“Oh God, here it comes…”
You know the feeling — that sense of dread you get in response to a certain kind of phrase you hear all the time in everyday conversation, when people are attempting an awkward reverse maneuver into saying something completely awful.
For example, when someone opens with “No offense, but…” it’s usually a cue for some wanton you-triggering on their part. Just like a casually dropped in, “I don’t want to sound patronizing, but…” typically signals: “You really are beneath me; I’m about to generously loogie my wisdom onto you; you’re welcome.” And how, “With all due respect…” tends to imply an unsaid “which I believe to be a minuscule amount.” Not to mention the old, “I’m not being racist/homophobic/sexist, but…” which always, always, like a meaty burp before vomit, gives you a foretaste of the horrible stink that’s about to spill out.
Then, of course, there’s, “Don’t take this personally…” This is nearly always the precursor to some sort of hurtful critical bombshell or other, and is perhaps the godfather of all the oh-God-here-it-comes gambits listed above. Because the odd thing about these mitigating phrases is that they’re themselves all safeguards against personal criticism. Feeble defenses though they are, unmeant caveats like these are intended to stave off a measure of expected slap-back from the person on the receiving end. No one likes being found fault with, not even when they’re busy dishing out those hard truths themselves.
“No one likes criticism, and it hits hardest when it’s just plain unfair,” says psychologist Harriet Lerner, author of The Dance of Anger. “It’s normal to take things personally as well, especially if we’re feeling anxious and insecure on a particular day.”
But not every upbraiding we receive amounts to out-and-out trolling; in fact, much of the criticism we encounter day-to-day has some justification — or at least, it’s well-intentioned. Even when we recognize it as constructive or advice that’s genuinely helpful to us, though, the thought of being judged and found wanting remains extremely hard to swallow. And in certain settings — especially in family life, at work, when we’re driving or when people are commenting on how we look — it can be almost impossible not to take the lightest of adverse remarks personally.
“We’re all wired for defensiveness,” explains Lerner. “It’s the normal and almost universal response to criticism, but it’s also the arch-enemy of our connections in family, friendship and work.” The trouble is, these are the areas of life where a hyper-sensitivity to perceived slights and one over-reaction too far can do the most, and most lasting, damage. “The challenge is to dial your defensiveness down in the face of criticism,” she advises — which isn’t in any way meant as a critique of your conduct, okay? She’s just trying to help here — “which means recognizing it.”
Defusing Criticism in the Workplace
Knowing how to take the personal out of the persnickety is an invaluable skill to develop, whatever your career. Coping with constructive criticism is “especially important in the work setting,” says Lerner, “where counter-criticizing, blaming and defensiveness are never useful and can cost you your job.”
When honing your stance of self-objectivity, the place to start is in the way you listen to your critics. According to Lerner, whether the carper on your shoulder is your boss, your peer or your subordinate, there’s a straightforward trick to this. “When we listen defensively, we listen for what we don’t agree with. Catch yourself when you see that you’re focusing only on the inaccuracies, distortions and exaggerations that will inevitably be there. Instead, listen only to discover what you can agree with.”
In practice, this means resisting the urge to “interrupt, correct facts, counter-criticize or leave the other person cut short. Just listen.” Then go one step further: “Apologize for the part you can agree with, even if it’s only two percent.” Hard as this might seem to begin with, it’s a habit that’s likely to get easier over time, and lead to more disinterested distance between your eggshell ego and the work that you do. Moreover, it’s a very good look for your professional image. “The ability to apologize indicates to the critical party that you’re capable of taking responsibility, not just evading it,” says Lerner.
Why Criticism Counts More Behind the Wheel
Sometimes it seems irrationally difficult not to take even the tiniest quibbling comment as a machete to your self-worth. A notoriously volatile context for criticism is when you’re in control of a moving vehicle. Is it because of the high-alert stress of multi-tasking? Or because so many drivers feel at one with their automobile as a weird symbiotic extension of themselves? According to Ashley Neal, a driving instructor based in northwest England who teaches other instructors and hosts a popular YouTube driver’s ed channel, the heightened auto-sensitivity we feel behind the wheel can be traced all the way back to the time we took our first lessons.
