as a whole. There are people (mostly men) who will try to cast it that way, though. (The fuckers.)

    LW, I don’t know how much any of these dynamics play into your fear of criticism, but I bet it’s at least a part of it. I have yet to meet any woman who has never felt the weight of this particular catch-22. Good luck. I hope you grow ever more comfortable in your own (maybe not so paper thin?) skin.

    *This dynamic applies to other marginalized groups too, of course, and not just women.

    1. Thank you saying this, and so well. That xkcd really struck me when I first saw it, and I’ve shared it with many women who knew exactly how it feels.

    2. agree so, so much. Teaching upper level undergraduate labs where most/all my students are men it becomes quickly apparent which ones are asking questions because they legit want to know the answer, and which ones are asking questions because they hope to “trap” me into saying the wrong answer to “prove” (unsure. That women can’t do chemistry/math? That they are smart? Both? Something else? I don’t particularly care.) It gets old, FAST.


      another thin-skinned woman who gets flustered/cries easily.

    3. Also, I think boys are trained in not showing emotion from very early on, and girls aren’t. I saw a kid fall over in the park recently and start crying and his father pretty much refused to hug him or comfort him but stood at a distance and told him to be a brave boy. A BOY, he kept stressing. And I was enraged on the kid’s behalf, but, it kind of WORKED — a minute later, he was happily running around, and the dad was rewarding him for that. So, the kid had learned he could get through an upsetting moment on his own and falling over was not the end of the world, which was kind of good, but also that expressing distress was unmanly and shameful (and implicitly, that’s how to think of other people who do it). Which was not so good at all.

      But people mostly don’t do this to little girls. Not to say that every crying little girl receives sympathy, but she’s less likely to be a message of “you are not supposed to do that, ever, learn how to not do it, now.” Which is good, in some aspects. But in adulthood, suddenly the message that you are never supposed to cry, ever, comes in loud and clear, in fact, it’s suddenly a lot WORSE for a woman to cry as it’s seen as being not only weak and incompetent but also probably manipulative. But you haven’t been trained since you were a toddler in how not to do it, and so you can’t just turn it off at will.

      Which just adds an extra level of pressure to be perfect, because if you fail at something and evince distress then that’s yet another layer of failure and it spools off into a vicious cycle.

  22. Oh man, did I need to hear this. I am awful at hearing criticism, especially when it is totally valid, which is actually putting a serious crimp on the Thing I Want To Do With My Life (writing). I need criticism to improve, and intellectually I know this, but Jerkbrain is there all IF ANYONE FINDS SOMETHING WRONG IN YOUR WORK THAT MEANS THEY THINK YOU SUCK. WHICH MEANS YOU SUCK. DO YOU WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW HOW MUCH YOU SUCK? So I just don’t write anything, which then leads to my Jerkbrain sneering at me for being such a pathetic weakling that I can’t even entertain the possibility of criticism. You cannot reason with Jerkbrains. They know no logic.

    The flipside of this is that yesterday I was on the receiving end of some really vicious criticism (shading to bullying) that I 100% *did not* deserve, and I figured that I must deserve it because nobody’s ever said it to me before, which must mean that it’s the kind of criticism I hide myself away from and therefore is something people always wish they could say to me but can’t because I never give them the chance to. So I had a bunch of people who saw what had happened spring to my defence and I was totally shocked. Between that and this post I am resolving to work on taking criticism better.

  23. When the feeling of ‘gaah’ associated with making a mistake, or being criticised, overwhelms attempts to do it better next time, I find it helps to focus on it as a physical sensation, in a mindfulness type way. So ‘I’m feeling sick and faint while I take this call. I can work through it though’, rather than, ‘I’m feeling awful cos I suck at taking calls, cue thinking about all the ways in which I am a terrible person.’

    Hmm. Not sure this would work for everyone, but the satisfaction I get from dealing with a bad feeling while doing a difficult task means that next time, I have something positive to associate with the process. ‘Go me! Not only did I write down the caller’s name, but I totally didn’t faint!’

    1. This is one of the recommended methods for dealing with panic attacks, at the very least, so I think it is probably widely applicable to many kinds of anxiety! And I agree with you. It is much easier to deal with the physical reaction when you view it through that lens because it is easier not to view the physical reaction as you. It’s just some shit your body is doing, that it will eventually stop doing, and you just have to be patient.

  24. Just a quick thing on the answering the phone (I hate it and I had a job for three years in a telephone company’s customer service department so, yeah) – write a script. I don’t mean you answer the phone like an automaton, write yourself out a script with a greeting, standard questions (may I take your name? And what number are you calling from?) and include in that script a bit where you repeat the person’s name back to them before transfer. It’ll feel weird at first but after a month or so it’ll be so ingrained that you will have developed the habit of remembering what you need to remember.

    Of course you then start repsonding with the scriopt during casual phonecalls (I once answered my alarm clock), but that’s a different problem.

    And joining the love for “eaten a food”. I needed this phrase in my life.

  25. I am hopefully not the only one who think its effed up that crying is so looked upon, seen as weak and bad and unprofessional.
    I think this is deeply gendered sheit and that annoys me.
    If the crying person doesnt throws a tantrum or tries to pressure or guilt someone, then begeezuz, crying is a reaction to stress or things..
    So crying doesnt makes a person weak or bad or else, their body just react in other ways. Maybe people feel touched by the display of tears as a sign of distress but dont want to feel that and therefor try to avoid it? (Its hard to explain my thought here, english is not my first language)
    I have the feeling crying is seen as a weak and ultimately female thing-its another part of the gender roles which need change.
    Crying is ok if it happens. It doesnt signify unprofessionality!(if you attack people or shout at them-that would be and can be unlearned. But crying per sé-not a problem.)

