I’m hypersensitive to criticism — how do I fix this?

A reader writes:

I am currently working as a receptionist for the next few months until I complete my schooling. I have been dealing with what I can only describe as hypersensitivity when it comes to feedback or criticism about my work. When I hear that something was done incorrectly by me, I panic and cannot seem to separate the professional criticism and help from the feeling of being personally attacked or mocked. I have been trying to be more objective, but it’s hard when I’m caught off-guard by feedback, especially if it’s delivered on an on-going basis over the phone. This once resulted in me crying in front of the office manager.

For what it’s worth, I won’t be working in a people-facing position in my career after I complete school, but learning to take feedback is an invaluable skill. What can I do to stop being a wreck and take these critiques in stride?

I wrote back to this letter-writer and asked:

Can I ask you some follow-up questions to help me better answer this?

1. How did you handle feedback on your work in school? Same as this or different? Or were you always so good at school that you got mainly positive feedback? (It’s really common for people in that boat to then have a tough time with work feedback later.)

2. I hope this isn’t too personal, but did you by any chance come from a family were you were heavily criticized if you showed weakness or didn’t get something “right”? Often what you’re describing can have its roots in that.

It is impressive how well these two questions peg my personality type (I’m also an chronic apologizer and worrier, in case you hadn’t guessed!). I was probably the best student in all of my classes, which made subpar feedback seem much worse as I had little comparison material. I would also get needlessly anxious anytime I thought I may be in trouble — whether at home or at school — and experienced intense physiological symptoms like blood leaving my face, light-headedness, and a racing heartbeat anytime I faced a “talking-to” because the of the emotional fallout and disappointment (over often trivial matters) at home and standards were very competitive in my family.

So … that’s basically our answer.

You grew up in a home where you faced inappropriate levels of judgment and disappointment over minor things, and that wired you to experience it as a very big deal when you hear feedback that isn’t positive.

Your reaction as a kid actually made sense — the criticism you were getting at the time was too heavy-handed and probably scary. It’s horrible for a kid to feel that their missteps will bring intense disappointment from the people whose approval they crave and who they’re dependent on for survival and for a general sense of safety in the world. So being very upset by that was warranted! And I’m sure you reached a point where the criticism didn’t even have to be bad for you to have an intense emotional reaction — because you so strongly associated it with awful feelings from so many times before.

The problem is that you’re still carrying around those reactions now, when they no longer apply to the situation you’re in. This is the root of a ton of family-of-origin dysfunction; we learn reactions when we’re small that made sense for our situations then, but we keep using them as adults when they no longer do.

So, how do you deal with it? Therapy, probably! A good therapist can help you unravel this and re-wire the way you respond (and hopefully give you a lot of emotional freedom from those days that will feel fantastic).

But since that’s a longer-term fix, in the short-term try to get really clear in your head about where your reactions to criticism are coming from — that it’s not from the current-day situation, but from something much older, and from a situation you’re no longer in — and that a manager giving input on your work is a different thing than what your reactions are actually rooted in, and is not in fact a challenge to your fundamental safety in the world. Sometimes clearly seeing that your reaction isn’t really about what’s in front of you and realizing “ah, this is my own crap” can take some of the power out of the emotions behind it.

Also, if you do have an obviously emotional reaction to criticism from a manager, like crying, you can say something in the moment or soon after like, “I sometimes have a stronger-than-I’d like reaction to criticism, but please know that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear it! I really value getting feedback, and I appreciate you giving it to me.” You could add, “And I’m working on getting the visible reaction under control.” (Also, maybe read this about how your manager is probably thinking of it when she needs to give you critical feedback.)

One great sign is that you want feedback, at least intellectually. You’re open to it, and you know it’s a normal thing. You’ve just got to recalibrate your reactions to it when it arrives at work, versus in the much more personal, high-stakes context of your family. (And ideally you’ll recalibrate it with your family too, but damn that’s harder.)

{ 366 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. madmaxine

    Ohhh, OP, this is me as well. I remember studying for a tough test in school and getting a 93 on it, which was the lowest number score I could get to still get an A. I came home so proud of the fact that I’d squeaked an A out, and my mom’s only reaction was, “That was almost a B. You’d better study harder next time.” With that insane level of expectations on me, taking feedback at work is rough. I’ve learned how to not react outwardly, but I’m still having a tough time not reacting inwardly. Much luck to you.

    Reply
    1. Wannabe Disney Princess

      I can relate. There was a surprise test that everybody bombed. I got a B. I was excited and super proud of myself. My mom told me that was nothing to be proud of. (I was a straight A student.)

      It is SO HARD to recalibrate that reaction.

      Reply
      1. Lil Fidget

        It’s also like – in the work world, you’re just not going to get 100% A’s all the time. You just won’t. Projects are not within your control the way school assignments are, they depend on teams and clients and the economy or whatever. Your boss isn’t your mentor the way a teacher is. So you HAVE to find a way to adjust your expectations of what “success” is – it can’t be based on your experience in school.

        Reply
        1. srs

          I was a solid B+ student all my life, and in some ways I think the mentality that kept me from striving for a A’s is one of the things that makes me a stellar employee. I want to do a good job, but I just don’t care about being perfect and never have. I’m very outcome focused and I’m constantly bringing things back to what we hope to achieve from a deliverable/process/etc. So I’m perfectly satisfied to have something be 85% “right” as long as it is the right 85%. It just isn’t worth my or my team’s time to get things 100% perfect.

          Now, that’s different from having things be wrong or inaccurate. We absolutely cannot make factual errors. And there are times where, depending on the audience, it is very much worth it to be exacting. But mostly I make sure that my prose is clear and understandable and don’t worry about whether I have the perfect turn of phrase. I just pass the work up the chain to my manager for review and move on to the next task.

          Reply
          1. Lil Fidget

            I also think it’s great when the different personality types can get together in teams and play off each other. I’m more of a “good enough” person and I don’t have that hangup about not submitting something until it’s PERFECT – but a more type A person working along side me can help push me to raise my “good enough” bar a little higher. Doesn’t always work, but when it does it’s magic!

            Reply
            1. Violet Rose

              On the flip side, I used to be super type-a and nitpicky and would often not get something done because I couldn’t! get it! perfect! So I appreciate when a “good enough” type comes along and says “just show me whatever you have, and we can work with that”

              Reply
              1. srs

                It’s almost like a good team has people with different strengths and skillsets that help make a better product than individuals working alone ;)
                And just in case my first comment makes me sound like an unmotivated slacker, I want to be clear that isn’t the case. I lead the team working on our highest profile project and just had a rave performance review where my manager literally said “I’m having trouble identifying any weaknesses for you to work on”. Now, I definitely do have professional weaknesses, but I’ve worked very hard the past few years to identify them and come up with mitigation strategies that work for my personality and my job. One of the key strengths that was highlighted in my performance review was my ability to prioritize and drive work forward in changing and uncertain circumstances. And there’s absolutely no way I’d be able to do that if I were to strive for perfection in everything.

                Reply
          2. AMPG

            When I was in high school I somehow figured out the concept of opportunity cost all on my own, and from then on I was an A-/B+ student more or less by choice, since it meant that I could take extra classes in things I was interested in (for me it was languages – I took French, Latin, and Italian – and theater classes). I was actually really proud of shaping my education that way, and it’s affected how I’ve approached a lot of my life.

