I am an oversensitive wimp.
July 20, 2009 8:35 AM   Subscribe

How to be more resilient to constructive criticism?

Sorry if this has been covered well before, but it's hard to search for. I have trouble dealing with criticism. I don't mean that I'm not open to it, or become angry, just that it really hurts my feelings and discourages me. Even when comments are phrased specifically and respectfully, I have trouble seeing anything but the negativity.

For example, if a professor marks up a paper of mine--even if I get a high B or a low A on it!--I can't read his/her comments without feeling personally hurt, to the point that I often avoid looking at them. If someone pulls me aside to make a legitimate suggestion in person, I am often on the verge of tears at the end of the conversation.

This is especially true when I'm under a lot of stress (as lately), but looking back, it's always been with me. I'm told that many people in my generation are accustomed to constant praise, but I don't think of myself as spoiled. I want to be someone who takes criticism in stride and implements it. What are some strategies I can use to cut down on the discouragement (and the looking crazy) and focus on improving?
posted by molybdenumblue to Human Relations (20 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I think that everyone has this problem to some extent--being put in a situation where you're being personally evaluated is just an acutely painful experience. The best way I've found to deal with it is to read or at least scan the comments, then put the paper down and forget about it for a few days or weeks. Then reread it, focusing on specific ways you can use the comments to improve your work. This strategy seems to dull the sting somewhat.
posted by nasreddin at 8:43 AM on July 20, 2009

Yup, agreed with taking it all in, quickly, and then putting it away for the night. Come back to it the next day, or even a few days later, when you're in a different mindset.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:46 AM on July 20, 2009

Best answer: Nasreddin's idea is golden. Two more notions:

(1) Don't assume anything you do is ever perfect. Expect there to be a few criticisms. Try to predict what they'll be, even. That way you'll be in the right frame of mind to receive them and most of all, to process them constructively.

(2) Once you're in the right mindset to deal with them (either as above or per Nasreddin's system), try to approach the criticism as an opportunity to improve. Assuming the criticism is valid (that is, only if and when you agree with it), try to boil it down to a couple of bullet points. Write them down in a notebook, or on some sticky notes, or somewhere handy.

Then when you're working on that next paper, or dealing with whatever similar situation again, pull out those notes and be constructive: Okay, this time let's see if I can do THIS THING as suggested before...

Treat it like an experiment. Record the results. If after you adjusted to the criticism, your results improved, draw a big red circle around that GREAT idea you received.

Positive reinforcement ("Hey, taking that advice worked!") could help you develop a productive habit, without the crushed feelings.
posted by rokusan at 8:52 AM on July 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think a part of that just comes with maturity. But, what helps me when I'm feeling attacked is to try and just listen, just read, just observe as though I'm taking notes in class or listening to a lecture about another topic. Then I can process the comments later when I'm less stressed. Plus, by waiting a bit you are better able to discern what you need to take away from the comments/information. Not all of the criticism is going to be deserved. Sometimes people make incorrect assumptions about your work and it's always valuable to figure out why that is but you don't have to take every observation to heart. Many times, criticism is actually not constructive at all and more about the person delivering it.

Next time this happens, try to take a step back from yourself and listen/read as impassively as possible. Have a phrase at the ready that tells the person you've heard them and will consider their opinions. "Wow, those are interesting observations, thanks for letting me know, I'll think about them." This is truly a skill that will serve you well in life, by being able to listen to criticism without freaking out, people will trust you and you'll grow from the process. Keep in mind that it is a teacher's job to offer you guidance. Read those comments as their desire to help you improve on the next assignment. It may be helpful for you to note the comments that are causing you particular trouble and go to the teacher with them for a discussion. This will help you confront your fears that you are secretly hated and that your teacher is a spiteful person who is out to get you. Plus, you'll rise in esteem with the teacher who then will know that you are learning something from their class. All this is a learned skill so work on learning it. It really does get easier with time.
posted by amanda at 9:00 AM on July 20, 2009 [4 favorites]

My guess is that a part of you believes that you're more fragile than you actually are. Like that if you allowed criticism in, it would devastate you - so this part of you is trying to protect you by helping you avoid criticism. Imagine that you have an invisible parent with you at all times, trying to protect you by not allowing you to be exposed to the rawness of life. Of course, it's unlikely that you actually are that fragile. You're probably tougher than you think.