  26. One thing that I find helps when I’m being super self-critical, is to imagine how I would react if *a friend* were in that situation. I wouldn’t be telling *them* that they are horrible and stupid. I’d be reassuring them that it was just one little mistake and no one really minds, and reminding them of all the other times when they did something well, even that exact same thing. It’s hard, but it’s good practice to treat yourself like a cherished friend!

  27. I totally feel your pain, LW. I used to work part time for Child Protective Services as their appeals coordinator, and then I was bumped to full time and they supplemented my extra working hours with administrative projects. The supervisor for the admin part of my position and I were constantly at odds with one another. She would constantly ask for my CPS schedule so she knew when I would be out of the office (I worked in 3 different counties, so I would spend a day a week at each county for CPS). She never followed the schedule and constantly complained about my CPS time. She eventually went to the Assistant Director, who had NO idea what my job was, let alone how hard I was working to keep my supervisor abreast of my schedule. The AD sent a nasty email to me about my CPS/admin time and I was, notably, upset by this. It happened on one of my CPS days for the county my admin supervisor worked in, so she came up to talk to me and when she noticed I was upset, she asked what was wrong. I managed to calmly tell her that I did not want to talk about it. She pressed, and I held my ground. Later, I guess she figured out what had happened because she asked me to come see her and when she still would not take no for an answer, I pointed out that she was the one who kept telling me that I needed to do admin work on admin days and CPS work on CPS days (even though she would CONSTANTLY pull me off CPS…but that’s another rant entirely), and since it was a CPS day, I did not want to distract from my CPS work, but I would be happy to discuss it with her when it was an admin day again (i.e. when I calmed down). When we did finally talk on the admin day, she told me that was “unprofessional.” My therapist praised me for standing up for myself and not making the situation worse by trying to maintain my temper against a woman who had already caused me more stress and anxiety than I really needed to deal with.

    The numbered advice CA gives you really hit home for me due to this and other situations, particularly numbers 2-4. Thankfully I got out of that job and have found myself in a much more supportive environment. But sometimes you really do have to just stand up for yourself, take a minute and reassess things. I know a lot of people, especially bosses, can expect immediate responses or actions, but I think if you can find the professional equivalent to “GTFO or leave me alone,” your boss should respect that you’re trying to avoid an altercation. In my situation, one thing I would have done differently is to point out that I didn’t want to talk to her right then and there, as I knew I was too angry to do so in a coherent and respectful manner. I’m not sure it would have made a difference, some people, like that particular supervisor, are very much ingrained to be “my way or the highway.”

    Also, I hate answering phones too, or cold calling people. I agree with Lethe who suggested writing a script. I have a pretty standard greeting for answering phones, but I ALWAYS write a script when I have to call someone I’ve never spoken to before. I even do that for personal things like scheduling appointments because I have THAT much phone anxiety.

  28. I have a really hard time with phone calls. Like, a lot. It has to do with a lot of tl;dr about my mom, but the long story short is, I really hate talking on the phone.

    And then I started $job, which gave no indication of having to do phone stuff, and then had to call people for surveys. It was bad.

    Here are things that helped:
    1) SCRIPTS. It being a survey, I had a script to follow, but you know, the people I was calling? Did not have the script, and would start talking about other things. So that was bad. I basically kept going “uh huh” and all that until I could get back onto the script. Was this a good customer service thing? Uh, no, but I hadn’t been trained at all to do phone calls. I had to keep getting people back on track so they could answer the rest of the questions.

    So that was a bad experience all around. BUT SCRIPTS. Scripts are great, because most of the time, I am not doing surveys or things where I have to get someone to stop derailing me doing my job (I am so, so, so bad at talking to people, ugh.)

    2) Be prepared and write stuff down. When I call someone and when I take a call, I am always sitting at a computer or have a pad of paper in front of me. Always. If I do not, and it’s not my sister calling me to say hi, I let the call go to voicemail if it’s on my cell phone. Thankfully my workphone is next to my computer, so it’s never an issue.

    When I am calling someone, I know in advance the purpose of the call and what I want to get out of them. I write this down. This could be something like “call $doctor to ask about test results”. I know I will reach the front desk. I will say “hi, I’m $name, I’m a patient of $doctor, I saw doctor on $date and wanted to follow-up to ask about my test results.” The outcome of the call will probably be that the front desk transfers me to a nurse, where I will repeat my spiel and either get my results or be told when they will come in. Then I will say thank you and hang up. I will write down the names of the people I spoke to, the date and time of the call (this is good for follow-ups! Especially if you get the same person again, so you can say “hi, it’s $name, I spoke to you yesterday”), and all the information I received.

    For personal stuff, I will usually e-mail this information to myself, so I have a thread going, and then I’ll transfer it into a Word doc, especially for complicated things that involve talking to a lot of people. If this is a work call, I’ll take notes in whatever I’m taking notes in for work.

    If I’m receiving a call, I write down what it’s about, the name as best I can, and basically just write absolutely everything down. It helps so much.

    3) Forgive myself and try to lower the stakes. I have anxiety and depression, which is unhelpful in many ways, but the nice thing about it is, I am aware that no one cares about me and no one will remember me. So, if I totally embarrass myself on the phone, I can say “well, they won’t remember it in a month”. (Unless it becomes one of those things where they dooooo and I become That Story of, “lol, can you believe this person who called”). But for the most part, people tend to treat polite phone calls as ephemeral and forget them. Unless you’re being rude and abusive and terrible in your phone manner, they will forget you. They won’t remember that you repeated yourself a few times or you got their name wrong in a couple months, unless it’s something like “ugh, people always mispronounce my name” ,but, they, that’s in aggregate, and you can try to make sure you’re not in that aggregate by doing name pronunciation strategy stuff.

    You will make mistakes, but people will mostly forget them! (This only sometimes helps me, but I’m getting better.)

    1. I have some similar issues and I write down a lot of stuff too. I’m really visual so I usually will do stuff like write my own address down so I can just read it off instead of trying to remember it without seeing it.

