I have never been good at handling criticism because I tend to take everything personally. I always have. I try not to take things personally and not to take opinions or instructions as criticism, but I still do. I find that I can apply constructive criticism once I have got over the emotional shock or sadness that the criticism causes me, but that I tend to react disproportionately to the criticism in the moment, particularly when I take it as invalidation and attack rather than support.
I’ve been told that I don’t take criticism well. This afternoon over lunch, a friend of mine disagreed with me over how I handled a frustrating situation and I took her response personally and as criticism. I tried to defend myself, but I knew she had a valid point. She later told me that she would rather be blunt with me than to lie to me. I understood this perspective and appreciated it, especially since people often lie to me or are gentler with me than they would be with others who are in similar situations. I sulked for a little while after that, but I knew I was being overly sensitive and taking the experience too personally.
I used to flip out when I felt attacked or criticized. I would rip into people when I felt that they were attacking me. As I grew up and matured and realized that this response was neither mature nor appropriate, I stopped losing it with people the second I felt attacked or invalidated. I’m aware that it’s still obvious (all over my face) when I’m sad or upset, but I try to either talk people’s responses through with them or I become very quiet and I stop talking. I’ve heard that when people feel insecure, they tend to make themselves smaller, fold into themselves, and physically protect themselves. After I have collected myself, I try my best to apply the criticism people have given me and to use it to improve my social maturity and behavior.
When someone gives me criticism, I often ask them to give me a more specific example of something I did or said that would drive them to criticize me. Once they give me a specific example and tell me how I could do things better or differently, I take the note and I work to change myself. People have noticed a huge difference in my maturity and behavior in the last few years, particularly because I have made use of examples rather than just being hurt by comments like ‘you’re immature’ or ‘you’re rude.’ Particular examples helped me catch myself in the midst of a pattern and transform it. It’s sometimes harder to hear criticism now that I have really made a difference in my social personality. Sometimes I take it to mean that I haven’t changed or improved as much as I sometimes think, especially when people use words like inappropriate, clingy, uncomfortable, and forward (which are the things I have worked the most on and wanted to change more than anything else).
There will never magically be a day or a time in my life when I don’t face criticism. It’s the same with adversity: even if I do overcome my cerebral palsy, it won’t make me immune to adversity. Amy Mullins said in her 2009 TED talk, ‘If we see adversity as natural, consistent, and useful, we’re less burdened by the presence of it.’ I agree with her and I believe I have to adopt this perspective. It will make constructive criticism easier to handle and perhaps I won’t take everything personally or as criticism.
I won’t lie and say I’m not hurt from the tiff I had with my friend over lunch. We talked it over and I know that she doesn’t take it personally (she tends not take much personally at all). I know I’ll be fine, and I understand that friends will always piss each other off, annoy each other, and sometimes hurt each other. Nobody can ever control anyone else’s reaction to anything they say or do. That’s been a tough life lesson to learn, but a very valuable one.
I think the life lesson here is not that I need to develop thicker skin, but that criticism is unavoidable and can be helpful if taken in a constructive light. If I had not paid attention to criticism from my doctor, family, friends, employers, and teachers, I would not have improved myself or changed myself into the person I have become. I am a better listener and a more considerate person because I have consciously applied criticism from people whom I respected. I just need to work on how I handle it in the moment, especially when it’s not intended to be critical but is simply a different perspective or opinion.