Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Denise Green of Brilliance Inc.
Recently, a client of mine told me he was a little embarrassed about taking criticism personally. He felt that, at his level in the organization, he should have tougher skin, so to speak.
I asked him, “So, do you think you’re unusual for taking criticism personally?”
I assured him that every client I’ve ever worked with, no matter how amazing, successful, and outwardly confident they appear, feels the sting of criticism.
And there are good reasons why. One is that they care; they want to do excellent work and be seen as capable, competent, well-intentioned people. But there’s a deeper reason: humans are biologically wired to take things personally.
Human beings are one of the only animals on the planet who are dependent on others for more than a decade after birth. Sea turtles, for example, are born alone in the sand and left to dodge predators while scurrying for the deep. Only a fraction of the turtles make it, yet there are no turtle psychologists or self-help books for the survivors—just hard shells.
As infants we learn how to connect and communicate so we get basic care. As a result of this early fragility, nearly every human suffers at some level from two basic fears: I’m not good enough, and I will never be loved.
These fears plague us to varying degrees depending on our upbringing and our current mental and emotional state (e.g. how much sleep we’ve had, or how much stress we feel).
Some people try to develop virtual hard shells so they feel the sting less intensely or less often, but there’s a significant cost to this approach. Because we can’t filter which emotions we feel, we sacrifice real connection with all our emotions. They risk losing the ability to authentically and fully connect with other people. They risk losing the ability to feel joy and meaning.
There’s a better way to deal with these universal fears.
Here are steps you can take to develop emotional resilience:
1. Notice & Name:
Instead of immediately attaching negative meaning to your reaction, just notice it and name it for what it is—your adaptive “I’m not enough” story.
Then take a deep breath and
- How have I personalized this in ways that aren’t grounded in facts? (e.g., what assumptions am I making?)
- How might this person be triggered? (What might they fear?)
- How can I respond to their best intention with the best in me, and mitigate their fear?
- What piece of the criticism resonates and how can I use it to grow?
Remind yourself of the truth. Come up with your own handy mantra that’s easy to remember and brings you a sense of relief from the “unworthy” story. It could be as simple as “This is just a story that no longer serves me.” I have one client that tells her inner infant to “Shut up.”
4. Be Transparent (Without being emotional):
Be honest with others and say something like “I realize that I’m taking this personally and I don’t think that’s your intent.” Then take a breath and respond from the part of you that knows that you are both divine.
5. Thank Them
Yes, thank them for their criticism. While it may not take courage to anonymously blast someone online, when someone shares their perceptions about us directly, it’s a gift, even if it wasn’t shared in the most gracious way.
No Shame Required
The more you practice these steps the easier it will be to shift your emotional state to one that’s more authentically confident, where you confidently assess your strengths and weaknesses without judgment.
Now that you know that the rest of humankind is taking things personally too, why not give someone some genuine praise today? Trust me, they don’t hear it enough. Start with yourself.
Books and articles:
- Pema Chodron: Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves From Old Habits and Fears There’s also an audio version so you can listen in the car.
- Brene Brown: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms How We Live, Love, and Lead
- Article by David Rock: Managing With the Brain in Mind
This may be the best article ever written about how fear triggers our brain and what to do about it.
“No matter what problem might arise in a relationship, the first step toward solving it generally involves redirecting your attention — usually outward to the other person.”
– Winefred Galagher, RAPT