      I totally worry about being awkward and nervous on the phone. Sometimes I get a little chuckle out of the person on the other end, and I tend to overly apologize for the inconvenience too, but yeah, it helps me to relax when I overhear other people talking to restaurant staff or the Dr’s receptionist. They are pretty rude sometimes! I’m definitely not the most annoying person that whoever I’m calling has encountered today and remembering that really helps.

  29. Can I recommend a book? It’s about how to process feedback without falling apart or tuning it out, and it helped me a lot in a situation similar to yours. It’s called “Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Even When It’s Off-Base, Unfair, poorly Delivered, and Frankly, You’re Not in the Mood)” by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, and it’s largely about how to separate yourself from the emotional pitfalls of receiving feedback and make it work for you.

  30. Awesome advice from the Captain, as always! In the academic science business, we are subject to constant harsh criticism of our work and our professional identities: by grant peer-review panels, manuscript peer-reviewers and journal editors, and hiring, promotion, and tenure committees. And under some circumstances, such harsh criticism can appear (or, rarely, even be) determinative of our ability to continue to have a job.

    One way that I have adapted to this ongoing state of affairs is to allow myself to very explicitly consider the worst-case outcome the criticism could lead to, and to remind myself that even that worst-case scenario would be unpleasant, but tolerable, and that I would still have all kinds of awesome things in my life.

  31. I am similarly hyper self-critical, and my therapist suggested something I found helpful: at the end of every day, as you’re heading home, praise yourself. In your head (or out loud, if you’re in a car by yourself or once you get home) literally say “I did well today. I was good at ____. I handled ____ problem well, and I did a really good job with _____.” It felt dumb at first to walk home thinking “I did a good job today, well done me”, but honestly, it helps.

    Even if you feel like you had a terrible day at work (which I often do), there is always SOMETHING that you did well. For you it might be something like: “I did really well today. When that man called for Janine, I talked to him professionally, and then I transferred him to Janine without dropping the call. When the spreadsheet I worked on had an error, I fixed it and the new version looked good. When my boss came over to talk to me about the error, I didn’t cry and I thanked him for the feedback.”

    Yeah, maybe you didn’t remember the caller’s name to tell Janine, and there was an error in the first version of the spreadsheet, and you went really red while your boss was giving you feedback. But you ALSO did some things right. Us hyper-critical people tend to gloss over all the things we do right as “yeah, whatever, part of today did not contain screw ups but WHY DID I SCREW UP THIS ONE PART AND SUCK AT EVERYTHING.” It really helped me to focus on things I do well as not just error-free and thus neutral, but as POSITIVE things. The hyper-critical mindset treats life like there’s a scorecard on which you can only lose points and never win them. Start giving yourself more credit for things you do well, and it will probably help you view the places you mess up (as we all do) as a little less devastating.

  32. I am also SUPER bad at dealing with both praise and criticism. It took a lot of time, therapy, and self-analyzing to figure out that this is because I believe I am a fraud and a terrible person.

    My jerkbrain tells me that deep down inside me in an ugly cave that is dark, freezing cold, claustrophobic, and just not-a-pleasant-place-to-be, hides the real me, a pale, pathetic, hideous creature that hisses at light. My jerkbrain tells me that this is the real me, a terrible creature with sociopathic tendencies who operates the rest of me, fooling the world into believing Revolver is a good person.

    To me, both criticism and praise poke holes in that cave, getting too close for comfort to revealing RevolverCreature if only to myself, not the world.

    In my jerkbrain’s fantasy, criticism serves as a reminder that RevolverCreature is the REAL me, and that my attempts to ignore the reality of the creature in the cave are futile. That little bit of light gets the attention of RevolverCreature and I’m forced to face it, and feel despair and guilt and general awfulness that the mirror is showing my TRUE self.

    Praise does the same thing. Praise reaches RevolverCreature and it glories in the knowledge that it’s safely ensconced in its cave, operating this body and fooling everyone. So once again, I’m forced to face RevolverCreature and try to deal with the overwhelming sense of being a fraud, that if only the praiser knew the REAL Revolver, they wouldn’t give me praise.

    So for me, it’s not necessarily that I don’t deal well with criticism because I think the criticizer thinks I’m a terrible person…it’s more that I’m forced to remember that I AM a terrible person, deep down in that dark cave. Which then gives me a flood of uncomfortable and bad emotions that spirals down and down.

    My jerkbrain really is a jerk.

    But by imagining this scenario, I can actively work to combat it. I can force holes in the cave, to vanquish the RevolverCreature who is the REAL fraud and to free poor RevolverTrue from its imprisonment. It’s hard work, and I’ve only poked a few holes, but it’s already helping me deal with criticism and praise slightly better.

    So I hear ya, LW.

    1. In my neighboring cave, The Cave of Shoulds:

      -Achievements, accolades, accomplishments, doing excellent work on something is just the bare minimum that I should be doing. Celebrating them is showy, egotistical, self-indulgent.
      -Failures are 100% failures of effort, I should have succeeded. At everything. I should have known in advance how every single thing would turn out and planned accordingly.
      -Only work that is unpleasant “counts.” Things that come easily or from a natural talent or aptitude don’t count, neither do things that are enjoyable. So, writing, blogging, teaching, bringing in a film on time and under budget while having safe, enjoyable shooting days for cast & crew (i.e. what I do) don’t count.
      -Praise is something people who don’t know better say to be nice, it can’t be counted on or listened to or believed.
      -Only criticism, and only the worst, most vile mean criticism is “real.”

      That cave sucks big time and I hate it.

      1. The Cave of Shoulds. I think my parents lived there. Those first two points and a variation of the third describe my childhood, so naturally, the last two points govern my adulthood. Bleah.

        1. My mom still lives there; it is the way the world *is* and she defends that world with a formidable army of stubborn scripts. Maybe they were neighbors? Luckily the Captain and Awkward Army have created a a safer village, and all the things mentioned so far today actually do work in countering the jerkbrain we’ve internalized!