            Reply
            1. Indoor Cat

              It depends if you idea of “good enough” in high school is “B+” or “C-” I think. I had some friends with very “C’s get degrees” and “take CP instead of AP classes ’cause they’re easier” attitudes, and all of them ended up wasting money on college degrees that they didn’t finish. It’s not that they weren’t smart enough to understand collegiate material, it’s just that the bare minimum to pass in college is slightly higher than the bare minimum in high school. They never developed the work ethic– although! Two of them thrived in the Emergency Services / paramedic field. So, they are good at high stakes, physical / social work with immediate deadlines and something new every day. Basically the opposite of school.

              Maybe I contradicted my own point. Hmm. School is weird.

              Reply
            2. TardyTardis

              Yes, and sometimes you actually do *better* when the pressure is off. It’s like I took a lot more PE classes in college when I could make them pass/fail (you basically had to die or refuse to do anything to fail. I enjoyed those classes with that, and loved bowling, trampoline, badminton and a host of others that way).

              Reply
        2. nnn

          Yes, this is a hugely important point! Tests and assignments in school are designed specifically to be doable based on what you have learned in school. Your teacher teaches you how to, say, calculate the area of a circle, and then tests you on your ability to calculate the area of a circle.

          However, the real world doesn’t work this way. The real world isn’t designed to be doable. Sometimes in the real world a situation comes up where you have to know the area of a circle and you’re not even sure if such a thing is calculable. Or you’ve been doing circles your whole career and suddenly you need to know the area of an oval.

          Reply
          1. As Close As Breakfast

            You were taught how to calculate the area of a circle.
            You are given a project that initially seems to be calculating the area of an oval.
            It ends up that you actually need to calculate the area of a free form ‘shape’ that doesn’t even appear to be closed. And you’re like… wait… WHAT?

            Reply
            1. Cherith Ponsonby

              YES. And when you say “hey, you’re trying to calculate the area of a shape that can’t possibly exist” your boss says “yeah, so can you get it to me by COB today?”

              Reply
            2. TardyTardis

              Actually, there’s a trick to that…you weigh the whole paper on a very good, sensitive scale–and then you cut out the shape and weigh that to get a ratio. Since you know the area of the paper, you can figure it out from there. It won’t be perfect, but it’ll be pretty close.

              Reply
              1. Janice

                Pfft, who said the shape was on paper?

                I feel like half these projects end up being for non-Euclidean surfaces ;)

                Reply
    2. Future Analyst

      Yeppity yep yep. As a freshman in high school, I had 7 As and an A-. My parents went to parent teacher conferences and only talked to the teacher for the class in which I had an A-, to see what I could do better… they had no interest in hearing from teachers in classes where I was “doing what was expected.”

      Reply
      1. Parenthetically

        I have parents like this and it blows my mind. My classes are tough. Not every kid can or should be a straight-A student, and frankly given the choice between finishing homework and getting to bed at a decent time I prefer my students go to bed. I want them to learn to prioritize and take care of their health, not just work themselves to death so they don’t get grounded or screamed at for having a B or two.

        Reply
      2. topscallop

        Yep. I brought home a report card in middle school once that had all As and one A-. My parents asked me what happened.

        Reply
        1. MarsJenkar

          I feel fortunate that my parents were more reasonably calibrated. They wouldn’t speak with me about my grades unless I was getting a C average in a class, or a grade *well* below what they knew I was capable of. (I got mostly As with a few Bs, and graduated in the top 10% of my high school class, so these were reasonable levels of concern.)

          Reply
      3. Amber T

        Long lost sibling??

        I remember one teacher talking about grades – Cs are “average” and Bs are “above average,” so why does everyone expect to get As? Oh the panicked looks on everyone’s faces…

        Reply
        1. RVA Cat

          This. I think those of us who were Honors/AP students especially need to re-calibrate to the work world. To be honest, it seems that a lot of C students are more successful as adults because they are more resilient and may have been social skills.

          Reply
            1. Lissa

              Whoa, yeah, I have used almost these exact words to a friend of mine – nerdy social group so many/most of us have similar baggage going on. It seems lately that there’s more of a push to say “yay, you worked so hard on this” rather than “you did this because you’re smart” and I think it’s awesome. Hearing over and over “you’re smart” often means the slightest dip in performance triggers an immediate “I’m not smart, I can’t do it” reaction.

              Reply
          1. Reforming A student

            I remember the dean of students at my law school saying that the best lawyers were often not the best law students. At the time, I assumed that was just a way of comforting intensely competitive people who were facing the “failure” of non-A grades for potentially the first time in an intensely competitive environment. But a decade later, I recognize that she was absolutely correct. Of course, that recognition is still a work in progress – I recognize it intellectually, but still have a lot of work to do putting it into practice.

            Reply
        2. Scotty_Smalls

          Oddly enough my mom was perfectly okay with As and Bs but did ground me once for a C in middle school progress report because I would watch TV instead of do homework. In seventh grade, I was placed in Algebra 1 (which was advanced) and didn’t understand it at all, so I got a D and cried home and she told me it was okay. Which was surprising. So now I’m a type B person and pretty content.

          Reply
          1. Thursday Next

            This is good parenting! She didn’t ground you for the grade, but for the avoidance of responsibility (homework). And she recognized the difficulty you were having with Algebra 1, and didn’t hold you to standards you couldn’t meet for that.

            Reply
        3. she was a fast machine

          Those teachers are so terrifying to us high-achievers, because our expectation of average is an A and if we get a C life may as well be over.

          Reply
          1. Avatre

            Y’know, in high school I had a cynical little mnemonic for myself: A was Acceptible, B was Bad, C was Condemned, D was Doomed, and F… well, F was effed. ;)

            I also had the kind of mom who told me not to let my grades “slip to a B.” She was surprisingly chill about the one C I did get in high school, but it was my last semester… and it was AP Calc.

            Reply
    3. She who has never baked a potato

      Yup same, although for my parents it was more about my performance relative to the class. If I was in the top 10 I should aim for top 5, if I got into top 5 then aim for top of the class. When I was too of the class, surely that’s good enough? Yeah it was…for that test, then I’d get told not to get lenient.

      So for a long time I was of the mindset that if you’re not the best then you’re nothing. And even when you /are/ the best it’s not enough.

      Childhood mindsets are so difficult to grow out of.

      Reply
      1. Quackeen

        This is me to a T. I have the same issues as you and the LW and, yes, it’s a bitch to try to grow out of.

        Do you have any tips on how you have grown out of this mindset? I’m embarrassed to say that, at 50 years old, I am still struggling with this.

        Reply
        1. Jules the 3rd

          Growing your internal satisfaction, and making sure you base your confidence on internal approval, not external. Some actual steps that may help:
          – Self-talk. Listen to the words in your head and consciously separate things into ‘that will make *me* happy’ vs ‘that is someone else’s expectation.’ “I need to get groceries” is you, “I need to plan seven dinners with free-range organic all-natural whole-grain avocados” is someone else.
          – Pick a frivolous hobby that you enjoy, and pursue it because you like it. I love to dance and sing, and I do those in the car or while housecleaning.
          – Remind yourself that it’s ok to do things only because it feels good.
          – Set ‘good enough’ goals for things (ie, I plan 2 dinners, assume leftovers, and have a couple of other main dish options in the freezer, that’s ‘good enough’) and when you hit that, reward yourself. Take some slack time.
          – Set realistic goals. I am not going to get my basement floor installed, taxes done, the lawn raked, and the house painted next weekend. I will get taxes / the lawn within the month, and might get the rest done by the end of the summer, with my husband’s help.

          It feels a little weird at first, but this is a case of “practice makes imperfect but happy. “

          Reply
        2. JKP

          I’ve been trying to learn things that I’m not good at, where failing is part of the learning process. Sort of practice failing. Especially things that include movement and thus get me out of my head and self-talk.

