Learning to Value Criticism

Accepting criticism is not something that comes easily to many of us, particularly those of us who trend towards perfectionism and people pleasing. In fact, fear of criticism can be downright debilitating. I can’t tell you the number of things I didn’t pursue because I was afraid of not measuring up, and having those around me realize it and say something…or worse, say something behind my back.

Sometimes criticism still has a way to hit me in the gut, especially when it's unexpected. A few years back, I gave a presentation that I had mixed feelings on. I felt like I did fairly well, but there were some areas I thought were a bit weak. Confirming my fears and catching me off guard, my boss made a point to confront me on exactly the things I feared.

Typically, I am my own harshest critic. This time, however, I was not. My weaknesses had been realized. It was one of those moments where all I could think was, "don't cry, don't cry, don't cry." The harder I tried to hold back the tears, the more they came. And boy, was I embarrassed. My boss at the time looked genuinely surprised by my reaction and started back-pedaling, trying to reassure me. In turn, I tried to reassure him that it was good to hear the feedback, despite the puddle I had dissolved to.

I hated my reaction, and I hated even more that I felt like I had no control over it. I felt like an overly sensitive kid who couldn't take a little criticism.

The whole incident made me call into question the beliefs I had around criticism. I realized that my boss, who had always been super complimentary of me, had a bit too much power over the value I assigned myself. I noticed that when you live and die by someone else's perceptions and opinions of you, you set yourself up for failure.

The truth is, we each have preferences. There are people we click with and people that rub us the wrong way. Everyone is different, and so too are their preferences. We each have our own way of doing things and our beliefs about how things "should be done".

The realization that not everyone is going to like us can be a tough pill to swallow, especially when we are the kind of person who goes out of our way to be friendly or to make someone feel welcome. Not everyone will like us, and it may have more to do with them than it does with us. Maybe you remind them of someone else they know. Maybe they like people who are blunt, and there's something about your friendliness and smiles that they don't trust. Who knows for sure. The only thing we can be sure of is that not 100% of people will like us or like what we do.

If everyone loved us, then what would we really be doing? We'd be bending our interests and opinions to appease those we are around, and that would make us pretty inauthentic and it would make us a liar. Nobody likes a liar.

Author Tara Mohr proposes this paradigm shift,

"I’ve found that the fundamental shift for women happens when we internalize the fact that all substantive work brings both praise and criticism. Many women carry the unconscious belief that good work will be met mostly — if not exclusively — with praise. Yet in our careers, the terrain is very different: Distinctive work, innovative thinking and controversial decisions garner supporters and critics, especially for women. We need to retrain our minds to expect and accept this."

She goes on to recommend observing someone we admire who handles criticism well. If they were in your place, how would they handle it? She also recommends reading both the praise and criticism of people we admire to drive home the point that even those at the top of their field receive both the good and the bad in terms of feedback. Starting to normalize criticism can be helpful in depersonalizing it.

I've worked hard to change my view of criticism as a negative, and shift to viewing criticism as an opportunity for growth. They say the best defense is a good offense, and in that vain, I've begun aggressively seeking out criticism. I'll be honest, I still don't love it, but I've gotten a lot better at utilizing it and using it to get sharper. Instead of looking at criticism as a flaw, I now see it as a chance to improve.

It's taken me 30 years to come to get a better handle on handling criticism. As Tara Mohr points out, to be a leader this day and age means that learning how to handle criticism and praise is less of an option and more of a necessity.

For more of Tara's work visit her website here.

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