      2. “Only work that is unpleasant “counts.” Things that come easily or from a natural talent or aptitude don’t count, neither do things that are enjoyable. So, writing, blogging, teaching, bringing in a film on time and under budget while having safe, enjoyable shooting days for cast & crew (i.e. what I do) don’t count.”

        I have this one really really bad. Finally I’m going to change careers to something that doesn’t feel hard (spoiler: that means I like doing it too in addition to whatever aptitude I might have).

      3. “Only work that is unpleasant ‘counts.’”

        My Cave of Shoulds is just across the street from yours. In my cave, I’m not good at something unless I can do it with minimal effort. I’ll take pride in a job well done regardless of how hard it was, but if it was hard, I fear that I’m not cut out for that kind of work.

        I try to stay clear of that cave, but still find myself renting a room there from time to time.

      4. In my 50s and finally, mostly, left the woulda, coulda, shoulda behind. How did we learn this and internalize it so deeply? I stopped trying to figure that out and now just work on changing it.

  33. In support the Captain’s words about how being terrible at something is not some intrinsic trait:

    I’ve always, always been a procrastinator. Time management was not a skill I possessed, and I mostly got by through school on a combination of luck, talent, and being able to put in 20 hours of work in a crunch.

    At my current job, I was really, really bad at managing my projects. For a while, I was able to deal with by panicked overwork as deadlines loomed. However, eventually my frantic doggy-paddling stopped working, and I dropped the ball on a bunch of deadlines. (It doesn’t help that my instinctive way of handling stress is “ignore it and maybe it will go away”, which really doesn’t work when the stress source is late work.) Basically, I messed up in a pretty huge way.

    So my boss called me in to his office, and went over what the issue was, and what needed to improve. I cried, since I was overwhelmed and stressed out and hate disappointing people. (And to your fears about being “that girl who cried at the office”: It’s never come up again, and if he mentioned it to anyone, no one ever noticeably changed their behavior towards me)

    But then he went over strategies for how to a) catch up with the existing work, and b) what we could do to stop it from happening in the future. In this particular case, we gave a couple of projects to other people to lighten my backlog, and scheduled weekly meetings to go over my workload and make sure I was prioritizing things correctly and to identify any scheduling problems before they snowballed. After a couple of months, I started getting in the habit of doing all this on my own, and after a year I’d actually gained a reputation as one of the more reliable engineers in the company. I’m still not perfect at time management, by any means, but I’d say I’m at least competent at it, instead of terrible, despite my inherent procrastinatory tendencies.

    It is entirely possible to improve at things that you may think are based on inherent traits. You may need to take some time to figure out what strategies work for you, but it can be done. Even if you screw it up royally, there’s often still room to fix it an move on. And remember that unless your boss is a jerk, they want you to succeed as much as you want to, since it makes them look good.

    1. Awesome! (And yay boss – but also: yay you for sticking to the plan and doing so well with it!)

      Two things that helped me: my native mode is optimistic: if a journey takes between 15 and 25 minutes, I’d leave 15 minutes before I need to have arrived. And a lot of time that made me late. Now I’m aiming for 25 and treat any extra time I gain as a gift of ‘me time’. This was hard to learn, and I’m still working on it.

      But the really groundbreaking thing is keeping a list, not of to-do items, but of next steps. For any project I’m dealing with, I have a) a masterlist of all the steps that need to be done (including who needs to do stuff and who needs to sign off) and a single list of ‘where are we’. That means I can always look at it and know where every project is, chase up the moment things start to be late (I write down ‘if not received by Friday, nudge [person]’) and I have small things that need to be done at some point for when I find myself with a spare hour (or when I’m simply too worn out to do anything major). That means, of course, that ‘tedious thing that will eat an hour and which isn’t due for another month’ gets done well in time, which means it never adds to my workload/stress at an inopportune moment.

      Being in control of your workload is an awesome feeling. Doesn’t mean I never scramble to make deadlines, but I rarely feel overwhelmed by ‘I have no idea what to do next’.

  34. THAT IS SOME REALLY GOOD ADVICE, JENNIFER. *writes all of it down and posts it up on wall*

    Seriously, I can definitely use that entire structure of responding to criticism.

  35. I totally hear you, LW. Some commenters above have mentioned growing up in families that pointed out every mistake–for me, it was school, especially middle school. Since I was the only nerdy girl and I didn’t have any friends, I built up perfection like this kind of weird single-direction armor–like, fine, I couldn’t dress myself and I didn’t know any of the music or the TV and I had no real friends and no idea what to say a lot of the time, but MY WORK WOULD BE PERFECT. ALWAYS. And people could say horrible things about everything else I said or did or wore, but in that one arena, I was invincible. Which of course led to me being totally unable to handle any legitimate criticism, because if one thing was wrong then I guess MY ENTIRE IDENTITY HAD CRUMBLED and it was just time to curl up and cry forever.

    I still struggle a lot with this, and knowing that it’s ridiculous doesn’t help that much. I want to second the Captain’s points really hard, and then also what someone said above about mindfulness–one thing that helps me when I’m freaking out about something that isn’t actually affecting me is Zen. To reframe something a few people have said, one of my favorite Zen people, Thich Nhat Hanh, says that when you’re having an emotion, like anger or fear, don’t say, “Go away, fear!” Say, “Hello, fear.” Acknowledging to myself, “Okay, I am having a feeling about this, and it is this feeling” does a LOT more to calm myself down than trying to force the feeling to go away.

    Another thing that helps me after the fact when I’m beating myself up is something my dad quoted to me (which I cannot find on the internet, but which is definitely a good representation of Buddhist principles), which is, “Don’t suffer things three times.” Which is to say, if there’s something that might go badly, I’ll worry about it beforehand, endure it while it’s happening, and then go over it and over it and OVER IT in my head afterwards, so I’m suffering the thing (at least) three times. When, in fact, it only happened once, and the other two times, it’s just my brain. Or as the Captain says, my Jerkbrain. For me at least, just repeating to myself, “I’m suffering this three times” is weirdly helpful.