If this is correct, you've got to find a way to tell that (parental) voice that you appreciate his/her intentions, but that you're trying to be a grownup, and that's going to involve getting out there and opening up some.

When you're in a situation where criticism might be forthcoming, try reminding yourself of a time when you pulled something off where you had doubts (e.g., got into college, ran a marathon, took a risk and kissed someone). Remind yourself that you survived that, and that surely you can survive this.

Another thing you can try is to actually practice being a target. In these practices, remember, you're *trying* to expose yourself to criticism so you can see what it's like and strengthen your internal immunity system. Martial arts classes are great for this, but you can also do things *because* you want to expose yourself to criticism. Like write a crappy poem and post it somewhere. Or dress really strangely and look for peole to criticise you. Chances are that you'll survive all these episodes - you might even have fun!
posted by jasper411 at 9:10 AM on July 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

I consider this: harsh criticism is valuable. People pay extra for harsh criticism.
For example, art students pay tens of thousands of dollars for harsh critique, and the students of hard professors tend to produce better work, which is the whole goal, right?

I also consider that if someone tells me only what they like about my work, it doesn't help me improve. I almost don't want to hear what I'm doing right, because I'd rather focus my attention on the areas that need improvement.
posted by kidbritish at 9:15 AM on July 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I used to feel similar to you -- I didn't want to read constructive criticism on school papers, etc., but eventually I worked on it so I don't mind it and sometimes even find it enjoyable. I don't know of any magic technique for making it painless, but here's what I do:

I brace myself in advance. I tell myself, "OK, now I'm going to look at the comments, and some of them will probably be critical, and they might be unexpected, and I might disagree with them." I assume there's going to be some negative, but I'm determined to ultimately accept it as a positive thing. That doesn't mean you need to enthusiastically agree with the evaluator, but it means making sure your main focus isn't coming up with arguments in your head about why the evaluator is wrong. Rather, decide in advance that your response will be along the lines of: "Oh, interesting, I see that although I did [this] and thought it was a good thing because ___, I could have done [that] instead, which would probably work better because ____. I'll try to keep that in mind in the future as a way to improve my work." In other words, put the emphasis on (1) accepting the criticism (assuming the person evaluating your work probably knows what they're talking about and has a more objective point of view than you, since it's hard to judge your own work), and (2) looking to the future (so even if the criticism is a bit painful, you're making the best of it by taking the full benefit of what you've been offered).
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:26 AM on July 20, 2009

As Jasper411 points out, criticism so often feels like the end of the world, when in most cases, it's something that is absolutely survivable. Only in really fucked up cases is criticism of work that you've done going to slam the door down on further advancement along a path.

For me, keeping my head straight when I'm being criticized constructively means remembering two things: 1) the criticism is intended to help improve the final result, and therefore indicates that the person delivering the criticism has good intentions, and 2) not all constructive criticism should be taken as gospel.

I get criticism from my choir members all the time about things they're having issues with. When it's within my power to do for them, and it genuinely benefits everybody, I'm more than happy to make the changes. But if it's just change to suit one choirster to the detriment of everyone else, then no, I refuse.

In the case of your professor, obviously you'll want to take what he/she says seriously, since he/she knows more than you do on the subject matter, and wants to see you improve! If it were me, (and believe me, I react the way you do to criticism) I'd confront my emotions face-first and push to get past the criticism. Go see the professor, ask questions, get clarifications. Find out what it takes to get to the next level of skill/ability in the class. Look for ways to go from your own strengths to the strengths the professor is trying to teach you. Ask the professor's advice on the issue. Believe me, it helps to take action in the face of criticism!

God luck!
posted by LN at 9:31 AM on July 20, 2009

I consider this: harsh criticism is valuable. People pay extra for harsh criticism.
For example, art students pay tens of thousands of dollars for harsh critique, and the students of hard professors tend to produce better work, which is the whole goal, right?

As someone who recently finished an MFA in writing, I disagree that students of hard professors produce better work. Maybe that's true of some students, but artists need all sorts of environments to thrive--some need someone to crack their whip constantly, some need to be lovingly nurtured, some need to work in isolation.

