Why criticism hurts so much, and what you can do to soften the blow

"Okay you'll see I rewrote most of [the manuscript]. But, you shouldn't be discouraged. It was a good first attempt. Obviously, it's a challenge to write, particularly short pieces like this one. The first time I worked on a manuscript, my advisor essentially did the same thing. :) "

March 2011. First year of my phd program. I had excitedly sent a draft of my first academic paper to my advisor only to have him rewrite everything but the last sentence. I was devastated. Up until that moment, I had considered myself a great writer, and had been told as much by many others, including my undergraduate honors thesis advisor. In fact, my writing ability was a point of pride. And here my advisor had rewritten every word.  Later that week, he invited me for a chat in his office to talk about tips and tricks for writing. He opened his monologue with the following sentence:

"It's not useful to tell you all of the things you did right, so I'm just going to tell you all the things you did wrong."

An hour later, I felt even worse about myself. I sobbed for hours talking with another of my grad school friends. "How can I be such a terrible writer? Should I even be in grad school? Maybe I should just quit before I get even more humiliated."

The criticism hurt me to my core. My advisor's words of encouragement in his original email no longer mattered after he spent an hour telling me all the ways my writing needed improvement. Thankfully, I did not quit. Eventually he did not rewrite the entirety of the drafts I sent him, and I got used to the back-and-forth of editing a paper before we mutually felt ready to send it for publication. I also learned over time that his edits were more about his personal writing style rather than my lack of ability. And that his philosophy of only providing negative feedback was an uncommon (not particularly useful) style of advising.

These posters were all over the wall at Facebook. It should have been a sign early on that I was going to need to become more okay with giving and receiving feedback.

These posters were all over the wall at Facebook. It should have been a sign early on that I was going to need to become more okay with giving and receiving feedback.

Yet that first manuscript experience stuck with me. I developed a severe fear of criticism. At any moment I could be blindsided. What else would I learn was terrible at?  The severe fear lingered as I joined my first team at Facebook. At my 6-month performance review, my manager gave me a less than ideal performance rating, and most of it was based on my defensiveness around feedback.  That moment was a wake-up call. I needed to get better about receiving criticism.  If I didn't, my tenure at Facebook would be short. In my final performance review at Facebook about 3 years later, one of the people I managed said in their peer review: "Erin and I continue to have an open and feedback-welcome relationship. In addition to making space during our 1:1s for me to provide her with feedback, the feedback she has given me this half has been on-point and timely."

So how did I go from being terrified of criticism to being recognized as someone who welcomes it? I applied some psychology and neuroscience to changing my mindset around it. I'm still not perfect, but I certainly react very differently these days than I used to.

 

The science behind why criticism hurts so much

Though this list is not exhaustive, chances are at least one or more of these things happen when you feel the "sting" of criticism.

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Your [right] amygdala has taken over.  The amygdalae are two small almond shaped structures located deep within the brain. They are responsible for emotional responses of pleasure and pain. In particular, the right amygdala deals with negative emotions such as fear and disgust. The amygdala, your emotional brain, often fires (activates) even before your prefrontal cortex, your thinking brain, is able to process and rationalize what you are hearing. So even before you hear the criticism from someone, your amygdala can fire, triggering a "fight or flight" response.  If the the "fight" part takes over, you are likely to get defensive about whatever you are about to hear. If "flight" takes over, you are likely to dismiss the feedback before you even consider its merits. 

You are falling prey to negativity bias.  Psychological research across many domains (social interactions, learning, memory, decision-making) has shown that things that are more negative in nature -- attitudes, emotions, interactions, events -- psychologically weigh on people more than things that are equally emotional but positive. When it comes to receiving feedback, people tend to remember negative feedback much more than they remember positive feedback. If you have ever had a conversation where you received both positive and negative feedback, chances are the negative feedback had more of an impact on your subsequent thoughts and behaviors than the positive feedback. As a manager, this has always been a struggle for me. Even if I go in with a "feedback sandwich" (putting the negative feedback between pieces of positive feedback), my direct reports always seem to get stuck on the negative.

You are interpreting the criticism in terms of an overall trait, quality, or identity you possess.  Any behavior can be interpreted in one of two ways -- either as something inherent to you, such as your personality, or as a behavior you engaged in during a particular situation. For example, if I raised my voice in a meeting, you could either say I am an aggressive person or that the situation caused me to experience and express frustration. The latter doesn't make me an aggressive person. Sometimes people are not as tactful as they could be when giving feedback and it comes out of their mouth as broad indictment of who you are. Sometimes people are fairly tactful, but you still might interpret their feedback as inherent to you. When it came to my advisor, I interpreted his feedback on my one paper as indicative of my abilities as a writer, when a better interpretation would have been that I'm not yet great at writing short papers for publication in psychology journals. Or even better, I could have interpreted that particular paper as not being my best work.

