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Taking criticism

I’m currently drafting a document with multiple people, and it made me think about something.

I still dread the feedback I receive for my writing.

I’ll be totally honest here- I’ve never been good at taking any sort of criticism.

Even as a child, I would take every comment to heart, and get upset really easily at the mere hint of criticism.

Even if it was objective commentary, I’d perceive it as something negative. A threat.

And that’s the problem- Criticism, to me, has generally always been ‘negative’. Something to be ashamed of, or be hurt by.

But the thing is, criticism isn’t always negative, and it can sometimes be beneficial. It’s actually more counterproductive if you perceive every criticism as something negative.

So, these are some of my thoughts on how I’m trying to change the way I take criticism, in the context of writing for ease of explanation.

Constructive criticism that is literally an objective suggestion on how you can improve will give you a better outcome overall- every time.

Even if you don’t take their suggestion, it still gives you insights into how your writing is perceived.

Maybe the tone is a little too casual to some people? Maybe there are grammar issues you would never have known about, had someone not pointed it out to you.

It’s impossible to know everything- I’ve written about it recently. But you can certainly be resourceful.

If I know that person A is good at editing text for flow and structure, then I will take their advice/criticism of my text and incorporate their suggestions. But, if person A is equally not great at pointing out grammar mistakes, then I might lean more on person B, and probably take person A’s suggestion with a grain of salt.

Then when person C steam rolls through and changes the sentence structure completely because it’s how they write, I can just ignore it and go with what person A and B said. šŸ˜‚ That trick doesn’t always work, but I do like to fight for my voice and style when I write.

By the end of it, I’ll have text that, not only flows really well, but is grammatically correct, and still sounds like the way I write. I put my work out there so that it could be critiqued and edited by people who are better at it than me. Over time, I’ll pick up on errors on my own, so that there will be less for them to fix. Not that there’s ever a situation where there’s nothing to fix. Sometimes it can be subjective- things like phrasing can be very subjective, and punctuation (or lack thereof) can change the rhythm of a paragraph completely. It’s good to know where or when to stop, when you’re the editor, so that the writer’s voice isn’t muffled out and it becomes your style of writing.

But as the person learning, you won’t be able to understand these nuances if you don’t put yourself out there to receive feedback.

Now, this is all good and well if the criticism is really constructive.

Previously I mentioned that I had the issue of perceiving every criticism as negative. The ability to dissociate the comments from the perceived tone of the author is a learned skill.

For instance, I (and definitely many others), have a tendency to read an email, or a text, and think- ‘oh shit! They’re super peeved at me’.

Then I see them in person and realise the tone was actually jovial or casual… and wonder why I thought they were pissed off in the first place.

I realised I was doing that with the feedback I would get from my writing. Every ‘you should change this to (blah)’ was getting perceived as, ‘why didn’t you do this in the first place/why don’t you know this already?’ and eventually, ‘why are you so bad at this?’. Completely unwarranted if you’re trying to keep up your productivity. Also not what the person was intending to say, at all.

I have a tendency to come off as mean- especially in written text… which is funny because it’s the mode of communication that I prefer to use.

But I’ve had people in the past accuse me of being aggressive or angry, when I wasn’t anywhere near those emotions. In fact, sometimes I was actually really happy when I was writing the text, but people just perceived it as aggressive. It didn’t help that I would end up upset at their accusation- the classic, ‘well I’m angry now but I wasn’t angry then?’ scenario.

It’s probably because of the way I write (I tend to be very direct and robotic, which comes across as dismissive), but it’s definitely not my intention at all to upset people. It’s difficult, because even with that type of explanation, people might still get upset, and I don’t really know how to fix it. If anyone knows of a way to write ‘more friendly like’, please let me know how. šŸ˜… I’ve often wondered whether I’d have the same issue if I was a guy, and whether these people, because they know I’m female, subconsciously expect a certain tone from me that I don’t have. That’s a whole other can of worms, though.

Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t people who are actually trying to be arse holes and do intend to be mean, but I think that’s why I’d advise against putting emotion into the comments. As soon as I engage that thought process, it’s a dark rabbit hole of despair. It’s easier said than done, but I had to teach myself to just stop thinking like that, and just focus on the commentary alone. No tone associated. Just objective pieces of information.

Oh, you want me to discuss this aspect of the results? Sure- I didn’t think it was necessary, but now that you mention it, I guess it’s a good point. SURE, it might get cut out in the final editing process, and I might spend the time deleting the paragraph going, ‘well, my original draft didn’t have it in there but you did insist I add it-‘ but… that’s not really helping anyone. FYI I highly recommend saving multiple versions to deal with this type of situation. You can whip up the original draft and go, ‘yeah I fixed it already’, while feeling super smug.

Anyway- I think it’s perfectly okay to feel frustrated, or disappointed, but what I don’t want to encourage is to then go on to tie it to your self-worth.

