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The Devil of Getting Criticized

Summary:
For most people, criticism is hard to take. I find myself wishing sometimes that I could impose a rule on the universe that no one ever gets to criticize me about anything. I find the anonymous criticism in referee reports and from student evaluations especially difficult to take. If I knew who was saying the criticism, I might be able to see how little authority that criticism had. But anonymous sentences on a page seem like scripture—as if they were the word of God. A big part of the reason criticism hurts so much is that most of us internally amplify the criticism we hear, when there are many reasons to take even the level of criticism

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The Devil of Getting Criticized

For most people, criticism is hard to take. I find myself wishing sometimes that I could impose a rule on the universe that no one ever gets to criticize me about anything.

I find the anonymous criticism in referee reports and from student evaluations especially difficult to take. If I knew who was saying the criticism, I might be able to see how little authority that criticism had. But anonymous sentences on a page seem like scripture—as if they were the word of God.

A big part of the reason criticism hurts so much is that most of us internally amplify the criticism we hear, when there are many reasons to take even the level of criticism actually proffered with a grain of salt. (It is not uncommon for someone to seem as if criticism is sliding off them without any effect, but who take it hard internally.)

Here are some of the reasons almost all criticism should be treated as at best a source of partial truths:

  • Many people offering criticism are simply off-base or mistaken in their criticism.

  • Often, criticism is a true statement of what someone sees, but what they see tells a lot more about them than the person being criticized.

  • Often, the one criticizing knows that something bothers them, but don’t know what it is. That is, even if there is a good reason for given less than a five-star rating, they may misdiagnose what was wrong.

  • Sometimes those criticizing are even more inarticulate, making it very difficult to get useful feedback from what they are saying.

  • Even when someone has something useful to say in criticism, they are often emotionally clueless in how they deliver the information.

  • People often give criticism when angry, which may make them want to wound with the criticism. Then whatever useful feedback there might be is tinged with emotional poison.

Inside your own mind, rather than apply all of these caveats to criticism you receive, it is likely you amplify criticism:

  • It is common to focus on negative information and ignore positive information. If there are ten bits of praise and one criticism, guess which one you will remember.

  • Rumination can keep the words of criticism (or images of nonverbal signals you take to be critical) running in an endless loop in your brain.

  • Your brain may well rummage around for odds and ends in your memory that seem to provide evidence for the criticism.

  • You may well catastrophize and simply imagine something several times worse than what was said—even if you can’t find a lot of supporting evidence in your memory banks.

  • You may imagine not only that the truth about you is worse than what was said, but also that the potential consequences are much worse than they really are. If you have an flaws, surely that means the world will end, doesn’t it? :(

  • The criticism may remind you of some past trauma or past fear.

It isn’t pretty. But good luck getting people to stop criticizing you. The only reliable way to avoid an awful experience is to take criticism with a grain of salt rather than amplifying it. That will require seeing things clearly and having a high level of mental fitness. My hope is that some of the blog posts flagged below will be helpful in getting you to a higher level of mental fitness.

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Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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