          For instance, this month I’ve been spending about 30 min a day trying to learn to juggle. I drop the balls constantly, but I’m improving. Slowly.

          Reply
          1. I prefer tea

            JKP, this is brilliant. Get used to the idea of failure being a part of the process, not the terrible, end-of-life-as-we-know-it outcome to be avoided at all costs. Also, it teaches that failure in this way typically leads to progress, not more failure.

            Thanks for the mindset shift!

            Reply
          2. Future Analyst

            Yes! Absolutely agreed on this one. Yoga is mine: there’s plenty to achieve and/or fail at, AND (as my fave yogi says) “it’s only yoga.”

            Reply
        3. Botanist

          I haven’t been a commenter on this site before, but this one is reminding me so much of some great books I’ve been reading in the last couple years. If you are a reader, I highly, highly recommend reading “Mindset” by Carol Dweck and any of Brene Brown’s books (“The Gifts of Imperfection” and “Daring Greatly” are my two current favorites). They can be life changers!

          Reply
    4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      I feel this response and OP’s experience so hard. I grew up in a pretty intense/hard-to-please family where your best is never enough. When I first started getting substantive feedback in college, I felt embarrassed and ashamed (although not to the level OP describes). It wasn’t until my second post-college job that I realized that feedback is part of the learning process and often isn’t personal. This also helped me realize, when working at a toxic job later in life, how to distinguish between legitimate feedback and assholery.

      I was able to shift a lot of my thinking, which helped enormously. OP, it sounds like you’ve tried that but it’s not working. In that case, I think cognitive behavioral therapy in particular can be really helpful. I also love recommending Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s Thanks for the Feedback. It helps breakdown the common triggers that can result in an emotional reaction that makes it difficult to hear and integrate feedback.

      But you’ve done a great job by acknowledging that this is a problem—that’s a huge first step! Now it’s just a matter of taking all the other little steps that will help you get to where you want to be.

      Reply
      1. Sarah in Boston

        Love, love, love that book! Hearing Sheila Heen speak and getting to work with her at a workshop literally changed my life. My defensive levels are so much lower and I’m aware of them when they pop up.

        Reply
      2. Iris Eyes

        I just picked up a copy of Thanks for the Feedback last week. I’m excited to crack it open it has been recommended by people from many different areas of my life.

        Reply
      3. LeRainDrop

        “I also love recommending Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s Thanks for the Feedback. It helps breakdown the common triggers that can result in an emotional reaction that makes it difficult to hear and integrate feedback.”

        YES! I came here to the comments precisely to recommend this book , as well.

        Reply
    5. Lynca

      The freak out my parents had when I made a C in college. It took me so long to recalibrate my brain that making a C is okay and doesn’t mean you are a failure.

      I at least didn’t let them talk me into retaking it.

      Reply
      1. mreasy

        This is 100% the reason I went to a super-liberal but also really rigorous school that didn’t report grades unless you asked for them. I just didn’t want to deal with my parents continuing to criticize my grades if they weren’t perfect.

        Reply
      2. AnonAnalyst

        I had one class in college where the professor made all of the tests ridiculously hard in some perverse way of proving how much smarter he was (duh, dude, you’re the professor!) I was talking to my mom after the first of these nightmare tests, and I was upset because I had always done well in school but could tell I hadn’t done well on the test. Her response? I should have studied harder (I guess I should have somehow obtained a graduate-level education in the subject before the test). I ended up getting a 60% on that test, which was one of the highest grades so it’s not like I was exaggerating about how ridiculous this test was, but clearly it was my fault that I had struggled.

        I love my parents, but their expectations when I was growing up have left me with some not-great pefectionist tendencies that I’m still trying to overcome – and I’ve been in the working world for 15 years.

        Reply
      3. Meghan

        I had a moment on the phone with my mom once. I was a freshman at MIT and was not getting the grades I got in high school. When she started telling me to do better, study harder, I think I just said “You try it” and then didn’t talk to her for about a month.

        We recalibrated our relationship afterwards and from then on she was never one of the many, many things putting pressure on me.

        Reply
        1. Calpurrnia

          When I was a freshman at MIT I had almost the exact inverse of this conversation with my dad! I was freaking out like “I can’t do this, I don’t know what I’m doing here, I got a 64 on my 5.111 test! A 64 is an F!” and my dad goes “This isn’t Suburbsville High School. You’re at MIT. You’re going to get 64’s. That doesn’t mean you failed.” It was a revelation – the storm ended, the clouds parted, the sun came out, the birds chirped and angels sang, and the dad who grounded me for a month for a C in high school *got* it.

          Also, hi fellow MIT grad (I presume)! Do you, like me, tell your co-workers “I went to school in Boston” rather than name-dropping the alma mater, to avoid the inevitable “oh my god, you must be some kind of genius!” remarks that you’ve never really figured out how to respond to? (Insert laughing/crying emoji here)

          Reply
            1. LouiseM

              Come on, this is really snarky and unfair. Of course, I had the same internal reaction when I read this, but we try to be constructive on here. Just roll your eyes to yourself and move on when you read something like this.

              To Calpurrnia, if this happens to you so often, I’d recommend developing a polite boilerplate response to use. People who say this really don’t mean anything by it–it’s like when you say you’re from California and people always comment on the weather. It’s just small talk, so if you reframe it like that in your head you may have an easier time responding.

              Reply
              1. Calpurrnia

                To the person above you, I didn’t drop it, I was responding to someone else who did. See the comment above mine.

                And I really do want constructive advice for how to deal with this, because I’m honestly bending over backwards to avoid mentioning it just to not have this inevitable exchange. At least when people say “oh, the weather in CA is so nice!” you can casually agree, like “haha, yeah it is, anyway back to what I was saying before…” But I legitimately haven’t found a response to “wow, you must be soooo smart!” that doesn’t make me sound like an asshole. “Haha, sure” seems incredibly egotistical, while “nah, just a hard worker” implies that I think people who don’t go there aren’t hard workers (which is patently false); “nah, just lucky” comes off as false modesty (but it’s actually honest). I can’t agree or disagree without it coming across badly, and either way people end up with inflated expectations of you.

                This site’s commenters are incredibly good at coming up with scripts and phrasing that walks the line beautifully and communicates the right message. Seems to me that this is exactly the kind of place I *should* be bringing it up. (Under an internet pseudonym, no less…)

                Reply
                1. LouiseM

                  You can always just choose a gracious and honest response, like saying something about how lucky you felt to be there or that you really enjoyed going to school there, before getting back to what you what you were saying. You can also play it off with a joke, like I’ll sometimes say something like “if I were really so smart, I wouldn’t have signed myself up for four years of Boston winter!” and then move on.

                  Beyond that, just realize that nobody really cares where you went to school and the other person probably cares much less about this interaction than you do. If you’re far along in your career in most fields, it becomes basically irrelevant, and people most likely are just asking to make small talk (not because they want to calibrate their expectations of you based on your alma mater). Hope this helps!

                2. Someone else

                  You really don’t have to deflect or do false modesty. When people say “wow you must be a genius or something” when they hear where I went to school or various other things about me I usually just say “OK. Back to what I was saying before.” Seriously “ok” is enough. I mean, if they’re the ones telling you you’re sooooo smart, agreeing with them won’t make you sound like an asshole. They brought it up. If that feels too smarmy to you, an alternative is “if you say so, back to WHATEVER”. etc. But I generally try to keep is very short. It’s actually usually easier for me to deflect comments like this than it is to get people to stop going on about my Southern California weather. They key is less about having a magic phrase, and more about choosing not to feel weird, and redirecting back to what you’re trying to discuss as quickly as possible.