If the comment makes you upset, I’m not saying you’re not allowed to be. But if your thought process then leaps to, ‘why am I so useless- why can’t I get anything right? I’m so stupid’

That’s not okay.

The more you say those things to yourself, the stronger and more easily accessible those thoughts become.

Your brain gets taught to think that that is the go to thought, because you’re thinking it all the time. It’s fresh in your memory, and it becomes like a reflex. The easy path.

That’s not going to help anyone, and it’s going to take a lot of work to break the habit.

The situation isn’t helped if that’s actually the type of criticism you get.

To the person giving out that type of criticism: STOP. Just stop it. You’re the problem.

If there’s a mistake, don’t just insult them personally and tell them it’s wrong- tell them how to fix it. Come up with a constructive way forward.

To the person receiving that type of criticism: ask them how to fix it, and if they don’t give you any valid method of doing so, disengage, give them some time to cool off, and ask again. If they’re still not budging, or you know from previous encounters that they won’t, then now you know that they’re a terrible source of criticism, and every subsequent comment from them should be taken with a grain of salt.

Maybe they’re genuinely malicious, or maybe they’re just a terrible communicator and they just don’t know how to tell you what the problem is and how to fix it.

Either way, you’re just going to have to either remove yourself from the situation, or grit your teeth and prepare for a battle. It’s good if you can figure out what type of person they are. If they’re genuinely malicious, then usually there’s no benefit to receiving feedback from them. If they’re actually well-intentioned (however backwards it may seem), they may actually have a point. If your mental stamina will allow it, it can sometimes be worth the verbal sparring, because after the ordeal you might actually get some good feedback. You’re perfectly entitled to then be fuming about why they couldn’t have communicated it to you in a better way.

The thing that changed the way I thought about criticism, especially on something I was quite proud of (my writing), was something that popped up during a stint of visits to a psychologist.

She just casually asked me why I was tying my self worth to my work. Why is an issue with my experiments, my paper draft, my figures, directly linked to me as a person? Isn’t it kind of strange to go from, ‘I don’t like the colour scheme here’ from someone else, to my reaction being, ‘my sense of colour is atrocious and therefore I am a terrible human being’.

When you write it out like that, it does sound ridiculous. It’s not even apples and oranges. It shouldn’t even be linked.

But over the years, my brain decided that the link was there, and until someone pointed it out to me, I didn’t realise how weird that connection was.

Once I noticed it, I saw it in all aspects of my life, so I decided that at least for work, I need to do change the way I perceive and link things. The rest of life can just wait in the cue.

Criticism of my work is about the work alone. No matter how passive aggressive or openly aggressive the criticism is, it’s still about the work. If they’re personally attacking me, then it’s their problem. Their lack of emotional maturity is not on me. It’s on them.

It’s a particularly hard rule to impose if the person is someone you respected, but… clearly they’re not worth the respect that you thought they’d deserve, if they’re that type of person. It sucks when they’re in a position of power, because the dynamic is very oppressive.

Is a couple sentences like the above going to solve the problem? No- we’d all be contented fairies if it did. Prancing around all giddy-like.

But if I think it while I read the comment, hear the words, or feel the disappointment creep up- it does pause, and sometimes halt, the negative thought process. Little by little, it’ll get easier to stop the unhelpful, negative thoughts. They might never go away, but even the small delay is better than instantly jumping to ‘I’m not worthy’. ‘Cause fuck ’em. You are worthy.

Unless you’re working for a genuine arse hole, chances are, the feedback isn’t aggressive. Remove the tone that your anxious brain automatically assigns to each comment- they’re likely to be wrong anyway, if it’s anything like my brain. It’s more than likely that the person is just giving you succinct, blunt commentary to cut time and increase work efficiency, not because they want you to suffer, and it’s probably unfair to suggest that they’re out to get you.

And if all else fails- talk to the person face to face. Clear the air a little. Everyone has bad days, but if over the long term, they’ve been helpful and nice… I think you’re in the clear. That’s a long term outlook, but as a more short term solution, just don’t assign emotional tone to the comments. Be a robot, like me. šŸ¤£šŸ¤–

So, the next time you receive feedback, and open the document to see the whole thing highlighted- take a moment to reset the initial fear factor (it’s in the same category as a fight/flight response). Even after almost five years in my field, I would still receive feedback where whole pages were highlighted as potentially needing edits. It also took five years for me to see pages where there were no edits in it whatsoever, because it took me years to take the criticism and learn from it. But in the end, I’m better for it.

Now please excuse me while I deal with another situation where I have to repeat my mantra of ‘criticism=/=self worth’ šŸ˜…šŸ˜‚

P.S If you’re ever writing feedback for someone- don’t use ‘!’, let alone ‘!!’ at the end of the comment. I learnt that during a teaching seminar, and it’s true. It’s not actually helpful.

Categories: Ph D posts

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ABugsLife

A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Currently working in multiple locations but still in the STEM field. šŸ‘€ šŸ¦  šŸ§« šŸ§¬

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