Telling me it’s okay to make mistakes or telling me to accept criticism as criticism and not a personal attack is like telling me to jump off a ten story building and land on my feet. With no broken bones. And a smile on my face.
My fear of criticism is combined with an acute fear of failure and an impulse to get everything accomplished at lightning speed. Recipe for disaster.
I remember very vividly as a fifth grader taking the metal back of my eraserless pencil and scraping it across my forehead when I got a bad test grade. Bad being a 93 or something like that.
In middle school I decided the best way to avoid criticism was to point out my mistakes or flaws before anyone else did. You know, beat ’em to the punch.
“So guys look at this gut I’ve got goin’ on. Gotta lose a few huh?”
“Did you hear how bad I played guitar and sang it chapel? I mean talk about hitting all the wrong notes!”
I finally realized that tactic was just stupid. No one wants to get in a conversation with someone who constantly puts themselves down. Also, I was imagining that everyone in the world (and I mean everyone) could see the extra 0.5 pounds I had gained or could hear when I missed that one note. Turns out, probably no one would have even noticed until I pointed it out to them. So much for that little stunt!
As I grew older I became much more confident in myself and my abilities. I no longer have to say things like, “Haha wow how much do I suck at basketball?” But I still wrestle with that demon of overly critical self.
Part of the reason (or maybe most of the reason) I had such a difficult time at my job last year was because of the way that I perceived my boss perceived me (do you follow?). My boss was a take-shit-from-no-one type of person and I was a take-everyone’s-shit-even-if-it’s-not-meant-to-be-shit-and-smear-it-on-your-face type person. Baaad match.
I recall sitting in a meeting with her and my co-worker and they were tearing up (not literally) a report draft I had written. Now this is natural and necessary in the editing process and they were simply trying to make my writing, and the report, the best that it could be. But I could not handle it.
I became flushed, defensive, and agitated. Tears stung my eyes. I felt faint. Air, must get air!
“Are you okay?” My boss asked me.
“Yep. I’m fine,” came my curt reply. “I just need some water.” With that I rushed out of their office, hid in my cubicle, and cried quietly for a few seconds. Calm down, calm down, calm down. Why are you crying?
As unfortunate as it is, crying is my first reaction to most things. Stub a toe, cry. Get yelled at, cry. Mess up at work, cry. That little stinging sensation always bubbles up behind my eyes not matter how hard I try to force it back.
I came back into the office, somewhat composed and saw that it was just my boss. My coworker was nowhere in sight. THIS was my worst fear at the time: being alone in a room with my boss.
Turns out the conversation that ensued was one of the best I had with her that whole year. She explained she was trying to help me, not trying to diminish me. It was a huge relief and I suddenly felt incredibly empowered…and incredibly foolish.
Even in my new job I often have trouble with this still. It’s especially bad when I get a critique via email because there are no tonal cues. Invariably I always assume that any critiquing email is sent using the angriest possible tone:
“This paper needs a lot of work” really means “This paper is the worst piece of garbage I have ever seen. I want to vomit. You suck at life! ”
It’s called reading between the lines and, yeah, you could say it’s a gift.
To think so much headache was caused last year because of silly perception issues, misread emails, and fear of failing. Learning it’s okay to make mistakes and accept criticism is unfortunately going to be a lifelong trial for me but it’s doable. I may not be ready to make the leap into the land of uninhibited criticsm but maybe I can handle a few stairs and maybe a few bruises along the way.