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You are engaged in a fixed mindset. Do you tend to see your abilities and qualities as unchanging (e.g., I have a certain level of smarts) or do you tend to see that your effort and attitude determines your abilities (e.g., I can do anything I put my mind to)? If you resonate with the former, you may lean towards a fixed mindset, whereas if you resonate with the latter, you may lean towards a growth mindset. People who are in a fixed mindset see their abilities as predetermined and unchanging, and therefore take criticism personally. Because of this, they tend to react defensively or dismissively. People who are in a growth mindset tend to believe anything is changeable, and therefore see feedback as constructive. They are able to internalize feedback and actively seek opportunities to improve.

 

What you can do to soften the blow

Here are a few strategies that I have personally implemented to shift away from being defensive and terrified of criticism, to eager for and open to feedback.

I recognize the physiological signs that my amygdala might be taking over. If I feel my heart start to race or my palms break into sweat, I often just note "Oh, hey amygdala." Sometimes I even give myself a 10 second breather, especially if the feedback situation is pre-planned (e.g., a performance review). The subtle act of recognizing that my amygdala is firing engages my pre-frontal cortex and helps me receive feedback with a rational mind.

I brag about myself daily. Yes, you read that correctly. I have a daily practice of writing down three things I am grateful for, three things I desire, and three things that I'm proud of myself for (you'll hear a lot more about this later).  Most of my brags are about things I have done rather than who I am. For instance, a few days ago I wrote "I have a lot of good ideas for things I can put into this next blog I'm writing." (Note: this is the blog I was referring to). Sometimes I will also include compliments from people about my abilities that I've worked on over time. For instance, this past week a friend told me that I am a good conversationalist. The daily practice of bragging buffers me a bit from negativity bias. When I actively give myself positive feedback on a daily basis, negative feedback from others does not seem to impact me as much.

In the moment I listen to the feedback and thank the person, then I later reflect on the nature and merits of the feedback. Though some feedback still comes in less than tactful forms (phrased about who I am overall as a person), I try not to immediately internalize anything that comes my way.

  • First, I reflect on what the motivation was for the person to share feedback. Were they trying to hurt me or help me grow? Most often, they were trying to help me grow, in which case I move on to the next level of reflection rather than dismissing the feedback.

  • Next, I reflect on what the person was trying to say rather than what they did say. Did the person really mean to talk about who I am as a person or were they less than tactful in communicating about a particular behavior? For instance, my first manager at Facebook said "you disrespect qualitative research." Upon reflection, I realized she was referring to how I communicated in a meeting. I then understood why she felt I was disrespectful.

  • Finally, I reflect on whether the feedback rings true. There are times when it makes sense to disregard feedback. For instance, I once had a manager who by many people's perception had a penchant for belittling me. Though I did try to reflect on what, if any, of her criticism was valid, I ultimately decided that in her case, it made more sense for me to dismiss most of what she said.

I adopted a growth mindset. By the time I finished my dissertation in 2014, my advisor rarely had any comments on my writing. Any edits he made were purely because he had new ideas about how to approach a complex topic.  Had I listened to my "I'm a bad writer" fixed mindset in 2011, there would be no Dr. title in front of my name.  I now see that nothing about me is permanent or unchangeable, and because of this, every piece of [valid] criticism is an opportunity for me to learn and grow as a person.

I actively seek feedback. The more I ask for feedback, the easier it gets to receive it. Just recently, friends and family responded to a survey about me, and one of the questions was about what I could improve on. At first, a few pieces of criticism made me uncomfortable because there were some behaviors I did not realize I was doing. A prior version of me would have felt down on myself. Though it did not feel great, instead of dwelling on it, my next thought was "what can I do to improve on this behavior in the future?"

Your feedback is a gift

Okay, I find the phrase "feedback is a gift" to be ridiculously cheesy, but since I put the Facebook poster in this blog, I figured it might as well be a section title. I really would love to hear your feedback (the good and the bad!) on this post and any others as I go on this blog writing journey. I may have thought I was a terrible writer in the past, but I promise your criticism will never sting the way my advisor's did. I have all the right tools now to "soften the blow."

Much love, Erin