                3. sap

                  Yep to what “someone else” said for dealing with this. If someone asks where I went to school and then reacts to an accurate answer as though I’m some sort of braggart, that person is an insecure dick.

                  Largely, I just refer to “when I was in grad school” if nobody has asked, or if the name of the school is relevant I will name it and move on. Minimizing with the west coast equivalent of “in Boston,” I’ve found, tends to get noticed and reacted to way more than just acting like where I went to school is a normal biographical fact, because it is.

                4. sap

                  Also, when people tell me I must be so smart, my boilerplate response is “I think I’ve just had better luck than most” because I genuinely think that’s why I, of the many equally smart people in the world, was one of the ones who ended up with a nice pedigree. Plus, it has the advantage of neither being falsely humble (I actually am quite smart, so I don’t want ant to say something like “nah, not really”) or coming across as arrogant if I agree that yes, I am quite smart.

                5. CM

                  Calpurnia: you must be sooo smart!
                  Haha, thanks! MIT was really fun, we had robots roaming the hallways [or whatever].
                  Or just, haha, thanks! So anyway, back to what we were talking about…
                  Or a mock-sincere, Yes. Yes, I am.

      4. Bigglesworth

        This mentality blows my mind. I’m currently in law school and got a C for the first time in my educational career. My parents response was, “Cs get JDs.” The pressure to be the best is extremely high in law school, but I can’t imagine having my identity revolve around good or bad grades.

        Reply
        1. sap

          There’s an old addage about A students being future judges, B students being future academians, and C students being future lawyers or something like that.

          Reply
    6. Fake old Converse shoes (not in the US)

      Yep, my case as well. They even asked what my classmates got, and got disappointed if my marks weren’t as high as theirs.
      I failed an exam for the first time in my first year at Uni. You can imagine how well I reacted.

      Reply
    7. AdAgencyChick

      Another member of the club chiming in. I brought home exactly one B in high school. On a midterm, not even a quarter grade. My dad’s response was “what’s with the B in biology?”

      If I had had more presence of mind as a teenager I’d have responded with “didn’t you almost flunk out of college?”

      Reply
        1. Veruca

          My dad said the exact same thing All The Time! Whhhhyyyyy must they say those things!?! I wish I could go back in time and reply with, “Is that a joke? Because it’s not funny.”

          Reply
        2. Cassandra

          OP, it wasn’t a joke — and even if it was meant as one, it wasn’t funny. Just condescending and cruel.

          I got that one myself, almost word-for-word, on a tough high-school physics exam where I studied my posterior off, scored a 98/100, and was deliriously proud of what I had done — until that line came at me from one of my parents.

          I’m so sorry your parents also did that to you. I’m also here to say that I got past it in time, so it IS a possible thing to do. Not that elements of it don’t stick with me — as much as I trust and like my current supervisor, annual review time will never exactly be fun — but I can bulldoze the bad memories as needed and keep moving. I wish the same for you.

          Reply
        3. CM

          100? Why not a 101? Yup! And that was the least of it. Basically everything I did growing up was evidence of how I suck as a person. So OP, I feel your pain.

          One thing that really helped me was the concept that negative feedback is a gift. (Google “negative feedback gift” for lots of articles about this.) It’s uncomfortable for people to give negative feedback, and many people avoid doing it. And you wouldn’t want to go through that discomfort unless it mattered. So people giving you negative feedback are doing it because they care enough to help you improve. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t give you the feedback. And in a work setting, it benefits them to give you negative feedback — they want you to improve to make their lives easier. Nobody bothers to give negative feedback to somebody who’s getting fired tomorrow. This thought made it easier for me to drop the defensive panic, and instead say, “Thank you, I really appreciate hearing that and I’ll do my best to improve.”

          Reply
    8. A Nonny Mouse

      Ugh my mom is kind of like this. I don’t remember her being like this to me, but it’s showing with my kid. My kid got an 89 in math, and my mom asked her why she didn’t try harder to get an A. Because it’s elementary school and I’m not ruining stuff for my kid when she still thinks learning is fun.

      Reply
    9. Fiennes

      With my parents, it wasn’t so much constant pressure to be on top—but the thing was, I never knew when they’d lose it over something minor. Sometimes they’d be calm and reasonable about a genuinely bad grade or musical performance; other times, minor mistakes brought down anger, punishment, and ominous predictions about my outcome in life. The not knowing was the worst part.

      So I too have tons of trouble dealing with feedback—but it’s mostly internal. On the outside I probably only seem much mildly dismayed, but inside that can kick off a shame spiral that goes on for days. I wonder whether the inconsistency of punishment correlates with the ability to keep on the mask.

      Reply
      1. C-Suite Diva

        I’m from the same kind of my family and totally relate to this! My parents’ inconsistency basically conditioned me to be a perfectionist in all things and if they were upset or angry about something (anything!), it was obviously my fault. And so begins the shame spiral (ugh). A lot of therapy, reading about adult children of alcoholics (my parents are not alcoholics but I have a lot of the same issues this group has), meditation and practicing good self care have helped over the years.

        Reply
        1. Anon-o-me

          My parents did this crap to me. An A was never enough! I was supposed to ask for extra credit work, etc. In college, I was so stressed and overworked, I pulled out most of my hair. Then, when I got all As, my father said, “congratulations, I hope you do better next time.” My mother looked at me with that special hate that she reserved just for me and said, “you only did that to make your younger brother look bad.” (Younger brother was most favored child.). She also told my father that he made too big a deal over my grades. Another relative sneered, “you will never improve.”

          Reply
      2. Jules the 3rd

        Yes, inconsistency is the worst – it’s even more crushing than consistently bad, if I understand the literature right. Consistently bad, people eventually start to tune it out. It’s why the honeymoon phase is so central to abuse.

        Internet hugs to the kid in you, if you want it.

        Reply
        1. SarcasticFringehead

          If it’s consistent, it’s predictable – even if you can’t avoid it, you can prepare yourself a bit. I had kind of a parallel issue with my dad & stepmom, where I’d mess up (or what they considered messing up), but they wouldn’t bring it up until much later (sometimes months). So I never knew whether I was doing something wrong, and spent a lot of time having a lot of anxiety about it.

          Reply
      3. Annabelle

        This is exactly how my parents were. Half the time they were generally supportive and fine with me trying my best, but the other half they would lose their minds over a B-. Oddly enough, I’ve been told I take feedback really well, so maybe there is something about the inconsistency that makes the anxiety easier to mask.

        Reply
    10. H.C.

      I’m a B-ish student throughout school (from elementary to graduate), I had always envied those straighter A folks (esp. those who look like they don’t even have to try.) It’s definitely interesting to see these perspectives from y’all.

      Also, in hindsight, yeah – some of my straight A friends definitely took negative feedback harder than expected when they enter the professional world. A few typos on a presentation *draft* does not warrant a meltdown.

      Reply
      1. Plague of frogs

        I was a straight A student in college (OK, I got one B+ and it devastated me). If I had to do it over again, I would be a B student. I would enjoy college a lot more, and I think I would actually *learn* more.

        Reply
      2. Mad Baggins

        Definitely. My friends/coworkers who coasted through school often have trouble staying motivated, interested, and focused as adults. I worked hard for my A’s but I still came away with a strong perfectionist streak that has maligned my work/personal life as an adult.

        Reply
    11. Malice Alice

      My mom was very similar. It wasn’t until…I think it was grade 11 or 12 when I finally snapped during a “review” of my report card and screamed at her that I was so tired of hearing about what I was doing badly, couldn’t she for once say something about what I did well? Surprisingly, it did get better after that (though it took a week for her to start speaking to me again.)

