Are you taking feedback too personally?

Jul 13, 2015

… well, are you, you total dummy? PS: I HATE your shirt.

… just kidding! See, if that made you extremely irritated before you realized that a) I don’t know you, sir/ma’am and b) I can’t see your shirt, you may be prone to reflexively taking things personally.

And I don’t blame you, at all! It’s human nature to take things personally! To test this theory, tell any kindergartener that her picture of a doggy is objectively terrible, and watch her face crumple. No, no, don’t do that, you monster!

Listen, it is human nature. It is, likewise, extremely laudable to invest in your work! Thus, it is natural to sometimes have your feelings hurt when that work is criticized.

That’s okay! You can’t help your feelings! But taking things too personally can occasionally be problematic for freelancers, who often need to take constructive notes in order to succeed.

Unfortunately, you cannot stand up, flip over a table, shout at a client that they will never understand your work because you are an ARTISTE and they are LUNKHEADS… and expect to get paid.

… I know, it’s not fair. They may indeed be visionless lunkheads, and you may indeed be justified in being upset – and which of us does not occasionally wish to overturn a table?

But taking things so personally that you cannot progress isn’t helpful for YOUR career (forget the lunkheads).

A few questions to ask yourself:

Are you taking “short-term” notes as “long-term” judgments?

Let us use an example. Let’s say you’ve been hired to write a short article for a client.

If the client tells you “I don’t really like the tone of this article,” do you hear:

a) I hate your writing, you talentless hack
b) Your piece sucks and you suck
c) You’re a bitter, angry person since your divorce, Karl, and the bitterness and anger is seeping through even in this piece
d) Give up forever
e) I don’t really like the tone of this article

You may indeed cycle through all of these thoughts (you’ll find love again soon, Karl!), but unless you’re mostly ‘e,’ you may be taking short-term, conditional notes as judgments about you, your overall competency, your future prospects, or even your personality.

Please try not to do this! Even the most negative client feedback tends to be about a piece of work, and not about you, yourself.

You (and your career) are bigger than ANY one piece. Everybody makes mistakes, screws up, or doesn’t see eye-to-eye with clients sometimes; don’t define yourself by a little criticism.

Even if they do criticize your work on a wider scale, that’s ONE OPINION; you can never please all the people, all the time.

Try not to let it affect your overall sense of self, or project more meaning onto it than it has. The more you can practice taking short-term notes as just that – short-term – the more you can let go of feeling personally attacked.

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Do you let yourself step back?

Okay, phew, Picky Client did NOT like that graphic design. Maybe they were rude or downright mean about it; maybe things got contentious.

When criticism gets to you, do you give yourself permission to feel those feelings for a bit, and breathe? Do you take a step back, and allow yourself to cool off? Do you talk to a friend or loved one about the issue? Do you try to get some perspective?

It’s been my anecdotal experience that people who chronically take things too personally tend to not give themselves the time and space to ACTUALLY FEEL things, and then let go as well as they can – instead, they either try to stuff those feelings down into suppression, or obsess endlessly about the criticism.

The former path leads to future explosions (and often, resistance to change); the latter, neuroticism, negative thinking, and self-doubt.

Next time you get particularly irksome critique, give yourself ten minutes to cool down; take a walk, get a snack, go hide in a bathroom (yes, that’s okay), write down your feelings and delete the document, vent briefly to a friend.

Ask yourself whether you’ll remember this in a year – even in a month. Remind yourself of the last time you had a big success, or how well you’ve handled past projects.

I know that criticism can feel HUGE in the moment, but reminding yourself that it’s a molehill (not a mountain) can help you gain perspective and move forward in a positive fashion.

Is criticism causing you a LOT of personal distress?

It’s natural to be annoyed or even upset by some criticism; one can try to be zen and open-minded all the time, but it’s just inevitable that someday, someone will say something that really sticks in your craw. Darn them.

The problem is when normal, constructive criticism makes you want to quit altogether, or makes you question your overall self-worth. Here I’ll remind you not to work with jerks; if you’re feeling constantly ridiculed and debased because of ACTUAL ridicule and debasement, the problem isn’t you.

Listen, some of us are just wired towards perfectionism; we replay failures and missteps over and over again in our brains. If that sounds like you – if you beat yourself up endlessly over little errors, and consistently overlook positive feedback in favor of negative comments – consider getting some professional help.

There’s no shame in occasionally taking things too personally (everybody does it), but a thought pattern that irrationally makes you feel fundamentally worthless or incompetent doesn’t do you (or anyone else around you) any favors.

Odds are that you are a worthy, competent, smart person, who can use valid criticism to refine and improve your work… and, by the way:

I like your shirt.

Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.