Learning to drive can be a stressful experience, and as Neal points out, it’s very often compounded by feelings of inadequacy and self-consciousness. New learners tend to default to a defensive attitude from the very start, he suggests, because “they’re on the back foot all the time; they think they’re in the way and doing something wrong. That frame of mind then seems to carry over into their actual learning.”
Neal’s method of easing this “sense that they’re always under pressure,” is to try to understand his student’s psychology, so he can tailor each lesson to how they’re thinking and feeling on the road. He gives the example of a recent student who was prone to erratic “escape” maneuvers: “When he was doing a turn, he might try to rush out of the way of the car behind. And it came to light that because his dad was quite aggressive toward learner drivers, he felt he was in the way all the time. And that contributed to him driving in that particular way.”
As Neal can attest, the criticism that’s so often hurled at learners from other road users can have serious repercussions on their confidence as drivers — and it can even impact their mental health. According to an October 2019 survey by the company Marmalade Insurance, well over three-quarters of U.K. driving instructors regularly experience abuse while teaching students; two-thirds of their pupils, meanwhile, have been targeted with insulting hand gestures, and around half with verbal abuse. For 22 percent of driving students, these sorts of experiences have reduced them to tears, and around eight percent have been so intimidated they’ve given up on driving all together.
“That pack mentality of ‘pick on the weakest’ does come across on a daily basis,” confirms Neal. One of his most popular YouTube videos (currently unavailable due to a third-party privacy dispute) is entitled “Always Blame the Learner Driver,” and it’s an 11-minute motoring anxiety-dream, which neatly illustrates how quickly people turn on the newbie — even when it’s someone else who ran the red light.
With so much anger, shade-throwing and finger-jabbing on the roads, it’s not surprising that so many of us retain a siege mentality into our driving careers, and that even the most placid of us can display diva levels of sensitivity as soon as we switch on the ignition.
Staying Objective When Being Objectified
Another area of heightened sensitivity for most of us is our appearance. It stands to reason that we would automatically take comments about our looks personally, since so much of our self-esteem tends to be invested in how other people see us. But when having your appearance critiqued is part of your job, do you learn to separate people’s aesthetic judgey-ness from your sense of self-worth? Holly, a former model, says in part yes, but in a more profound way, nu-uh.
Reflecting on her four years posing for cameras in both Australia and the U.K., she says, “You can’t not take it personally, because you just do. But at the same time, you kind of know what you’re getting yourself into: You’re selling yourself on your appearance; that’s what they signed you for. Basically, it’s a horrible industry!”
Her low point for being the target of cutting remarks was a two-year spell with an agency in London, which made her sign contracts committing to maintaining a certain weight and body size; the agency put their models through regular weight checks, “and I had to sign a document to say that I’d been using the gym.” Weigh-ins were also conducted on the shoots so photographers “knew they were getting exactly what they’d booked. If you weighed more, or if your measurements were different, you’d be told you couldn’t do the shoot and you’d get in a lot of trouble.”
The agency’s strict rules went hand-in-hand with a culture of casual criticism and shaming. Holly says she’d routinely be the recipient of offhanded comments like, “‘Oh, it’s just polite to wear makeup if you’re doing anything professional…’” Her experience of modeling, she says, was essentially one long series of “Oh God, here it comes…” moments, sweetened with the occasional tactical ego-boost. “When somebody like [a photographer or art director] gives you a compliment, it’s the highest high you can have,” she admits. “They knew what they were doing — they were very aware that a compliment from someone like that to the ‘cattle’ that they’re photographing means a lot.”
