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Criticism: Positively Re-framing It So You Don’t Feel Like Shit All The Time

Criticism: Positively Re-framing It So You Don’t Feel Like Shit All The Time
Carly Jacobs
 “Criticism is something you can easily avoid by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” ~Aristotle
Have you ever met someone who never, ever rocks the boat? Who has no opinions on anything ever? I worked with a woman years ago who was just like this. She was so afraid of ever receiving criticism, she was kind of paralysed by it. We went to grab a sandwich for lunch together one day and she choose a chicken salad sandwich WITHOUT brie cheese on it. I gasped and said in mock outrage ‘Why would you NOT get the one with brie? Brie is savoury sandwich Nutella. It’s basically not optional’. She went bright red and pretty much didn’t speak to me for the rest of the week. I felt terrible because obviously I was joking and just trying to make conversation but she took that as a criticism and was very uncomfortable around me for the next few days.
This is an extreme example but in general, most humans aren’t very good at receiving criticism. I know I’m not and it’s something I’ve really had to work at. For example, I speak really loudly all the time. I’ve had several people tell me to use my inside voice in cafes and you know what? It hurts my feelings when people say that. I don’t want to be the loud, shouty person in the cafe that’s ruining everyone else’s lunch but with my general life enthusiasm coupled with years of drama and vocal training, it’s just habit for me to speak really loudly and clearly all the time. The way I learned to deal with this is to re-frame the criticism. I realised in this particular scenario that my feelings were the least important part of this equation. I didn’t want to ruin other diners experiences by talking over the top of them and my dining companions didn’t want everyone in the cafe hearing my responses to their personal questions. So the only solution was to admit I needed reminding to tone this habit down and not get all butt hurt everytime someone said ‘Inside voice Carly!’. 
If you struggle with criticism, here are a few things you can do to help re-frame negative feedback and put it in a more positive light.
1. Look at it as an opportunity for personal growth
Yeah, it really sucks when people point out things they don’t like about you. That’s never fun. You know what’s worse? Having people talk about your bad behaviour behind your back. Wouldn’t you rather you know that your colleagues found you stopping by their desk for a chat really distracting? Rather than you continue to do it and just annoy them every day? Wouldn’t you rather someone tell you that you spend too much time on your phone at work so you have the opportunity to rectify that behaviour before it gets escalated to upper management? There are employment laws that protect people from getting disciplined or fired at work without warnings and when you receive criticism at work, you’re actually being given an opportunity to improve. Which is a much better option than the alternative of losing your job without any warning.
2. Look at it as an opportunity to improve relationships 
Receiving criticism at work is one thing but receiving criticism from friends is another thing entirely. If you get some criticism from a friend, it usually means they care enough about you to tell you. Think about it. If a mate of yours starts behaving like a jerk and you don’t really care about the friendship that much, you just kind of ghost them right? You spend less and less time with them until the friendship fizzles out. If it’s someone you REALLY love, you tell them gently and kindly because you want them in your life. If a very close friend gives you some negative feedback, it’s almost always out of love and them giving you that feedback is just as painful for them as it for you. Try not to make it harder by reacting badly.
3. Look at it as a compliment 
I’ve been writing on the internet for over a decade, so I get criticism nearly every week. Sometimes several times a week. A lot of the time it’s moronic bullshit but sometimes I get pulled up on some language I’ve used that might be triggering or a phrase I wrote that could be misinterpreted. Rather than get defensive when people point this out, I thank them. I try to be inclusive in my language so when someone takes the time to point out that something I’ve written wasn’t appropriate, I’m grateful because it gives me the opportunity to improve my craft. Also, most of the time when people email me about the nuance of language, they’re are so lovely and gracious I’m just thrilled they care enough about my work to educate me on something I wasn’t aware of. I’m a very socially conscious person but I can’t be across all language appropriation all the time. I rely on people who are in these niche circles to tell me what’s happening with language in those circles and I really appreciate them giving me their time.
This week on Straight & Curly, Kelly and I talking about criticism and how to re-frame it in a more positive way.

How are you at accepting criticism? Okay? Or do you need to work on it a little?

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  1. Michaela 6 years ago

    I think there’s a difference between legit and constructive criticism and just outright saying something to make a person feel uncomfortable or inadequate – especially if you don’t know their history or why they make choices they do.

    I feel like I can relate to the woman you mentioned at the beginning of your post a lot. As someone who suffered a full decade of verbal and mental abuse from a loved one (who often framed it as “I’m just joking, lighten up!”) sometimes I still catch myself getting triggered by certain types of personal critiques framed as humor and react in much the same way she did. I’d become very uncertain about how that person really viewed me, yknow?

    I think it’s very important for us all to remember that remarks that seem harmless to one person can have unintended side-effects for someone else. Granted, we can’t always know what’s going to happen, but being mindful and like you said, accepting and integrating the feedback you get, is the best way to make honest connections with others.

    • Author
      Carly Jacobs 6 years ago

      I felt really bad about it and wish I hadn’t said it but it was honestly just a way to make conversation and lighten the mood. We can’t expect everyone to police themselves constantly. Most other people would have said ‘Ew gross, I HATE brie!’ and what would have followed was a conversation about the foods we don’t like. It was a pretty extreme reaction and honestly the first time I’ve had someone react like that.

  2. Cindy 6 years ago

    I agree with Michaela on this one. I once said something to an (ex) friend in a joking way, and she got so offended. I said I was just teasing. She told me something I’ll remember always – that, for her, teasing sounds a lot like criticism. And not the good, constructive kind of criticism, like when someone tells you you’re pronouncing a word incorrectly (I love it when people tell me that sort of thing, because I can stop doing it).