    Finally, this is a little out of context, but do you ever read unfuckyourhabitat.tumblr.com? I think that her principles are really awesome for life in general, which is to say, perfectionism is counterproductive, and expecting yourself to do a small imperfect thing is WAY better than expecting yourself to do ALL OF THE THINGS PERFECTLY.

    …I just started to close this with an apology for how my advice might not be perfect (OMG THERE IS NOTHING IN HERE ABOUT DEALING WITH CRITICISM IN THE MOMENT BECAUSE I STILL DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO THAT UGH WHY AM I A FAILURE). /o\ We all need to work on this more, is what I’m saying.

    1. Jerkbrain twin!

      I just had the realization, with the help of my therapist, that I had my entire identity wrapped up in being intelligent. No matter what else I was bad at, I was smart. And if I wasn’t smart in some situation (THE FIRST TIME no practice allowed), everything just came crashing down and I was worthless.

      I just figured this out. I am 32.

      LW, what kind of leeway do you give other people for their mistakes? I am willing to bet you are far more forgiving of everyone else in the world than you are of yourself. But they are probably giving you the same leeway! Some people won’t; some people are impossible to please. But most recognize that we are all only human. And most would tell you that people who are always perfect are insufferable. =)

      I do still keep score: it’s okay that I forgot that new person’s name, but I did remember someone else and anyway she forgot my name too. It’s probably still unhealthy but it’s better than “I am irredeemably terrible forever.” Breathe and rejoice in your humanity!

  36. I have had a long relationship with jerkbrain and mistakes (sometimes mistakes caused by jerkbrain) and so have a trick that may help in the moment:

    Take a breath. When you’re receiving criticism in the moment and it’s getting hard to think and/or you feel emotions welling up, take a big deep and let it out slowly. This doesn’t have to be a loud or lengthy process, but it will help you release some of the tension in your body and you may have an easier time not just reacting, but appropriately responding to the other person. Diaphram (or ujjayi breathing: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ujjayi_breath) will help a lot.

    In addition, you may want to consider a brief daily meditation practice. I found in the past if I was already on the stressed side, it would be easy for something like criticism to ruin my entire day. Meditation can really help put your internal state back at a happy neutral. I have had good results with the offerings at the Art of Living Center, which is an international organization and teaches classes pretty much everywhere: http://www.artofliving.org/us-en . There are tons of other excellent ones, though, so if you are inclined you could try something else or even stream a guided meditation from the web.

    I am a huge fan of counselling but this may be an additional help. Good luck, LW!

  37. I feel this so hard. Also, the caves mentioned upthread. Good news: it can be vanquished!! Lots of cognitive behavioral therapy + “vitamin P” (prozac) helped me immensely and now I’m pretty happy and functional and very much of a growth mindset where still being at the learning and making mistakes stage is ok…we’re working towards that being preferable to perfection.

    One epiphany I had was while working through “The Artist’s Way”. It’s not for everyone (lots of parts of it were “not for me” but still useful exercises), but one thing that really stuck with me is the idea that actually sometimes you’re SUPPOSED TO BE bad at your art/work/whatever. The thing that makes a writer a writer is that they write. Regression to the mean and the law of averages (<-yeah, scientist, not artist over here) mean that writers cannot possibly write well all the time. But what makes them writers is that they write. Sometimes (often!) they write BADLY. And that is not only OK, it is WHAT THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO DO. Because what makes them writers is that they write, even when they do it badly. Ditto for musicians, scientists, runners, whatever. Sometimes the stuff they did badly even helps them get better. WHAT?!?! (*mind boggles*)

    I have clutched that idea so tightly ever since I learned it and it has done wonders for squashing my perfection-monger.

    Also, I have this mantra hanging above my desk: "The perfect is the enemy of the good." If that doesn't make sense at first glance, read it with a silent "enough" at the end.

  38. I’m in the middle of getting chapters of my WIP novella critiqued online and I can tell you that the Captain’s advice is SPOT. ON. And here’s the thing, the online critiques I’m receiving are things I have actively sought out and asked for, and I STILL find some of them upsetting.

    Some things that help me in that specific circumstance include:

    1 – Before receiving the critique/criticism, prepare myself for it. Remind myself that being told you’re doing something wrong is a good thing, because it gives you the chance to do better, and that people wouldn’t tell you how to improve if they didn’t care and want to support your growth.
    2 – Skim read the criticism first, instead of poring through it. Then save a copy, and read it properly later on at my leisure. At this point, regardless of how I feel, I’ll thank the critter for taking the time to offer a critique, and will assure them I value their comments.
    3 – Print a copy of it off and go through it with highlighter pens, marking things off any invalid criticism (such as, in my writing, someone complaining that I wrote a character who uses “they” pronouns, or whose critiques come down to the fact that they are judging my British spelling and word use by their American expectations, or any criticism that amounts to them rewriting my work in their own personal writing style).
    4 – Highlighting the little, easy things they mentioned in a different colour (such as spelling errors, grammar mistakes, mixing pronouns for characters, and other simple typing errors that I missed). Then fixing them, because that takes very little time and makes me feel productive.
    5 – Finally, a day or two later, highlighting the bigger issues in a third colour. That can include things like say, concerns that my pacing is consistently off, or that I’ve made perspective errors that might mean I need to read up on POV again, or concerns that the story is flawed in some large way.
    6 – I will then deal with each larger issue mentioned one at a time. In each one I will consider – is it fair, is it relevant (Maybe the fact that a REAL non-rotating planet would be an atmosphere-less hell-hole is something I was already aware of but discounted because no sci fi is totally realistic and suspension of disbelief is a part of any spec fic reading experience), and how much work do I want to do to fix it? And then I will act accordingly.


