Taking Criticism

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how asking for feedback can be quite uncomfortable. Part of this discomfort is the fear of getting negative feedback. But when you’re asking family, friends and colleagues for feedback the risk of criticism is relatively low - these people are generally going to have some concern for your feelings, and not want to say things that hurt you. Even if they do give you negative feedback, it will likely be balanced by positive feedback and framed constructively. Very little of the feedback I actually received through this exercise actually made me feel that uncomfortable - it was more the act of asking, and the expectation, that was difficult.

But there are some contexts where we might actually have to deal with harsh, critical feedback. The internet is one. I imagine anyone who has “put themselves out there” enough - anyone who has published writing that gets a wide enough readership, or videos that get enough views, will have experienced this. There is always someone who will come along and comment saying they hate what you’re doing or what you’re wearing or how you’re speaking, that you’re a complete idiot and completely wrong about everything. And these people don’t care about hurting your feelings - they don’t know you and can do it from behind their computer screen, so they’ll say whatever they like.

Being criticised

I experienced this myself for the first time this week. I’m helping my PhD supervisor to run a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), part of which involves me having some discussions with him which are filmed and uploaded as video content on the course. This in itself is definitely outside of my comfort zone - it’s the first time I’ve been on video like this, and talking to a camera is surprisingly nerve-wracking! But the most uncomfortable experience of my week was when I logged on to the MOOC yesterday to go through the comments, and read the following:

“Sorry to strike a negative note but I find Jess' delivery quite irritating which detracts from the whole objective of this video. I'm sure she's incredibly intelligent and has much to contribute but she needs to slow down, think a little more before she speaks and have more confidence in her opinions.”

I nearly cried. (I probably would have done if I wasn’t in an office with other people!) I was pretty shocked: I hadn’t been expecting to see that. The thought that someone I didn’t know had been watching and judging me was really quite upsetting - partly, I think, because it made me wonder how many other people had been thinking similar things but just not saying it. One person’s opinion may not matter that much, but what it signals about others’ unspoken opinions does. I think it was also hurtful because I knew she was at least partly correct - that I do speak too fast sometimes, and am not always as confident as I should be in what I’m saying, are things I’m well aware of. In a way this seems pretty irrational - if I’m not getting any new information about myself that’s negative, why should I be upset? But I guess sometimes even when we know our faults, we hope other people don’t notice them... or that at least they are less obvious than we fear.

What’s the best way to take criticism?

When we receive a piece of criticism, especially when it’s quite harshly phrased, I think it’s natural to react in one of two ways:

  1. To take a big confidence knock, start to doubt whether you should really be doing the thing you’ve been criticised for, and avoid doing it in the future.

  2. Reject the criticism on the basis that it was overly harsh and/or unfair, ignore it, and continue doing the thing you were criticised for just as you were before.

I think both are overreactions. In almost all cases, when someone criticises us harshly, what they are saying is neither completely true or completely false. There will likely be something true that the criticism points to - some way in which we could improve. In my case, it’s true that I do sometimes speak too fast, I could take more time to think before I speak, and I could express my opinions more confidently. But often the kind of harsh criticism people dole out online can go too far, too - I don’t believe it’s true that in general I am “irritating.” The problem is, when we think about criticism in a “black or white” fashion, we fail to notice this, and in either case miss an opportunity to grow. In the first case where we take the full force of the criticism, this can often be strong enough to discourage us from pushing ourselves further. But if we reject the criticism entirely we also won’t acknowledge its constructive parts, so here too we miss an opportunity to improve.

My initial reaction was of the first kind. I knew I had to do the filming for the second week’s wrap-up the next day, and suddenly I really didn’t want to do it. But I also knew I was never going to back out - and I actually knew, on reflection, that I hadn’t done a bad job of it really. I realised calling me “irritating” was an obvious overstatement - but that I could reject this part of the criticism and still take on board other parts. If the comment had been reframed - if she had said “This video was really useful, but Jess would be easier to understand if she talked a bit slower, and she should have more confidence in her opinions!” I would have taken this as useful feedback to improve. So I decided to “reject” the unnecessary negative part of the comment, reframe it as something like the above, and try to speak more slowly and confidently in the second filming session. For me, the ability to “brush off” the parts of the criticism that weren’t useful, learn from the parts that were, and push forwards, felt like both an achievement and a invaluable thing to have learned. In a way, that nasty commenter did me a favour!

I also found that identifying the useful and not-useful parts of the criticism in this way helped me to dispel my initial reaction. Now I can look at the same comment and not feel hurt or uncomfortable, because rather than seeing someone judging me, I see two things: 1. some useful feedback that I can use to improve, 2. an overreaction on the part of the commenter that is clearly their problem.

I’m not sure how far this type of thinking extends to every type of criticism you might ever receive, but it seems like it might be more broadly applicable. I’ve realised through thinking this that I’ve definitely had the “total rejection” reaction in other contexts where I’ve been criticised, so this gives me a better strategy for dealing with this in future too.

Summary

  • We’re all likely to receive hurtful criticism, in one way or another, at some point in our lives.

  • It’s easy to “overreact” to criticism in either of two contrasting ways:

    • To take the criticism too seriously, taking it personally and feeling discouraged from doing the thing you were criticised for again

    • To completely reject the criticism, and fail to learn from any constructive aspects

  • If you can learn to separate out useful/not-useful parts of criticism, you can get the best of both worlds: the ability to learn from the parts that are constructive, without taking to heart the bits that aren’t.

It’s possible though that this last part is easier said than done, and I’m over-generalising from one example. Have other people have experiences where they’ve been able to react similarly to criticism? Does this seem like something that might be useful for dealing with criticism in future?