The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages. – Virginia Woolf
Your mother has always said you are smart, but lack ambition.
A former boss once praised you for your creativity, but said you were too unorganized.
One of your college professors complimented you on your research skills, but criticized your “scatterbrained” writing style.
Each of those sets of comments contains what could be perceived as positive and negative feedback, if you evaluate them objectively.
But when people are the recipients of feedback like this, which part do you think they are most likely to remember and ruminate upon?
If you said “the negative,” you would be correct.
We humans tend to care quite a bit about what others think of us, and that’s normal, as psychologist Ellen Hendriksen explains:
Indeed, it’s hard-wired: not so many hundreds of years ago, banishment was the worst punishment possible. We needed the group just to survive, so our good standing with that group could actually mean the difference between life and death.
Fast forward a few hundred years. These days, we may not rely on a group for food or shelter, but we still rely on those around us for belonging and support.
She goes on to say…
You want to be able to hear constructive criticism from people who matter to you, while filtering out the gossips, mudslingers, and plain old jerks.
Getting negative feedback from our family, friends, and co-workers isn’t a problem, but how we react to it often is.
We could be showered with compliments and praise all day long, but if one little piece of negative criticism slips in, guess what will replay in our minds in a continuous loop?
We already tend to be our own worst critics. Let a few not-so-flattering comments from others sneak in, and the downward spiral into stinkin’ thinkin’ begins.
But why does this happen? Why do we focus on the negative, and why do we care so much about what other people think?
Studies have shown that the negative perspective is more contagious than the positive. Our attitudes are more heavily influenced by bad news than good news. Even the English dictionary is afflicted – it contains more negative emotional words (62 percent) than positive words (32 percent)!
Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events – and use stronger words to describe them – than happy ones.
The 2001 article “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” which Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University co-authored, offered a summary of research on our tendency to focus on the negative:
Bad emotions, bad parents and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.
Your self-concept began to form in early childhood. Your parents, your peers, and authority figures largely influenced its development. All of the information and suggestions you gathered from those sources was stored in your subconscious mind – and were accepted as true, even if they weren’t.
This phenomenon can be so pervasive that even highly successful individuals can become unable to internalize their accomplishments. Psychologists call this impostor syndrome. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
So, how do we learn to handle criticism from others without falling into an abyss of self-loathing?
Obviously, we can’t become hermits and shield ourselves off from the outside world entirely (well, maybe the temptation is there at times, but giving in would not be healthy).
Because interacting with other people is part of life, and because none of us are perfect and will always face some negativity, the solution is to learn to handle it better.
We can’t change other people, but we can change how we react to them.
Who are these people, anyway?
Identify WHO you are worried about. We tend to overgeneralize – if ONE person dishes out a bit of negativity, does that SOMEONE become “EVERYONE” in your mind?
Is there one particular person (or maybe a couple, or a small group) whose approval you seek? Chances are, that person or group is hard to please, and for some reason, you highly value their opinion. Why do you seek validation from this person or group? The answer to that is worth exploring.
Of course, it is possible that there are people in your life who are a constant source of negativity.
You know the type – the “glass is half empty” kind of person. The most incredible thing ever could happen, and they’ll find something to criticize. They often claim to be “realists” but “pessimist” is a more accurate descriptor.
It may be difficult to do this, but try to understand that the problem is THEIRS, not yours.
There are two ways to deal with these people: Understand this is their nature and refuse to let their thoughts bother you, or continue to let their commentary infiltrate your thoughts.
Tip: You might not want to share your goals and dreams with them.
What is the feedback-giver’s goal?
Ask yourself if the person who is giving you negative feedback is trying to help, or if they are simply being critical. Are they criticizing YOU personally, or your idea or behavior? Is their critique constructive and helpful, or is it a personal attack?
If you can’t tell, ask for clarification without being defensive. Perhaps the person genuinely wants to help and is having trouble communicating their intent.
Could the problem be in your head?
We tend to be our own worst critics. Could it be that you expect nothing but perfection from yourself (and perhaps others)? Do you consider any situation that falls short of perfect to be a failure?
Be sure to make the effort to acknowledge the positive feedback you get from others, rather than obsessing over the negative.
Chances are, most people don’t really care what you are doing, anyway. People are generally rather self-absorbed and distracted by technology. Look around you the next time you are around people. What are they doing? Most likely, they aren’t looking at you – they are probably looking down at their smartphone or some other handheld gadget.
What kinds of people are you choosing to be around?
You can’t choose your co-workers or bosses, or your neighbors – but you can choose who you socialize with. Whether it is a small group of colleagues or friends, or a large network, finding people you trust to give you honest and constructive feedback can go a long way towards helping you be true to yourself and develop your best life.
WHO is in your head?
When you make decisions, ask yourself who is calling the shots. Is it you – or someone else? Are you worried about how a particular person (or people) might react if you say or do a particular thing? If so, it might be time to examine why, and focus on what is right for you.
Be true to yourself and your own internal, authentic voice and personal life code.
Who are you? Who do you want to be?
Tim Urban of Wait But Why suggests asking yourself the following questions in order to find your authentic voice:
It takes some serious reflection to sift through the webs of other people’s thoughts and opinions and figure out who the real you actually is. You spend time with a lot of people—which of them do you actually like the most? How do you spend your leisure time, and do you truly enjoy all parts of it? Is there anything you regularly spend money on that you don’t feel that comfortable with? How does your gut really feel about your job and relationship status? What’s your true political opinion? Do you even care? Do you pretend to care about things you don’t just to have an opinion? Do you secretly have an opinion on a political or moral issue you don’t ever voice because people you know will be outraged?
You can’t make everyone happy, but you can do your best to make YOURSELF happy.
Who knows what is best for you? Whose life is this, anyway?
You, and yours.
Now, go live it to YOUR fullest potential.