how do you stop caring what other people think?
April 18, 2012 6:35 AM   Subscribe

When you have very low self esteem how do you brush off negative feedback?

I recently had someone very, very close to me who has been my biggest champion and whose opinion I highly value tell me abruptly that they had lost faith in my ability without much explanation. I was crushed, and have been unable to bring myself to work on anything creative since.

I had a similar experience about a year ago, when I was feeling down on my looks, foolishly asked some strangers for their opinion and was told I was ugly. That sent me into a deep depression for about six months.

I am feeling the same urge to withdraw into myself now. It’s been a week and I’m still having trouble functioning. I know intellectually one person’s opinion shouldn’t matter much to me, but I am having a hard time feeling that way. I doubt myself so much about almost everything that when I receive harsh criticism it confirms what's already in my head. My skin seems to get thinner rather than thicker over time. How do I stop caring and start believing in myself?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
The hard thing is that there aren't that many Quick fixes to this problem. You can try positive self-talk in the short term ("I really like the X I created", "My eyes are pretty"), but I agree that the thing that helped me most was therapy.

Another long-term thing that helped was getting more physically fit. Being able to do a pushup (or run a mile, or whatever) is a concrete thing that I can measure that I can Do, and it makes me stronger, and that makes me feel more confident.

I've been where you are, and trust me, you deserve to believe in yourself. And when you do, you really won't care so much what the haters think, because you'll know that you're putting your whole awesome self into your efforts, and that's all that matters.
posted by ldthomps at 7:14 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most neuroses are caused by inappropriate, irrational abstraction. Basically, you take something fairly specific and turn it into something vague. For example, someone says they've lost faith in your ability -- this upsets you greatly and you begin to think it's true -- you've completely lost your ability. It's gone. They must be right, right?

Well, pick that apart for a second and you find a number of unsupportable assumptions:

1) The critical person is not the one who has lost the ability to judge things well
2) The critical person's opinion is universally held by all of mankind. There is no one on the planet who will ever like what you do, or failing that, only jerks will like what you do.
3) If you have indeed suffered a decline in quality, this decline is permanent and no amount of focus or effort can get back what has been lost forever.
4) In the extremely rare occurrence that you are unable to do something you once valued (say for instance you're a professional roller skater, but then you hit 55 and you can't skate so well anymore) you will never find something else to do ever again.

And so on. I could keep going, and I'm sure you could too. The reason you're asking the question is because you have a hint that many of the conclusions you are jumping to are unsupported, but you've been somewhat unable to formulate why. The why is, you're abstracting too much.

This problem tends to affect creative intelligent people most of all because… you can't have abstraction without creativity. That's what creativity is. And we've come full circle.

This is more or less what REBT is about. If you're interested, go get this book.
posted by Feel the beat of the rhythm of the night at 7:37 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

To stop caring about other people is to withdraw socially which will not address the underlying issues or improve your quality of life. To the contrary, it may also make issues like your depression much worse.

Instead, I'll offer my perspective on how to deal with receiving negative feedback.

I have found it's helpful to isolate the feedback from the intent.

Are they telling you out of concern for you? To be funny? To be hurtful?

If the feedback is negative and the intent is either humorous or hurtful (like your example), it is still helpful to separate intent from the comment itself. In your example, the strangers were either intending to be funny or be just plain hurtful. If someone is saying something just to be hurtful, considering that fact separately from what was actually said makes it easier to handle internally.

Sometimes we are given feedback and sometimes we can be the ones to ask for it. If you're reaching out for feedback you should only do so with people whom you have some kind of a relationship with. Those people are better able to provide meaningful, helpful feedback because they know you better and can consider more factors.

If after reaching out to a friend, family, or coworker and they do not give you serious or helpful feedback attempt to reframe by giving them a context or your reason for asking: "C'mon, I'm asking you as a friend because I'm concerned about how my ____ is effecting my relationships."

Also, pretty much everything is on a subjective spectrum. Physical appearance is extremely subjective whereas bad breath is a little subjective and a little objective. As such, it can be important to reach out to a few people if it's important to you. Keep an eye on your intent, are you asking to grow/improve? For positive/negative validation? We all need externalized validation from time to time but it's easy to build a dependence on it.

In my own battle with my sense of self-worth, I have found focused goal-oriented mindfulness-based therapies like CBT to be the most helpful. Unfortunately, with issues of self-worth we tend to be our own worst enemy.