I, too, take harsh criticism poorly. The key for me is to find people who you really respect to critique my writing, particularly--that way, there's no knee jerk reaction about how the source of the criticism has no idea what he/she is talking about. That's not always possible, of course. In the case of a paper, I'd wait a week, first read over your paper and critique it yourself, then read the professor's comments. After a period of time, it's likely that you'll see it's flaws, too, and be more receptive to criticism on it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:06 AM on July 20, 2009

You need to go into a different mindset way back when you first start the work. You are not working to further yourself. You are working to further the work itself. In other words, the goal of a paper on Marxism isn't to make you look good or to show off how smart you are; the goal is to craft something interesting about Marxism. You SERVE that goal.

Schools make doing this hard, with their emphasis on grades. But, if you can, think of the grade as grading the object (the paper), not you. Really develop a love of making a work as perfect as possible -- for the sake of there being more interesting/beautiful/informative objects in the world. Embrace anyone who can add worth to the project.

Also, it's not "your" paper. Since the professor is reading it and making suggestions, it's his paper, too. You and he are collaborating to make something interesting. If he DOESN'T make criticisms, he is being lazy and not doing his share of the work. Go into the work from the very beginning, thinking of it as a collaboration, and wait for your prof's contributions.

This is not easy to do -- this thwarting of ego. But if come to value it and if you make it your goal, it will become easier. You may even find yourself getting pissed off at people who DON'T criticize your work. That happens to me sometimes. Everyone says, "It's great!" And I think, "That's not helpful. There must be SOMETHING wrong with it."

Note that many people give terrible critiques (including many professors). By terrible, I mean that THEY don't separate the work from the person who did it. There's not much you can do about this, but if you EVER get a criticism that implies that you -- as opposed to the work -- are at fault, you can ignore it and assume the critiquer is an asshole.
posted by grumblebee at 10:06 AM on July 20, 2009 [12 favorites]

Who I really respect, rather.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:07 AM on July 20, 2009

One of the things I've learned is that every example of criticism or praise pretty much boils to "this is the opinion of the one person who is writing the comment". One person out of how many billions on this planet? It's not that big a deal.
posted by The otter lady at 10:20 AM on July 20, 2009

What stuck out to me was that you feel personally hurt, and avoid looking at your professors after they give you a bad mark. Why is that? Are you angry at them, and afraid they will be able to tell if you look at them? Are you afraid they are disappointed in you and you don't want to see that in their faces?
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 12:20 PM on July 20, 2009

I have learned to take criticism of my work by remembering a few things:

- Taking criticism is really hard. You do your best and then someone comes in and says "Not good enough. Change this and that." It's hard. It's embarrassing. This is how most, if not all people experience it.

- Taking criticism is necessary. My work will not improve if I don't listen to others' criticism. I force myself to endure the potential awkward and embarrassing experience of criticism because it is so much more important to have a good final result on my project than to be comfortable.

- I am not my work. Sometimes I give a boring presentation or write a mediocre paper, but that does not mean I am a boring or mediocre person. Someone criticizing--even harshly--my poor performance at some task is not saying "You fail as a person" but rather "This thing you made needs improvement."

- When I critique someone else's work, I do so with utmost concern for the person's feelings. I do this because a) it's polite, and b) if I hurt the person's feelings s/he is likely to ignore my valid critique in favor of nursing wounded pride. Most people are similarly concerned when they give criticism, particularly in person. Moreover, even if someone isn't especially tactful or empathetic, very few critics you'll encounter are trying to make you feel bad. The example of a professor giving an explanation of a poor grade is especially important here: notes explaining your grade are intended to help you get a better grade on your next assignment. Even if they do it in a way that isn't as thoughtful as it should be, your professors (and anyone else offering criticism) are trying to help.
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:47 PM on July 20, 2009

This just sounds like perfectionism run amok. You submit the work as your best and are surprised when the authority figure in question finds issues--any issues at all--with it. It stands to reason that, no matter how perfectly conceived, there might be some faults to find in pretty much anything. So you can comfort yourself with the following probabilities:

1) You're taking it too hard. Instructors mark papers in hopes that you won't make the same sorts of mistakes next time, saving them the trouble of marking them again in the next batch. It's pragmatic self-defense for them.