Overall, she recalls, “It was like living with a passive-aggressive grandmother who’s like: ‘You’re looking well, aren’t you? Step on the scales, let’s make sure you’re not too well.’” All of which took a heavy toll on her self-esteem: “It all felt a bit shocking, a bit embarrassing. It’s also hard to shake, when you’ve done something like that; it carries into other areas of your life.”
She says her strategy for coping with criticism was to picture it as part and parcel of the business of selling beauty. “I would just tell myself, ‘I knew what I signed up for; I can’t take it personally; it’s just my appearance.’” That mantra became, “as lame is it sounds, a suit of armor” on the job. “You wouldn’t think anything else, you’d block out any other thoughts, and it did become easier. But as much as you can tell yourself that it’s not you, you can’t shake it entirely.”
She now works for a TV channel (though not in front of the camera), and says that looking back, she’d be unlikely to recommend modeling as a healthy career choice, in large part because of the headspace she gave over to worrying about her appearance and her inability to escape echoes of critical voices. Once she’d left the modeling world behind, she found that, “A lot of the criticisms that they’d been giving me throughout stayed with me. I was trying to adjust back to normal life with this warped way of thinking. It was like I’d been brainwashed.”
Four years on, Holly still lives with moments of self-doubt when belittling comments about her appearance — from agency staff, photographers and their assistants — occasionally bubble to the surface. But their power to seriously undermine her confidence has at least worn off. “I can’t go fully back into that way of thinking, because I don’t hate myself anymore.”
How to Give Honest Criticism
As Holly’s experience illustrates, even those who seem able to insulate themselves well from criticism might be taking more of it onboard than we think — and too much can sink someone’s self-belief. Keenly aware of this, Neal prepares his students for the stern advice he’s going to have to dispense from the passenger’s seat by reframing the whole idea of criticism as a positive thing: “I try to create a nice learning environment by saying to them: ‘Listen, it’s not like it was in school. You don’t need to worry about getting things wrong.’ I say, ‘If you get things wrong, that’s pretty good, because then it gives us something that we can focus on and work with.’”
He also favors a coaching approach to drivers’ education, where much of the instruction is given verbally while the vehicle is stationary at the side of the road. “If you keep the car moving, the instructions have got to be quite direct, and nowadays people have become oversensitive to direct instruction and being told what to do. The act of parking and discussing between the instructor and the student seems to be a better way of managing people’s sensitivity toward being told.”
It’s a style that might owe something to his earlier career as a pro soccer player for some of England’s leading soccer teams — an experience that he acknowledges might make him a little more tuned in than other instructors to how to both take and deliver criticism in a productive way: “Maybe I’m a little bit more thick-skinned because I’ve had that abuse from professional soccer crowds.”
Neal’s strategy for kicking off a critical discussion is one that Lerner also recommends. “When giving criticism, always start with the positive,” she advises. She also suggests that restricting your observations to the facts of the situation and avoiding any commentary on the other person’s personality can go a long way toward preventing upset. Basically, if you don’t want them to take it personally, don’t give it personally.
“Don’t overload the circuits,” either, Lerner continues. “People will shut down if there are a list of criticisms or you go on too long.” The big mistake to avoid, though, as illustrated in Holly’s case, is any degree of shaming in your remarks. Someone who has been told that they’re violating some social norm that everyone else is aware of — not wearing makeup when visiting your modeling agency, for example — can easily feel shame, especially if the transgression is being discussed in front of others. For people who are already prone to taking criticism personally, shaming has been shown to increase their risk of mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression.
“Never give shaming criticism,” says Lerner. “Don’t say, for example, ‘What kind of person are you to say such a thing?’ or ‘What’s wrong with you?’” Your point will always go over easier if basic human decency is being adhered to. “Tact and timing are important,” she adds. “Remember that even the most difficult things can be said with kindness.”
Don’t take this personally, then, but whether you’re giving or receiving criticism, taking a deep breath to muster a good dose of empathy before you wade in isn’t just a wise thing to do — it’s critical.