Be well and take care of yourself. :)
posted by iheijoushin at 7:42 AM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Long story short: the bastards may get you down, but don't let them prevent you from doing anything that you might want to do.

I think people's abilities are fairly constant over time, or they improve with practice. The only way an ability will degrade, typically, is if you don't use it.

Someone wrote out "Do It Anyway" on the green or blue yesterday. To me it always bears repeating, so here's a link (annoying tune on Web site, content rather than form is what matters). As someone suggested here, you can substitute "you" for "God" if that is a turn-off.

Like you, I've been shut down by someone's pulling out support from under me. Years later, I thought to myself, "Who did they think they were?" Answer: people fail you, and some people have massive egos. The ones who want to "help" you sometimes fall into the latter category. Unfortunately the ones with low self-esteem often attract that type of person.

What are you interested in? Art? Music? What do you like or dislike? Exploring those areas ON YOUR OWN and developing some assessment abilities without listening to the voices in other people's heads might help you be able to look at your own work accurately, with the critical eye that helps rather than hinders.
posted by Currer Belfry at 7:44 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

You say “I know intellectually one person’s opinion shouldn’t matter much to me”, and you seem like a very intelligent individual. Those as 2 good things working in your favor. I’m sure that there are many more good aspects about you that are working in your favor, too. I’ve been where you are (more times that I would like to admit) and I know that it is difficult to have a good sense of self-esteem and not to let negative input from others hurt. Try to focus on positive aspects about yourself and realize that they are worthy parts of being human, worthy parts of being a member of society, worthy traits for being a beautiful person. I do not think that one’s skin needs to get thicker over time in order to be a well-balanced individual. You don’t want to be a thick skinned person. Perspective on what you want and what you need to be well is what is important.

I don’t know who this “biggest champion” is/was in your life and I don’t know what the circumstances are around his/her opinion change about you. It seems like you don’t know what the circumstances are either. But if that person said to you that he/she has lost faith in your ability, then you might want to redefine your relationship with that person.

Do you need to know what changed in this person’s mind? No!
Do you need to beat yourself up for this change in his/her mind? No!
Does this change in the other’s mind need to make you feel sick, to cause your health to fail, to stifle your ability to work and to be creative? No!
Does this other person control you? No!
Does this other person regulate your feelings? No!
Do you decide what you are going to do with your life and how you feel? Yes!

Who decides on what you will do next? You do!
posted by WestChester22 at 7:49 AM on April 18, 2012

It may help to deliberately expose yourself to low-stakes criticism. Join a group (Toastmasters, a writing group, an improv troupe, etc.) where the work you do is subject to "crits," where others in your peer circle are encouraged to rate your work.

The more you listen to criticism, the easier it becomes to take the parts that are helpful, and ignore the parts that are not. It doesn't always translate into personal criticism (saying, "This painting is ugly" is way different for most people I know than saying, "You're ugly," for instance), but the repeated exposure to talk that's other-than-positive for a good purpose may help you.
posted by xingcat at 8:06 AM on April 18, 2012

Your reaction could stem from feelings of helplessness which often have to do with depression. So with the sudden criticism about your work from someone you trusted but who provided you with little explanation - you are allowed to ask them for an explanation, you have that right. You are also allowed to think that complete strangers who call you ugly are douchebags. But you have to feel worthy of those rights and at the moment you are trapped by feeling unable to help yourself. So I would get treatment for your depression if you haven't already.
posted by mleigh at 10:18 AM on April 18, 2012

These feelings are common to creative people; no one likes negative feedback. It can be crushing, I know. I've been there.

The trick seems to be to keep working through it. You might *know* that what you're creating today sucks. But you have to go through that to get to where you're really good at whatever skill you're working on.

Remember that the impact of criticism is often not the intent of the critic. But when the intent is evil, that’s what the block button’s for.
posted by JDHarper at 11:19 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I seriously thought for a second that I blacked out and wrote this question.

It is one I've been dealing with my whole life. I remember criticisms in vivid, painful flashbacks like I heard them for the first time over & over. I have a pile of "could have been" careers and interests that I stopped doing due to criticism. Last month I almost gave up photography because my friend expressed disdain that I didn't know how to operate a digital camera because I worked for a photographer when I was 16. Before digital cameras.