2) Even if #1 isn't the case and the instructor genuinely dislikes you (which, I submit, would be rare and entirely unprofessional), what does that really matter, in the grand scheme of things?

3) Framing the criticism as advice that may or may not be useful next time rather than as a final judgement on your intellectual abilities makes it a lot easier to swallow. And, in fact, is the more accurate way to view it. Or, as other upstream have put it, this is about the work, not about you in any final sense.

4) Instructors are human and, as such, capable of pettiness and incompetence, but assuming either as the default just gives you an out that insulates you from the possible benefits of an honest appraisal of an instance of your work.

5) As a bandmate once said to me "This is practice. This is where you're supposed to mess up." Academic classes are, by definition, practice. It's okay to mess up. Failure is a valuable teacher.
posted by wheat at 1:11 PM on July 20, 2009

Have a third party help you analyze the criticism with the end goal of using it to improve your work. That person should obviously understand the need for the improvement but should also be someone you trust.
posted by JJ86 at 1:40 PM on July 20, 2009

A coach at my first full time job more than a decade ago once asked me: "Do you know everything?" After I came out with a slightly perplexed "No" he then pointed out to me that asking questions, making mistakes and having your work reviewed and critiqued is all part of the learning process and that getting it wrong or asking for help/for further information must not be considered as in any way shameful.

Some of the points reviewers raise will be generally valid, some will be personal preference or simple different priorities and judgements but at the end of the day it is no reflection on you as a person. So as long as you can consider the reviewer competent, you ought to be able to look back on the piece of work and see where they are coming from even if your priorities are perhaps different.

I work in an environment where all work anybody does gets reviewed by somebody and gets fed back on. Requests to amend work/expand or change stuff in any way no longer upset me. And to be honest, I have too much work to do to dwell on any individual point greatly. If stuff comes up repeatedly you know you need to address it, other than that you just store it away and it'll pop into your mind the next time you approach a similar situation. Fortunately I work with very competent individuals and their comments normally allow me to learn either factually or in terms of style or whatever it may be.

So how do you get to a point where you're no longer upset and hurt by feedback. I would recommend you seek feedback at every opportunity (especially if it is stuff that doesn't really matter much to you) to help you gain perspective on it. In particular you could validate the feedback by rewriting a piece of work and asking the reviewer to reassess it to reinforce your learning. I did that once at university and it was very insightful into what that person was after in terms of writing style and composition, even if I doubt it really made me learn the topic any more.

Also bear in mind that unless somebody has taken a violent dislike against you they will normally want you to do well. If the people working for me do a good job it makes my life much easier. And it is nice to see people develop and succeed. As a result of that I find myself getting very annoyed if somebody I know is able to do a great job doesn't, because I know how good they can be...and they'll know about it.

Likewise, if I review somebody's work regularly I will also notice if they repeat the same error over and over...chances are they will get a piece of work back where each and every one of these errors is highlighted...to annoy them enough to address that particular issue. Works pretty much every time unless the person is so arrogant they do not believe they got it wrong.

So accept you are fallible, accept that you are going to get comments you like more or less and see it as part of the learning process, not as personal attack.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:26 PM on July 20, 2009

Best answer: Compartmentalize. A criticism of your work or your writing or your housekeeping or whatever is not a criticism of you. Try thinking of each instance as unique and separate-- even verbalize it. Got a lot of red pencil on the essay? Say OUTLOUD-- "the professor thinks that this sentence needs clarification". As you're getting used to this, do it with each separate remark on the essay (or whatever). (Um, do this somewhere you're alone, for obvious reasons, or invite a credible invisible friend.)

This will have the effect both of helping you deal with constructive criticism and from recognizing when criticism is meant to be personal and destructive. And personal, destructive criticism can be easily compartmentalized by telling the criticizer to fuck off (at least in your head :)).
posted by nax at 5:56 PM on July 20, 2009

um inVENT an invisible friend (of course, if you already have one, by all means, invite him)
posted by nax at 5:57 PM on July 20, 2009

Response by poster: I already do what nasreddin suggested. It works reasonably well, but I'd like to get to a point where I don't have to.

Obviously I already understand the value of criticism or I would not be asking this question.

Thanks for your suggestions. I have marked the answers I found most helpful.
posted by molybdenumblue at 2:37 AM on July 21, 2009

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