      It took me many years – and moving out – to start recalibrating my reactions to criticism and accept that she was frequently frustrated by what she saw as my lack of ambition and the waste of the talent and opportunities she saw me get when she hadn’t gotten the same chances that I had, and that’s why she was acting that way. Still sneaks up on me at the oddest times.

      Reply
      1. swingbattabatta

        I had the same conversation with my dad. He actually brings it up now, 16 years later, as a lightbulb moment for him. He was on me about something, and I just snapped and started asking what the hell he wanted from me – I had excellent grades, varsity sports, worked on my offseasons, volunteered, great friends, yadda yadda, and he was ALWAYS criticizing me for something.

        I think about that conversation all the time as I’m raising children of my own.

        Reply
    12. Gigi

      I had a similar experience. I got a C in French which I was really pleased with because I thought I had gotten a D. My dad told me I was lazy and didn’t work hard enough. French isn’t one of my strongest points and he was supposed to be sorting out a tutor for me which he never got round to doing.

      Reply
    13. chi type

      Man sometimes I’m glad to be from po’ white trash who were just happy I didn’t get pregnant and drop out. Haha

      Reply
      1. Junior Dev

        I know the feeling. My parents had money but my brother was such a mess that while my friends were freaking out over B’s, my parents’ standards were more like “at least you’re not in jail.” Which was its own set of problems but it means I wasn’t ever a perfectionist like some people are describing here.

        Reply
    14. another STEM programmer

      Oh yeah, this is 100% me also. The first time I got straight A’s as a kid my parents yelled at me for having bad handwriting. When I was accepted into graduate school and awarded a teaching/research fellowship that covered all of my tuition + cost of living, they told me that anybody could get a Ph.D. and that what I was doing was easy. They’re really insidious about it; they say all of the correct “we’re proud of you” type things in public, but as soon as nobody else is around they tell me how stupid I am and how I’ve done everything wrong. It makes total sense that they do this because it’s a great cover story for them! Nobody would believe the things they say to me because they say the kinds of things that parents are supposed to say in public!

      Reply
    15. Cece

      So in elementary and middle school I’d regularly bring home report card grades of 105, 110, etc. I’d get perfect grades and then do the extra credit assignments, hence the 100+ grades. Well, my father started to criticize anything under a 100. I would remember getting so angry! An A was an A at 91 or 150! I’m actually estranged from my father now.

      Reply
  2. Lil Fidget

    Sometimes I literally get light headed and panic-y when I realize I’ve made a mistake. My heart starts pounding and I’m sure all the blood leaves my face and I feel like I’m going to faint. Also a frozen ball in my stomach. Sometimes even when the mistake isn’t *that* bad.

    YMMV, but I’ve had learned to just kind of – accept that my body does this, and ride it out, the way people feel about public speaking or being on airplanes. I do some deep breathing and try to use a helpful mantra like, “everybody makes mistakes, nobody died, it’s fine.” I just need to sit with it for a moment, and then I can move on. But if I’m not prepared for this reaction, just the physiological response can be very overwhelming at first and make things even worse. So, sympathies, OP.

    Reply
    1. Future Homesteader

      I have that same reaction! It doesn’t matter what it is. For me, yup, acceptance + time is the best cure. Especially once I’ve settled in a job, have a better sense of how people might react, and can say to myself “this has happened before and the world didn’t end, so take a deep breath and plan how to fix it/keep it from happening again.” Also, an SSRI has helped me a lot, but I take it for a lot of reasons, not just this. :-)

      Reply
    2. OP

      Ugh, that’s physiologically accurate. I’ve also been trying “life is all about learning and growing”, which does help me feel more positive, but it’s still somewhat scary to me that the other person (especially if they’re on the other end of a phone) doesn’t necessarily have that same perspective!

      Reply
      1. ThatGirl

        A question – while you grew up conditioned to not accept failure, how do you feel when other people make mistakes? Because I’ve seen that a lot of people with anxiety or depression are much, much harder on themselves than they are on others, and it can sometimes help to flip it around – “how would I feel if this was my best friend/dating partner/sibling/co-worker”. Truly, almost nobody will ever judge you as hard as you are judging yourself.

        Reply
        1. SarahKay

          Agree with ThatGirl – that’s one of the things I found worked for me when I was panicking about a work mistake. I’d think about what my reaction would be if one of my colleagues came and told me they’d done whatever it was I’d got wrong. And mostly my reaction to them would be “oh, well, that’s not too bad, these things happen” – so now I need to apply that more relaxed reaction to my own mistake.

          Reply
        2. OP

          Honest answer? I’d be a little judgmental, not necessarily think “oh, no big deal.” But that would really depend on the mistake, and also has a lot to do with feeling competitive.

          Reply
          1. ThatGirl

            Fair enough and it did occur to me that you (some people) might be judgy of others’ mistakes for various reasons. So obviously that tactic doesn’t work for everyone. But it still can be helpful to see how other people make mistakes and how those are corrected, just as a way of normalizing feedback.

            Reply
        3. SarcasticFringehead

          I actually tend to be very hard on people for making mistakes (internally, at least – not to their faces) and I’ve been working on that, because I think it reinforces my fear of judgment – if I’m always judging people, they’re probably always judging me, so I have to be perfect. Part of it, I think, comes from this attitude that “if I had to put in so much work to learn the rules and do things right, the least you, a perfect stranger whom I will never see again, could do is put in that same effort.” (Which in turn ties into the “I had to pay my dues, so you don’t get to complain!” which is a crappy attitude to have.)

          Reply
          1. Calpurrnia

            I’m less of the “I had to pay my dues” mindset, and more of the “oh come on, it’s not like this is hard” mindset. It’s most obvious and hardest for me to contain my exasperation when I have to correct the same mistake from the same person more than once. In my mind, since you’ve already seen this correction once previously, the issue has been addressed and you now know the correct (spelling, term, meaning, process…) and are paying particular attention to doing it right, because that’s what I do when I’m corrected on anything ever. So for someone to miss it again after they’ve been corrected once makes my brain jump straight to “this is obviously intentional”, which leads to way more adversarial conversations than I’d prefer. (I’m working on it…)

            Reply
      2. President Porpoise

        I get this reaction if I have to get confrontational about something – even something minor. It is hard to handle, and I’ve been working on it (in part by forcing myself to stand up for myself). It has improved over the last five years, which is the amount of time I’ve been working on it. I also think it has a lot to do with a upbringing of competitiveness and high standards. Good luck OP – recognizing the issue and taking the first steps to fix it is a huge deal.

        Reply
        1. Lil Fidget

          Yes, you’re right, I have a similar response when I’m headed into a confrontation. I assume it’s a fight-or-flight thing, and I’m doing a “freeze” response that’s not super helpful.

          Reply
      3. Snark

        The thing is, though, they also probably don’t have the perspective you’re ascribing to them. In all likelihood, they’re probably equally uninvested in both the “OP is a failure who failed” perspective and the “OP is learning and growing” perspective. “OP” probably doensn’t actually figure into their perspective at all. Their perspective is, in all likelihood, “There’s an error on the llama grooming report, I should call the llama grooming reporting person and tell them to fix it.”

        It’s both rough and freeing to realize that it’s just not about you. You’re not the protagonist of the story.

        Reply
        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          Totally true. Once I realized that people genuinely did not care and were not thinking of me the way I was thinking of myself, it was liberating.