    The woman buying the sandwich really should’ve told you to mind your own business, but she was obviously too afraid to do so. If you really are loud, as you’ve said, she probably felt that everyone was staring, while you were telling her what she should eat. I would’ve felt humiliated too…

    • Author
      Carly Jacobs 6 years ago

      I still feel terrible about it but I can’t modify my behaviour to account for extreme reactions like that. I was trying to make her feel comfortable by joking around with her and starting a conversation and it totally backfired. Believe me, I’ve reverse engineered this scenario in my head a hundred times and there’s no way I could have predicted that reaction. Also if she had told me to mind my own business (which she was totally entitled to do) I would have been devastated as I was trying to be friendly. It was a conversational joke that was meant to lead to a discussion about foods we don’t like. I’m horrified she was upset by it but I really can’t think of anyway to stop that happening in the future without removing all humour and general conversation starters from my vocabulary. I didn’t attack her appearance or say anything personal, it was a simple comment about how awesome brie cheese is. I’m still trying to figure out exactly where I went wrong.

      • Cindy 6 years ago

        Oh, dear, Carly… Maybe you could (quietly, and in private) ask her what went wrong, and explain how your own social awkwardness sometimes gets you into trouble. A simple apology goes a long way. I used to make so many inappropriate comments (I mean, really a lot – it horrifies me to remember) in the name of humour, and trying to break the ice and get to know people better. Which is totally what you were trying to do, right? I can see no malice was intended, and this could become a great learning tool for you.

        Because I’m so interested in people and why they do what they do, I was always getting into other people’s business too, when really what someone else is eating, wearing, thinking, or doing, is none of my business – unless it affects me directly. Do you really believe you can’t, or shouldn’t have to, modify your behaviour? I’ve had to modify mine so much from when I was in my 20s and 30s, because I was always having to apologise to people, and I think it was from trying to act like an extrovert when I was really an introvert. Knowing we’re a bit awkward ourselves can be half the battle won.

        I still go to do what you did at times, and I have to almost physically stop myself. There are so many other ways to engage people in conversation, but who teaches us that? Unfortunately, it’s not in the school curriculum… I think it was brave of you to write about it – I hope you’ll let us know how you go with the follow-up if you talk to her about it. Opening up to people can pave the way for deeper understanding.

        • Author
          Carly Jacobs 6 years ago

          I can’t follow up, we don’t work together anymore. And of course I monitor my behaviour (constantly, actually) but this reaction to a joke about cheese was unprecedented. I would never make a joke about anything triggering (like domestic violence, racism, ect) but there’s no way I could predict a reaction like that from what I said. As a confident extrovert I spend a lot of time apologising but you know what? I have feelings to and working in that frosty office where she didn’t speak to me for days was awful. If I say something that was genuinely innapropriate, I will always apologise and avoid saying anything like that again but in this case…. I was making a joke about cheese. Is it unreasonable to suggest she overreacted? Especially as I can’t find a single thing in what I said to be offensive? If I said ‘Are you not eating brie because you’re on a diet?’ that would be more understandable but what I said was ‘Don’t you like brie? I love brie.’. I don’t mean this to sound defensive (it’s actually a really great discussion! :-)) but I spend a lot of time and energy trying to make other people feel comfortable in social situations and being met in the middle occasionally wouldn’t be the worst thing. xxx

          • Cindy 6 years ago

            Yes, you’re quite right, Carly… I was just trying to think of reasons she might have reacted like that, and why you felt so bad afterwards, which was why I suggested you may be an introvert in extrovert’s clothing. Introversion isn’t the same as shyness, or even social anxiety, but a lot of reflection about things suggested it. Not meaning to psychoanalyse you, by any means… (back-peddle, back-peddle, haha!).

            When I think back to the time period when I was working in an office, there was a lot of jousting and fun teasing, and it wasn’t until many years later, and not in that environment, that I made a quite inoffensive (to me) joke about something a friend was doing and she got all huffy too, and I started re-thinking the way I interacted with people. But then, years later, I realised that person was a narcissist, but that episode with her put me off having fun with people, because *she* couldn’t take a joke.

            I’ve been thinking about your post on and off throughout the day, so it’s a great post in the sense that it’s making people (well, me anyway) think about social interaction, even if not ‘how to accept criticism’ as you meant it. On reflection, there *were* many other people in my life who I tippy-toed around and tried harder to please/be friendly with, and after much reading on the subject, I realised those people were quite narcissistic too, and I reacted to them by being more pleasing. I try not to do that anymore, because it’s definitely not healthy.

            And, to be honest, your comment wouldn’t have humiliated me – on reading your post again, what I at first thought was a dig at the woman – wasn’t. You were saying how yummy brie is. Anyway, I would’ve chosen the brie too, and we could’ve talked about food until the cows came home. But you wouldn’t have needed to break the ice with me because we probably would already have been chatting at work… Great post – lots of food for thought…

  3. Elise 6 years ago

    I really love this post, Carly. I’ve had a lot of professional feedback lately to not take things so personally… ergh, sure – that’s like asking me not to breathe?!?
    However, I’m working hard on at least recognising when I am taking things personally, and seek out the opportunity for personal growth when I get this feedback. I’m still a work in progress!
    I’ve also had the feedback about having a loud voice. For me, mostly it’s about the delivery of this feedback, rather than the content! I am going to reframe my loud voice as “my general life enthusiasm.
    Really wonderful and thought provoking post. Thank you!

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