I learned early on that criticism feels about ten times as bad as praise feels good.
For a while I assumed this was a neurosis only I and other recovering pessimists had. But when I started blogging, I kept hearing the same thing from other writers: one critical comment makes you forget a dozen positive ones.
It turns out this is normal for human beings. Criticism just weighs more on our emotions than praise does. We remember negative events more vividly than positive ones, and we give more emotional weight to a loss than an equivalent gain.
This makes sense from a survival perspective, if you think about it. There’s more urgency to remember dangers vividly than rewards. The trauma of negative events — whether it’s from a pointed criticism or a stubbed toe — teaches you how to stay physically safe and in good standing with the tribe. Positive events are beneficial when you have them, and it’s helpful to remember how you got to them, but there’s no benefit in staying preoccupied with them for a long time.
“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,” wrote social psychology professor Roy Baumeister in a paper he co-authored, entitled “Bad is Stronger Than Good”.
A natural side-effect of this overvaluation of negativity is that we tend to be more passive in life than we would be if we weighed negativity and positivity the same. Bad outcomes seem to promise more in terms of punishment than good outcomes promise in terms of benefit, so it can seem sensible to speak out and try new things as infrequently as possible. As writer Elbert Hubbard put it, “To escape criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”
Most of us understand intuitively what Hubbard is getting at — as painful as criticism can be, avoiding it completely is far too costly to our social lives and creative goals, and probably impossible anyway. Yet even if you acknowledge that we overvalue criticism, a single remark can still be burning in your head at bedtime, after a day where nothing else at all went wrong. How do we stop criticism from lodging itself in our minds like this?
Criticism is an event in someone else’s head
The first thing to recognize is that criticism is about all the critic’s experience, not the target’s. It all begins with an internal reaction between what the critic sees and what it reminds her of. If someone at work thinks you’re a pretentious brown-noser, it could be entirely because you remind her of a pretentious brown-noser at her previous job; you use a few of the same pet phrases, and you wear the same kind of sweater vests. You are, in her mind, a representative of a bad experience from her past, and so she feels ill-will towards you out of habit and association, and interprets everything you do through that lens.
We are all constantly reacting internally to how other people behave, comparing what we see to what we’ve seen, and it happens very quickly. It’s emotionally driven, with little or no time spent considering whether your conclusions about this person are premature, or even whether you’re making conclusions at all, or simply observations. These scrutinizing thoughts just happen to us, we don’t ask for them; the only difference between being critical and uncritical is whether the thought comes out of your mouth or not.
Criticism — the everyday kind, not the academic kind — is all about appearances. We see something in another person that we don’t like. Our thinking goes, “Okay, I’ve seen this before, and it’s bad news.” But every situation is different, even if the actor is the same, and you haven’t seen this scene before, at least not quite. You simply cannot, in the time it takes for a judgment to form, understand and evaluate the countless invisible factors that might bring someone to do or say the thing that currently has you narrowing your eyes at them.
While the process for the critic is very often superficial and ephemeral, when we’re criticized we take it as an indictment of our selves directly, of our very being. Criticism, from the sender, really means “I don’t like what this seems like,” but to the recipient it feels like “You shouldn’t be who you are.”
This is what keeps you fuming, for hours or days, about what someone had the nerve to say about “you.” But it’s not about you. The critic was really just reacting to a fleeting appearance that happened to include you, filtered through his own worldview, emotional state, and personal experience. A criticism is an outward expression of an internal alarm bell, which has only a circumstantial relationship to you as a person.
Any human being is vastly more complex than any one of his tens of thousands of appearances, yet most criticisms are based primarily on what you appeared to be like on one day at one time, or perhaps across a small series of self-reinforcing impressions.
Of course, it’s possible that despite the superficial basis for the criticism, the remark happens to be right on the money. It is especially devastating when the target knows it is, because then they have to immediately confront the possibility that they are sometimes petty, or selfish, or pretentious, or ignorant, or guilty of any other common human fault.
But even when the criticism does make you aware of a fault of yours, the critic’s negative impression and your bruised self-image are not at all the same thing. They don’t see what you see — they didn’t peer into your soul and see its defects, they just got involuntarily reminded of something they remember and don’t like.
These two sets of feelings are ships passing in the night, each imagining they’re alone at sea. So we should not misinterpret casual criticism as something truly personal. You might still learn something if you find yourself reluctantly agreeing with what they say, but it doesn’t mean their criticism is a meaningful evaluation of who you are.
There are exceptions to this, such as when a long-time friend who truly knows you confronts you about a long-time problem. But this only happens a few times in most people’s lives, and in the long run it isn’t usually a bad thing.
Meet criticism with empathy
In all cases, we are in a much better position to learn from criticism (and minimize its sting) when we think of it as something that is happening in someone else’s head. If we’re not caught in the throes of a defensive reaction, then we can make use of our most potent tool for responding to criticism, which is empathy.
By default, your attention goes to the relationship between the criticism you see, and how you feel. See if you can use that initial sting to remind you of what the criticism really is: an internal relationship between what the critic sees and the feeling it gives him.
Richard Carlson gave us the key to this door in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: “Just for fun, agree with criticism directed towards you (and watch it go away.)”
This is more useful than it sounds. The point isn’t only to defuse the energy of the critic by giving him nothing to push against (although that alone can be extremely helpful.) The deeper point is to find what it is about what you appear to be doing that might trigger suspicion or concern in a casual observer.
The critic may have no real grounds at all — they may be misunderstanding something, or unfairly presuming something, or have too limited a worldview to see the value in what you’ve said or done. But either way, the element that arouses their critical impulse is often something you can understand, if you try. You may find it’s something you regularly criticize others for — being presumptuous, being too in love with one’s own ideas, being defensive, or being sanctimonious, to name a few of the many qualities we all resent.
Even if you do believe the critic is totally off base, you can learn a lot by asking, “Where are they coming from?” It could be a legitimate concern you haven’t addressed, or it could be a common misconception you need to clarify. Or it could just remind you that not everyone is going to understand why you did things they way you did, and perhaps that’s okay. In all cases, it cools off the burning need to argue or undermine the other person.
Whenever you notice yourself reacting to criticism, remind yourself that you’re just witnessing outward evidence of another person’s involuntary free-association exercise. They see, in what you’re doing or saying, their own past — they don’t see you.