          Reply
          1. Snark

            Right? Nobody cares! 90% of the time, for most of your coworkers, you’re the source of something they need to do a thing. You’re a black box that spits out llama grooming reports, sometimes with errors, and if there’s an error they feed it back through the box until it comes out right. Your internal emotional state is about as relevant as their computer’s current RAM utilization.

            Reply
            1. hermit crab

              That’s a great way to put it. I know that I take everything wayyyyyyyy too personally (and owe a debt of gratitude to whoever first brought up relationship-oriented vs. task-oriented characteristics around here, because that was so helpful in framing why!) but I know that is my thing, not anyone else’s problem. I am totally going to repeat “Your internal emotional state is about as relevant as their computer’s current RAM utilization” to myself the next time I get frazzled.

              Reply
      4. RVA Cat

        Hi OP. I hope all our comments are helping!
        I’ve mentioned it on other threads but you may find Carol Dweck’s Mindset theory helpful. The book is great but there’s a TED Talk if you don’t have time right now. A lot of my anxiety is from having a Fixed mindset. My husband has a Growth mindset and it’s also helped me understand where he is coming from.

        Reply
        1. Star Nursery

          Thanks for recommending this Ted talk. I’m not the OP, but I’m looking forward to listening to it.

          OP, I had a lot of similar angst over making mistakes, especially in my first professional jobs. I too have a tendency to be highly conscientious, worry too much, always think about ways to improve, strongly value doing my best and proving to my boss that I have high quality work, etc…

          I was especially nervous that if I did make a mistake I’d get fired, and then how would I pay back the ginormus student loans for grad school and undergrad. My mindset of anxiety didn’t match the reality though, and over time I purposely changed my mindset… I’m getting much better at “Done Well” but doesn’t have to be “Perfect.” Better done “Good Enough” than never done or too slow.

          I’m five years out from grad school. I am mostly confident that at I’m doing fine, occasionally stress over a mistake, but most of the time I’m less stressed. Actually I did just make a mistake recently that my mind was automatically going to OMG-will-I-get-fired (for something not really a big deal, so really disproportionate to actual mistake, but still I didn’t sleep a well and the next day I apologized to my boss to clear the air). Of course I was making it a way bigger deal in my head than it was to her. So just reminding myself once again that I still need to work more on this mindset.

          Once a Senior Manager mentioned having a dream that she was fired. I didn’t expect someone who was clearly so successful to have a similar struggle. I think over time you will recalibrate how you’re doing compared to your peers and to your bosses expectations. It is good if they give feedback on things to change. It’s a healthier workplace if it is more regular to provide objective feedback on changes to make to your work.

          My supervisors regularly provide cues that I can let go of the fears that I’m about to be fired every time I make a mistake. Over time I have accepted their positive feedback, raises, promotion, etc.

          Side note, I didn’t have family of origin issues pushing for perfection, but I tend to be hard on myself naturally.

          Reply
      5. Competent Commenter

        My husband introduced me to the slogan “they can’t all be winners.” That’s what I tell myself when an outcome isn’t what I’d hoped. I think it’s not just the slogan but the shruggy attitude that I needed to acquire. “Eh, they can’t all be winners. Mentally moving on now.”

        Reply
    3. fposte

      Yes, I was going to say this about bodily reaction. Some people seek out just this adrenaline rush–framing matters a lot here, and I think it can be a lot more effective to lean into it than to try to stave it off or avoid it.

      Reply
    4. Parenthetically

      Yes! One of my proudest moments from the last couple of years was riding out the dry mouth and stomach sinking and heart pounding in a particularly crazy situation (being screamed at by a coworker in front of my students) and calmly inviting her to come talk to the principal with me. And you are absolutely right that this strategy of accepting your own responses paradoxically can lead to those responses being lessened, and certainly much easier to deal with.

      Reply
    5. Penny

      I have the same reaction. Also anytime my manager wants to speak to me – I automatically panic that I’m in trouble and I’m going to get fired.

      Reply
      1. Rainy

        It me. And some of that is from prior bad bosses, but a lot is from my upbringing, where my parents primarily engaged with me only when they were disappointed or angry, so “Come and talk to me” with no context is a statement that basically whips out a giant cartoon mallet and bashes away on a lot of big red anxiety buttons. I have learnt to be chill about these things in most cases but it took me a while.

        Reply
    6. HigherEdPerson

      100% me RIGHT NOW. I’m working through a mistake at work that’s not even fully my fault (but I shoulder some of the blame), and I’ve been literally sick to my stomach for days. Not sleeping right, not eating well, etc. Logically, I *know* it’s just work, not life or death, and this too shall pass, but UGH, man. That pit-in-stomach feeling is awful.

      Reply
    7. Yorkshire Rose

      This is soooo me. I just took some feedback from my boss today that wasn’t bad but wasn’t great either, and my body just wanted to shake and cry but I’ve learned to keep my cool. It’s really hard and takes major focus to keep cool and listen. But I’m grateful for the feedback and it actually will help me do my work.

      In my 20s, I was very emotional when it came to receiving feedback. I also worked for an abusive boss, but that’s another story for another day. It backfired majorly, but I learned a very important lesson that has stuck with me ever since.

      Reply
      1. Calpurrnia

        How do you “learn to keep your cool” when the reaction is so involuntary/automatic, though? This is my problem: when I feel basically any negative emotion (from embarrassment to anger – plus some effusive positive emotions, like gratitude or pride), i completely involuntarily get a tingly nose, my eyes well up, throat tightens, diaphragm spasms, voice cracks… It’s obvious to anyone within earshot or visual range that I’m crying or about to cry. But I don’t have a thought process to interrupt like “I’m about to start crying” – it just comes on like sneezing or yawning, so I can’t figure out how to control it!

        I am 30 years old and in four years at my last job, I made it through maybe five monthly manager tag-ups without shedding a tear. To his credit, my ex-Navy manager (as well as the three different ex-Marine bosses I worked for in that span) listened when I told them “please ignore this involuntary overreaction and continue talking – I am entirely capable of conversing rationally even when my body is doing this” and totally respected that. But that’s definitely not going to be the case for everyone I ever work with in the next 30 years, and I seriously need to learn how to control it so I don’t have to keep explaining what amounts to “I’m not unprofessional, I just look that way, I swear.”

        Reply
        1. Kiwi

          I can’t speak about controlling crying, but I control a need to sneeze or yawn by holding my breath the moment I feel a sneeze or yawn starting. Maybe that might help?

          Reply
        2. Mad Baggins

          Holding my breath like Kiwi said, or if I think I’m going to cry sometimes I repeat a totally unrelated word in my head (like, “Tempura tempura tempura tempuratempuratempura”). Doesn’t help me focus on what’s being said to me, but sometimes it derails my body just long enough that I can get it under control.

          Reply
        3. Queen Tovalina

          A trick I learned was to have a water bottle (preferably a cold drink) handy — you cannot cry and drink at same time. As a HR manager, had to have tough discussion with a well known cryer…we kept water handy and I told her to drink anytime she felt like she was about to cry – took an hour and two bottles of water, but not a single tear throughout.

          Reply
    8. Epsilon Delta

      I find it helpful to remember that we’ve all survived through bad mistakes before. In the moment when you start panicking, picture yourself a day or week or month from now. You’ll be doing just fine, probably watching Netflix with the cat or having dinner with your friends or something equally pleasant, and the mistake will be far from your mind, if not totally forgotteb, because it is resolved and actually wasn’t that big a deal.

      Reply
    9. Mad Baggins

      ‘I do some deep breathing and try to use a helpful mantra like, “everybody makes mistakes, nobody died, it’s fine.”’