I constantly question myself and doubt myself and hate myself and downplay my accomplishments, and it doesn't matter if people say things in jest, to be helpful, or just to be jerks, their words pile on me like concrete and keep me down.

And as a writer, I think I have stopped and started my career about 10 times over due to rejection letters and critiques. And if one more person tells me to "grow thicker skin," I am going to punch them in the face. It is hard and I completely understand that what you feel is very real and hurtful.

In the past few months I have started writing again, submitting several stories and attending a writing group that critiques my work. I am not going to BS you and tell you that it is easy, or that I don't end up depressed for days after I get negative feedback. But I have learned to keep going by doing a few things:

Getting perspective from another source. If I have a really hard day at the writing group, I share my frustrations with a few friends who also read my writing. Sometimes people really are just assholes, and having someone say, "No, this is why they are wrong for saying ___" sometimes helps, and balances my despair when they are right, so I can gain some perspective and try and fix the problem instead of giving up.

My therapist is helping me change my inner dialogue, from using extreme terms when thinking about things into slightly less dramatic terms. Instead of thinking "I cannot bother to try because I am horrible at it and will never get anywhere," to "I am feeling really self conscious about doing this thing because people hated it before."

I was really suspicious that changing a few words around would help me, but it seems to actually take the edge off.

And finally, lately I have been interested in the stories of people who are successful and that I admire. The thing I have heard a lot lately from that Creatively Successful Person is that there were people who were better at their craft than they were, but they were the ones who because successful simply because they didn't give up. Despite people telling them they couldn't or shouldn't do something, they kept going, and eventually they drew in people who didn't want to criticize them all the damn time, but actually champion for them.

I hope you continue to be you, because there is only one you. Don't stop caring, because that is part of what makes you wonderful, but work on weighing the good with the bad, and don't give up doing what makes you happy. This world is filled with enough discarded dreams.
posted by haplesschild at 11:19 AM on April 19, 2012

I've struggled with this over the years but have massively upgraded my self-esteem in the past year. Here are some things that I think helped:

(1) Valuing and accepting myself first and foremost, no matter what ends up happening in my life. I went from being results-oriented to being more process-oriented, and that really helps, because while I want good results, life/art/new skills/etc. is unpredictable, especially in the newb stages. I feel more good about my track record and my potential instead of having my self-esteem be dependent on short-term external factors. I.e. I trust my judgment about my capabilities more highly than others, because I believe that I have a reasonable amount of self-awareness.

(2) The above hasn't made me worse at accepting criticism. It made me way better at receiving feedback because my self-worth isn't tied to the project I'm working on. Instead, I see it as suggested improvements to what I'm working on, because the current version isn't working. It doesn't mean that I'll never make something great. When someone tells me that the legs in my life drawing looks funny, I don't tear that page in half, I just fix the legs or focus on drawing legs for a bit. Eventually I improve and people critique different things, then I change my focus. Now, I see criticism as a learning opportunity more than anything.

(3) I've become more picky with regards to who I listen to. Average Jane Dane on the street is not an expert. Instead, if I want advice on dressing myself better, I ask well-dressed friends. If I want advice on drawing, I ask friends who can draw well. Some people are good critics without actively working in the trade themselves (look at Roger Ebert), but they have to prove to me that they are a good critic before I let their words take space in my brain. If people aren't qualified to give a feedback, I ignore it, because it's just noise. It's the difference between asking a question on Metafilter versus on 4chan. I assume everyone is ignorant until proven otherwise.

(4) I only pay attention to feedback if it's specific and actionable. If it's vague, or too general, or doesn't allow me to act on it (or actively shuts me down and says I don't have any potential), I ask for clarification. If the person doesn't clarify, then I shrug and work with the feedback that is actually useful, because life is too short.

(5) I've changed my internal dialogue. On a scale of 1-10, from most self-deprecating to most positive, I went from 3 to 7. It still falters every now and then, but my emotional-health alarm bells ring whenever it drops below 5 and I make sure I shake some perspective in me, or do a sanity-check with a friend.

(6) I realized that I can be happy without being perfect, I can be loved without being a "somebody", and I can have fun without needing to accomplish something magnificent. While I have goals and aspirations, my self-worth is no longer tied to external events with factors beyond my control. I value myself no matter what happens in my life, and I have the right to be happy no matter the circumstance. This has made me content with what control I do have in my life.
posted by Hawk V at 8:59 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

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