    Remember that for work environments, it’s okay to ask supervisors to modify how they give you criticism. Some people respond best to criticism by email, as they can distance themselves from the immediate emotional impact of it… or at least not react emotionally in front of the person giving it. Some people like it best if mentioned casually in the middle of a conversation. Some like to set aside time for a careful discussion so they can prepare. Some like a mixture of these things, or something entirely different. A good supervisor, trainer or coach will work with you on this if you tell them, honestly, “I have trouble accepting criticism. It upsets me and I take it too much to heart. This is something I am trying to work on so I can do better at my work. To help me work on this, could you [INSERT REASONABLE REQUEST HERE].”

    1. Oh god, can I just go on a brief tangent regarding your third point?
      It reminded me of something I coincidentally experienced only yesterday which is why what you said practically jumped out to me.

      I read a lot of both fanfiction and original works online and read a delightful kinky thing yesterday. I mention the kinky part because one would think that if anything, mean criticism here would amount to kink shamers or thelike.

      But nothing like that. I went through the comments before leaving one myself and the very first person was absolutely adamant about some britishisms the author apparently used (I’m not a native speaker and although I can typically tell if someone uses AE or BE that mostly works for things like favour vs. favor or pavement vs. sidewalk, not whole idioms). To be fair, the original story this fic was based on is set in the US and I can see (and actually have seen people eloquently talking about it) how it might be favourable to align one’s speech accordingly. However, Jesus, this person could not have been any more rude about it, seriously. Other commenters called them out and they became defensive and even more impolite and I was just sitting there reading on and thinking how that definitely isn’t the way to leave criticism.

      1. Oh wow, yeah. Rudeness in critiques is just completely unnecessary, and also self-sabotaging because who is going to listen to a rude critique? I know I don’t. I can never understand why people get rude under those circumstances, anyway. Like, this person has put their work up for free for you to read, so why be rude? What, did it somehow make you ANGRY that their free work was not flawless? Did you think they made the mistakes on purpose just to hurt you? Does it give you a special little thrill to be a long-distance bully?

        That said, yeah using Britishisms if you’re writing a story set in America is probably not the most sensible thing to do. I imagine it’s as off-putting for American readers as it is for me every time I see an American show that fills England with people armed with guns, or butchers the *one* accent they seem to think we have.

        1. Re: your second paragraph: Absolutely; I hadn’t really thought about that topic until a few months ago when someone on tumblr who I admire very much talked about it at length and I could definitely see what she meant and why it is offputting both ways. The thing is, the writer has reacted positively to well-worded critique before, so I don’t think it would have been a problem at all to point out britishisms but this commenter was just downright nasty. I’m still shuddering just thinking about it.

  39. Allllll the way back in second grade, we were being taught math. Whatever we were learning, I wasn’t getting, so of *course*, I was the one called on to do a demo problem in front of the class on the chalkboard. I stood there staring at the numbers until I burst into tears, convinced that my teacher would hate me and my fellow students would call me stupid. My teacher sat me down, had another student do the problem, then waited until I calmed down and walked us all through the process again, at which time I got the idea.

    The next day, at the start of the math lesson, my teacher faced the class, smiled, and said “Yesterday we learned that the whole building will NOT fall down on you if you make a mistake.” We all laughed, I loved that teacher from that day forward, and I remind myself of that lesson constantly. The sky will not fall. The world will not end. Everyone makes mistakes, and most of them are fixable. You will almost always get a second chance. And the people I care about will still like me even if I mess up every now and then.

  40. 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?

    100% agree, those teachers sound like bullies.

    1. I don’t know about the LW, but we did that assignment in my high school Psychology class. Make a list of your own 5 best and worst traits, then ask three people who love you to make their own lists. The purpose was to explore the nature of self-identity vs. perceived identity… or something. High school was a while ago for me now, but it was definitely more about the concept that the way other people see you is not necessarily the way you see yourself.

      They stopped doing it after my class because a lot of parents complained, but it had been a staple for years. I can absolutely see why it would be upsetting for some people, but I personally learned a lot from it. *shrug*

  41. I found Carol Dweck’s book Mindset *really* helpful with this. That and having children – which has given me a sense of perspective on work that I didn’t have before. That might be a bit drastic though 🙂 The Manager Tools podcasts have some stuff on responding to feedback at work too. I find myself now looking for feedback rather than being scared of it – and I say that as somebody who has lost count of the number of times I have cried while at work when I was younger.

  42. After seven years away from writing English essays, I’m doing an English Literature degree, and some of the feedback has been HARSH. Some of it has been great, but some has been really along the lines of ‘Did you plan this? At all?’

    And I had to admit that no, I did not, because when I was doing Science essays I could get by without having to.

    But every mistake, every C, I could view as a lesson. If you view your mistakes, not as failures, but as lessons to learn from, then it makes them seem less scary and less hurtful. Then, when something frightening is coming up, make a list of everything you’ve learnt. ‘X prefers this landscape graphs’ ‘I should write down the name of the customer on a post-it note’ ‘Take deep breaths before every sentence or before every call’ ‘Take frequent breaks when on CSR duty’.

    It’s okay to not magically be great at everything. Learning a job – any job – is a learning process, and managers and bosses are there to help. And don’t worry about breaking down at work – I did once when I got a 0% week at a CSR job when I was in a bad relationship. Didn’t affect my job at all, and everyone just treated me as if it hadn’t happened. Most jobs that involve a CSR aspect accept that CSR is *hard fucking work* with a high degree of burn out and that tears do, unfortunately, happen.