      This! Deep breathing may sound silly but it forces your stomach to unclench and your throat to unchoke-up and basically tricks your body into undoing all those physical reactions.

      My mantra is “everybody makes mistakes, nobody’s perfect, but how we learn from them is how we make a better life” and I say it to a little jingle so it’s easy to remember. I use it to deal with mistakes I made, or when my brain kindly reminds me of a past embarrassment or mistake (my brain’s job is to think, after all!). It helps me contextualize and move forward, rather than taking it personally or thinking one mistake says something about my worth as a person.

      Reply
  3. And also

    Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s book Thanks for the Feedback might be helpful with what to say in the moment and how to process later on your own. We have used it as a basis for staff training… lots if people struggle with feedback!

    Reply
    1. KTM

      I was coming here to recommend this book as well. I identify a lot with the comments up-thread about being a straight-A student and not learning any resilience to feedback/criticism. That was a major adjustment when I first started working (I cried after my first performance review even though it was stellar because of one minor criticism/piece of feedback). That book really helped me re-frame mentally about how to receive feedback and how to use it to grow in my career.

      Reply
  4. saffytaffy

    OP, once you’re able to get some emotional distance and take feedback constructively, it’s going to feel SO GOOD. For real. You’re going to start feeling secure and confident and it’s going to be great.

    Reply
  5. MuseumChick

    Sending you lots-o-hugs OP! I’ve struggled with overly emotional responses to negative feedback in the past and I know how completely frustrating it is. Your logical brain and emotional brain are at complete odds and it makes you feel helpless.

    This is one of the few times I would recommend mentioning something to your manager about your personal life. You don’t have to go into great detail but it could help your manager (if you have a good manager) find ways to provide feedback that work for you.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      That’s a good point, maybe you can accept written feedback in an email better than in person, or vice-versa, or maybe you want the feedback collected over the day or coming in as it happens. Some of this might be reasonable to discuss or ask for while you’re working to get your reactions under control.

      Reply
      1. OP

        Hey, I’d love to be able to do that, but it’s not always just my manager that has feedback — often it’s staff from other offices that just call in to let me know “you did this wrong”, which makes me nervous to even pick up phone calls from certain numbers. It’s something that I wish had a better system in place for sure as I find it very jarring.

        Reply
        1. Lil Fidget

          Also I would just say – not all jobs are like that, and if you’re still new in your career and figuring out what works best for you / plays to your strengths – it’s possible that a job where there are interruptions and complaints all day (like phone-intensive roles) are never going to be your Best Thing – and that’s okay! That’s good to learn! I wish I had realized that about my “failures” in early jobs. Some of those jobs I would still fail at today, or they were horrible. I always thought it was me.

          Reply
          1. OP

            Yeah, I don’t think phone work suits me very well! But it is a really lovely company, and almost everyone has been extremely welcoming and it suits me for this period in time.

            Reply
        2. AK

          I think the same idea might apply here though, if it’s the same people calling you (since you mentioned being nervous about certain numbers), you could try a less personal message to them. “I appreciate the feedback and will continue focusing on getting this/that/the other thing done correctly, would it be possible for you to send any feedback you might have by email? That way I can make sure to focus on the information, and I’ll have it on hand for future reference”

          Reply
        3. an infinite number of monkeys

          Are the people on the end of those “certain numbers” being harsh or unnecessarily nitpicky at you, though? Because this is also a thing that happens – especially when you’re young. In the beginning of my career I met quite a few people who, I now realize, got a kick out of browbeating a fresh-faced youngster with her whole life ahead of her.

          Just another thing to consider. Not all feedback is necessarily valid feedback.

          Reply
          1. OP

            That’s possible. I didn’t mention in my original letter that I had a difficult training period with this job, but it took place in a separate department and my trainer was quite unprofessional. I don’t work with him anymore, and have been paired up with a new go-to person for questions, but I really dislike seeing that number come up.

            Reply
        4. PieInTheBlueSky

          I think it’s interesting that you seem to be getting feedback from so many different sources.

          I imagine getting feedback over the phone is harder than in person, just because you lose some of the body language and sense of presence with the other person. Also, the fact that there are multiple people giving feedback who may each have their own communication styles (such as diplomatic/brusque, vague/detailed, etc., or who are focused on different aspects of your job performance), could make things feel more bewildering.

          This seems like an unusual level of feedback stress! My point is just know that you are not alone and that others would have problems in this environment as well. I don’t think this would be an easy situation for me, or for lots of other people.

          Reply
          1. Competent Commenter

            See, I’d rather get the feedback over the phone. No one needs to see you get pale or blush or cry that way. I worked remotely for many years and realized when I started at a regular office job again a few years ago that I had no poker face! In fact, I was used to making faces at the phone to let off steam. Give me crappy feedback via phone anytime versus in a meeting where they keep maintaining eye contact…

            Reply
        5. Indie

          Since it’s a number of different people chances are one of them has the same ‘criticism glitch’ you do as it’s so common. Why don’t you model a good reaction for them? Just in case they need it? Most people do. And I don’t know if the set up allows you to, but try to find a modelled example for yourself (friend or training role playing?)

          Reply
        6. oranges & lemons

          Do you think it would help to have a prepared script on hand for how to respond to the feedback, so you can kind of go on autopilot?

          Reply
        7. Startup HR

          One thing I’ve found helpful is to start writing down the feedback or criticism. It gives me something to concentrate on in the moment other than my reaction.

          Reply
        8. Alton

          I think it’s helpful to see feedback as a two-way street, and to recognize that the people giving you feedback are just as human as anyone else, for better or worse.

          Some people just aren’t great at giving feedback or expressing themselves well. They might have valid feedback but express it poorly. I also think that being a receptionist or admin can involve some awkward power differentials where you have colleagues who aren’t really your boss but who are senior to you and are entitled to request your assistance on things. I think it can be challenging for both sides to figure out where the line is and how to be respectful of each other.

          Over time, I think you can learn how to respond to different people.

          Reply
        9. nonymous

          As for managing it in the moment – from a neutral perspective, feedback is supposed to inform the recipient so they can tweak their processes. So it makes sense to collate that data in non-verbal form (for example, to create checklists or in order to research better techniques). Since by it’s nature documentation is an unemotional activity, is it possible for you to focus on that action in the moment? Redirecting people to email (a good skill to learn for other work scenarios) is one approach, but simply pulling out the notepad and writing things down (or opening up Word or OneNote and typing notes) is another alternative. This acknowledges the feedback, but also gives you the emotional space by not requiring a solution immediately (which would be a completely ridiculous expectation – are you going to wave a wand and poof! perfection?).

          You can designate some time periodically to review your notes in a mindful manner, on your own terms. It may be after some good notes, it turns out that Bessie likes things A Certain Way I and Fergus likes things A Certain Way II. Or it may be that you’re an awful speller and the Word template you’re using has spell check turned off (what my coworker does).

          Reply
      2. MuseumChick

        I would still mention this to your manager. That, at least, is one person you can start working on this with. As for people in other departments, its perfectly reasonable to say something like “Thank you for letting me know. Going forward could you send feedback like this via email? I find that helps me process the information better. Thanks!”

        Reply
      3. KitKat

        Hmm, idk about this. It depends on the office environment, but it might not be reasonable for OP to request that feedback be written, and it might make her come across a little overly sensitive, especially if a lot of the feedback she’s getting is stuff her manager probably doesn’t think is a big deal.

        I do think Alison’s scripts are good about acknowledging that OP is having a stronger-than-average reaction and are working on it, since that shows self-awareness about the issue though!