  43. I had a revelation about my job a while ago that helped me handle it when I messed up. My wife was working at a job where, to simplify a little, she had to research and write three legal memos a week. So her mistakes would be invisible (a case she didn’t uncover in her research), or in the context of a larger project (the argument on page 12 of an otherwise good memo doesn’t hang together). I, on the other hand, was an executive assistant, and did a bazillion different tasks a week – answering phones, scheduling meetings, booking travel, preparing materials for meetings, etc. When I made a mistake, it left my boss waiting for a coffee meeting at the wrong Starbucks, or a bunch of people in a meeting sitting in front of the wrong version of their document. So my mistakes were glaring, and they were often small things that on their own seemed like they should have been simple to do. Meanwhile, all the things I did right just blended into a smoothly-functioning day for those around me and didn’t get acknowledged. So even if both my wife and I had a similar rate of errors, she would end up feeling generally good about her work, and I would end up feeling bad about mine.

    Once I realized all that, I was able to give myself more credit for all the things I did during the course of a day that went well, and to understand how mistakes fit into my work. It’s not a solution to not being able to take criticism in the moment, but it definitely helped me not feel like “OMG I’m a terrible employee and how could I be so dumb” when I inevitably screwed up something out of the dozens of things I dealt with each week.

    1. Thank you for this. Not only is it oh-so-true, but it’s something that I can check when I’m under stress and my brainweasels are out in force: how visible is my work?

  44. Here, have a concept: failing forward.

    Sometimes, especially when you’re solving a problem, you have to do something wrong a time or two in order to unlock to the solution. If you can step back for a moment, be a little objective about the situation, then you can learn from it and improve. In my brain, this is a nice way to re-frame mistakes and criticism into something catchy that reminds me that everybody is always growing.

    1. Yes! This is why I always hated Yoda’s line, “Do or do not; there is no try.” Bullshit! There is try, and it’s really important, for exactly the reasons you state.

      Okay, I get that it was really supposed to mean, “Put aside your doubts and go all in.” I think a different line could have reflected that much better.

      Also, I get that there are some things you don’t get do-overs on and you really need to bring your best game. But clearly that scene wasn’t that kind of situation, because Yoda completed the job after Luke muffed it, and in my experience irrecoverable errors are much rarer than recoverable ones. So go ahead and try. If it doesn’t work, think it over, maybe make some adjustments, and try again.

  45. LW, I feel you. I go into a dark cave of suckiness when I am given (valid! constructive!) criticism and feel like I’m horrible. But one thing that got me out of that habit and might work for you is regular meetings with my manager. I was really struggling to get on track with something and I had some stuff I needed to work on that I knew, if not improved, would lead to feeling like a massive failure. So I scheduled weekly meetings with him for about a month and a half and I’d go into it and say, “Okay, here is my progress on This Thing That I Am Working On, what do you think?”

    The benefits of this were threefold:
    1. I got in the habit of seeking out feedback, and there was a mix of positive and negative, but it became something that I could prepare for. I knew the meeting was coming, I had requested it, I knew what topics were going to be discussed. It became a safe space for me to learn how to handle straightforward responses to my work.
    2. I was holding myself accountable for becoming better at things I needed to improve on.
    3. I had a chance to identify any potential problems while they were suuuuuper small and fixable, so things didn’t have a chance to blow up. It gave me a break from bigger criticism and I got to practice on the small stuff.

    Now, this may or may not work for you, depending on your job and your manager, but it really worked for me so I thought I would throw it out there. After 6 weeks of this, he and I both felt like I had a much better grasp on things and the meetings stopped, but it also kept the door open for the odd check-in if I needed it and after that my one-on-ones felt much more collaborative. I’m in a new job now and I feel like I’m screwing up a lot, but because of this I’ve learned to tell myself, “Okay, better to know this now than hear it in a bigger way in a month,” and move on (something I couldn’t have done before I had that series of meetings).

    Anyways, good luck!

  46. For so many years, I always cried on my birthday. There was no good way around it. If I got lots of positive attention, it made me uncomfortable and awkward-feeling. If I got little or no acknowledgement I felt unloved. I have gotten a lot better about this, but it still feels good hearing someone else has cried at the discomfort of positive attention.

  47. I’d like to tell you what this is like from the other perspective. I have 2 stepdaughters, one of whom is extremely sensitive to criticism. I can’t tell her/show her/explain anything to her without her seeing it as criticism. I am not criticizing her.. I’m trying to HELP her. Here’s a perfect example.
    I knit. My daughter and I took lessons because we both wanted to make a pair of socks. So we’re not expert knitters, but we were making some fun things and my stepdaughter ASKED ME to teach her. I took her to buy yarn so it was a color SHE liked and felt good in her hands. I should add she was 20 at the time so not a young child. We got her all set at the table and, sitting there with her but not hanging over her, we each showed her how to hold the needles and yarn and how the stitches are done. What am I supposed to do when she’s doing it wrong? There are some rules of knitting that are not negotiable, others are. You can hold the yarn in your right hand or left, between 2 fingers or wrapped around, everyone finds there own way and it’s only by watching someone else do it and trying and trying another way and another and so on until you find what works for you, but you must wrap the yard counter-clockwise around the needle. Okay perhaps too much knitting info for readers, but my point is that when I corrected her wrapping direction she took everything into the other room and practiced sitting next to her dad who doesn’t know jack about knitting. And that left ME feeling rejected and angry. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing how to do something, and people generally like to help someone because it makes them feel good. So people probably are not thinking negative things about YOU when you forget a name or forget part of your job. Just let them tell you what you missed. Say thank you and move on. They go away feeling good about themselves and it’s no big deal.

    1. I’m not really sure this anecdote is that applicable to the LW – I mean, a post from someone who is often in the position of having to offer constructive criticism in a professional setting and how they approach working with more sensitive people would be relevant, but it seems like you just have a lot of…backstory, shall we say, re: this particular stepdaughter.

      Also, saying “it’s no big deal” is pretty completely invalidating the LW and his/her feelings. Obviously it is a big deal to them, or I doubt they’d be writing to the Captain.

      I’m not sure you’re really asking for advice, but since you did ask what you were supposed to do when she’s doing it wrong, if you know she’s ‘extremely sensitive’ to criticism (from everyone? or just you?) I would have suggested that the two of you take a knitting class together. That way you’re interacting but any correction/criticism is going to come from the instructor, not from you.

    2. You didn’t ask for advice, but as a person who has gone in another room to DO IT BY MYSELF and as a teacher of fairly technical stuff to beginners , I suggest two things if you actually want to make it better:

      1) Let her struggle for a bit and figure out her own way, even if it means she does it wrong for a while. My dad is an optimizer, he always wants to do things the “best” way or the fastest, and he will jump in to correct something before I’ve even figured out my question if that makes sense. I don’t learn by being told, I learn by visuals and by doing, and I need my hands on something for a bit and need to logic through it myself. So him teaching me anything = my shoulders go up around my ears in about 10 seconds, even if he is trying to help/is objectively correct about what’s happening, because I learn slower than he thinks is optimal. He is not okay with ANY mistakes or anything being wrong or less than optimal and is very invested in intervening so that I don’t do it wrong, while I am actually a confident learner which means that I am ok with doing it wrong for a minute because I know I will get it right in 10 minutes, but I will learn it better if I can mess with it and figure out where I’m going wrong. But I have to think through the steps on my own, without anyone over my shoulder. Let her mess it up and then come to you and you can help her unpick it and start over, and be nice and don’t punish her when she does ask for advice. You are the adult, you are the one who knows how to knit, you can afford to be generous.

      2) Before you correct her, ask her if she wants advice. “It looks like you are struggling, do you want me to help or do you want to mess with it on your own for a bit more?”

      It sounds like you have a lot invested in knitting-as-a-bonding thing between you, which makes it all the more fraught.

  48. Yep, I have been working on accepting both positive and negative feedback. Learning to just say thank you when I receive a compliment instead of immediately jumping into what I did wrong or whatever else makes the compliment less than accurate (in my mind). And pretty much the same thing with criticism, listen and say thank you for your feedback, instead of jumping into all the reasons I did what I did or why they’re wrong or there was a misunderstanding or whatever. It’s a process. I try to be kind to myself when I fall back into the behavior I am trying to change. The Captain’s list of questions are excellent. I’m another who will be printing them and keeping them handy.

    Thinking about the mistakes others make to put my own in perspective doesn’t work for me. That’s because I am hypercritical most of all to myself, so the fact that others make the same mistake is irrelevant. But also, I already am quite aware of others’ mistakes, and I am trying to move away from the focus on what’s wrong and do better appreciating what’s right. I took a workshop earlier this year on appreciative inquiry because my ongoing negativity was something I wanted to change so that I can begin to remember to have fun and enjoy the world. So I am trying to stay silent when I can’t think of anything good to say, and work harder to find something good to say.

    It’s all a process, and I try to remind myself that it takes time, that the mistakes will continue, but hopefully become smaller, less frequent, different from previous mistakes. And to be kind to myself when I slip back into old patterns, both in receiving feedback and offering my own commentary on others, whether to them directly or to someone else. Change is hard.

  49. I am a recovering perfectionist, and my therapist gave me a list of four things to do (for pretty much anything!):

    (1) Show up
    (2) Pay attention
    (3) Tell the truth
    (4) Let go of the outcome

    Now, 1-3 are pretty easy for me, though 4 is an ongoing challenge. But it helps to remember that these cover my basic responsibilities, and anything more is either icing on the cake or my jerkbrain talking.

    I find it also helps to remember that I don’t hold anyone else to the ridiculous standards that I set for myself, so chances are other people don’t expect perfection of me. And if they secretly do, but don’t tell me what they expect, then it’s not my problem!

  50. Hi Jennifer,

    I completely relate to all you’ve written in this article, and thanks for the advice about what to do when Jerkbrain starts mouthing off and rageasaurus reacts. I’ll apply that in future.

    What do you do though, when on top of Jerkbrain and Rageasaurus you have a kneejerk fearful reaction that says “you screwed up and now they’re going to punish you terribly for it!” Seriously, I have to stop my imagination from getting carried away with worst case scenario and believing it. Any advice?

    1. Therapy. Get better at recognizing the patterns, practice finding alternate thought patterns, have another person as a sounding board for when you need to let the jerkbrain talk and talk.

  51. Yeesh, this hit home a bit more than I expected. Because sometime between my first year of college and now I became terrified of criticism, particularly of my written work. I’m not fairly terrified of grad school applications because it involves writing. Logically, I know I’m not actually a bad writer, but after a few infuriating classes where feedback was maddeningly unhelpful and/or different profs gave me very different feedback in addition to scientific writing being new and unfamiliar and I’m not immediately stunning at it, the thought of writing brings me close to literal tears. I’ve never been good at taking criticism, but I’ve never been this awful at it. (Of course, there are few things that I haven’t initially been at least passably good at which is also probably coming into effect, along with Captain’s cave of Shoulds where I grew up as anything less than an A+ meant I wasn’t properly applying myself and the fact that pretty much everyone tried to make my entire identity be The Smart Kid throughout high school.)

    On the other hand, I’m very active in my sport/hobby and my very closely related job. I am dang phenomenal at accepting criticism there (even when it’s coming from my charmingly sexist coworkers). Like, this disparity infuriates me because I’m aware that if I screw up at work I am potentially putting 5-8 people’s lives at risk but taking criticism on a written assignment terrifies me. The other day, I screwed up in my hobby and cracked a rib. And the first thing out of my mouth after I assured my friends that I was, in fact, okay, was “well, did you see what I did wrong?” I cared more about fixing my mistake than my cracked rib! (I mean, at the time I just assumed it was at worst, bruised, and I do very much wish to not make that mistake again because cracked ribs are terribly unfun)

    Honestly, I’m probably making a very good case for making myself an appointment at my school’s counseling services either now or when the semester starts back up because grad school applications and papers should realistically not scare me more than the prospect of cracked ribs, concussions, and/or death.

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