        Reply
    2. Phoenix Programmer

      I caution against this. Managers don’t like feeling like they have to walk on eggshells even for top performers. This can label you a troublesome/high maintenance employee.

      Signed – asked for feedback to occurred of the day then started getting feedback about not being needy about feedback……

      Reply
      1. Anon for this

        Absolutely – you want to avoid seeming high-maintenance at all costs. If you’re getting feedback in a format that’s unhelpful for you but the default format for your employer/term, then you need to do the emotional work to reframe it in a way that works for you, even if that means you’re expending extra emotional labour on your work life.

        Reply
      2. LouiseM

        +1. Unless you have a visibly over-emotional reaction and need to explain it because your boss noticed, I wouldn’t do this.

        Reply
  6. Dust Bunny

    I went to a small private liberal arts college populated with self-competitive overachievers. I hear all the time from my alumni friends that they had never failed at anything until they got to college and what a shock it was to have to work so hard and still not be guaranteed stellar feedback.

    I never thought I would be so grateful for my lifetime of academic barely-competence. I have a learning disability that wasn’t diagnosed until my junior year and my grades were all over the map–great at English, terrible at math, etc. At that point, everything short of actually failing out seemed manageable (and, honestly, even failing out probably would have been really embarrassing but not insurmountable. I did not fail out, though).

    Reply
    1. Observer

      I remember my High School principal once saying that she prefers to hire people who were 89 students, rather 100 students, because the 80 students generally have a better handle on what it takes to make it through school for most kids.

      Reply
    2. ArtsNerd

      Honestly, being able to skate through school works against me today.

      Yeah, I can understand new information quickly, but focus and diligence are FAR more important and I struggle with both. Not too many timed exams in adulthood.

      Reply
      1. Jeannie Nitro

        Wow I wish I could get a job studying for and taking timed multiple choice tests. I would be SO GOOD at that job.

        Reply
      2. Lurker

        Same thing with me. Simply sitting at a desk and working consistently at a not very exciting task for 8+ hours a day is an ongoing challenge.

        Reply
  7. CMDRBNA

    LW, I totally feel you. It might be helpful to learn more about trauma and how your brain reacts to it to understand your own reactions.

    Alison nailed it when she said that your reaction to criticism as a child made sense, but now that your circumstances have changed, it’s hurting instead of helping you. I work with clients who often come from backgrounds with abuse, what we often see is that the survival and coping mechanisms that worked for them in those situations no longer work and are often harming them. But it’s very, very hard to unlearn those behaviors, especially ones developed over childhood and adolescence.

    I have managed people who had similar reactions to feedback that you do, and as a manager it is really, really hard to give someone feedback they need when they react this way. Most managers do not want to feel like they’re upsetting or hurting someone, but they need to be able to give you feedback.

    I agree that therapy will help. Practicing accepting feedback graciously will also help, in a setting where you feel supported and the feedback is pretty low stakes.

    Reply
    1. Snark

      Yeah, it’s a good point. I’ve worked with folks who reacted like this too, and while it’s a genuine response, it’s also not fair to the person trying to manage you, because they end up feeling obligated to manage your emotions as well as your work.

      Reply
      1. Parenthetically

        I react this way, and one way I’ve dealt with it is to specifically tell my boss he doesn’t have to manage my emotions.

        Reply
        1. fposte

          Can you give some context about when you’d say that? As a manager, I think that statement could make me feel more obligated rather than less by bringing up the very notion of the need.

          Reply
          1. Parenthetically

            Sure. My boss and I have a pretty casual relationship, and have worked together for a long time, so YMM definitely V, but as an example, there was a really stressful period at my school where a LOT of people (including me) were getting a lot of serious, negative feedback, and I said something like, “Hey, this is a crazy time, and I reckon you’re managing a lot of people’s emotions right now, but I just want you to know you don’t have to do that with me. I’ll deal with my frustration and talk to you about anything I have concerns about, but don’t feel like you have to walk on eggshells or hold back on critiquing me just because we’re all on edge.”

            Reply
          2. Em Too

            I have a report who’s been known to burst into tears when she’s got something wrong and personally I would find it helpful to hear what Parenthetically is suggesting, because otherwise helping her calibrate her judgement and/or manage her emotions *is* going to be a big part of the rest of the conversation, possibly unhelpfully and unnecessarily (don’t think my report is the same though).

            The tears bit is a tiny part of the my overall picture of her and she’s still the best performer of the 20+ people in my team.

            Reply
            1. fposte

              For me it’s going to depend a lot on the context. If it hadn’t occurred to me that I might be doing that in the first place, I’m going to wonder why you were bringing it up, and I’ll be more concerned rather than less.

              Reply
      2. CMDRBNA

        Yeah, I had a direct-report (thankfully for not that long, because I quit rather than manager her) who would get angry/defensive/teary over me just trying to train her because even the most gently delivered feedback sent her into a panic spiral.

        I felt bad for her. I also couldn’t manage her, and I didn’t have the bandwidth to try to find the magical combination of words and tone that would make her okay with getting feedback. We got into this me trying to avoid her and her trying to constantly get reassurance spiral that was horrible for everyone.

        I’m pretty sure she had the same characteristics that the LW did, but not the LW’s self-awareness.

        Reply
        1. Jules the 3rd

          oh yeesh, I’m there right now. I actually have a question in to Alison about it, because it’s so hard for me to do – I am not good at emotional labor. I think I’m going to go read Alison’s link about ‘what the mgr is thinking’ now.

          Reply
    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      Practicing accepting feedback graciously will also help, in a setting where you feel supported and the feedback is pretty low stakes.

      This is such an excellent point (in addition to the rest). OP, if you can, try to practice with people you trust in more controlled contexts (i.e., you know the feedback is coming). Do it with things that are lower stakes than your job functions. Practice will make the experience easier over time, which will help in contexts where you don’t have control over when you’ll receive feedback (or from whom).

      Reply
      1. CMDRBNA

        CaptainAwkward talks about doing stuff like this – like practicing saying “no” in situations where it’s low stakes just for the practice. It does get easier.

        Reply
    3. Amber T

      Plus a bajillion for therapy. I’m so thrilled that this is something that is seriously recommended by many people, and the response by so many people is “YES!” instead of “OmG sErIoUsLy??”

      When I first told my parents I was going to therapy, they questioned it, and if I *really* needed it. I think it they felt it was a slap in the face to them, like they didn’t raise a perfect child, that they screwed up. OP, therapy was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. It was scary, I hated admitting that I wasn’t perfect, that I needed help, that I couldn’t do it on my own. I hated crying to a stranger, I hated the poignant questions she asked me and things she made me realize about myself. Did I *really* need it? Was I taking time away from someone else who *really* needed it?

      Like I said, overall it was the best decision to go. I’m not “fixed.” I still struggle. When someone points out something I did wrong, I still get that falling feeling momentarily. But it’s *no where near as bad.* I can handle it when things go wrong. I can deal when I make a mistake. I can handle it when my coworker or my boss says “hey, you messed this up, can you fix it?” When I was working at the front desk, I even handled buttheads screaming at me, telling me I sucked! (Admittedly, that was even easier, because mentally I could say F’ you, but I digress.) Most importantly, (for me personally) I can deal with my parents. Like that sounds shitty, but when my dad expresses his disappointment or disapproval, I shrug. Sometimes it still stings, and sometimes I have to take myself aside and walk myself through stuff, but I’m okay.

      That turned out to be a much longer post that I intended. But OP, it can get better. You gotta put in some work and effort, but it doesn’t have to be like this! You can work through this!

      Reply
      1. ArtsNerd

        Yes!

        Also want to STRONGLY AGREE with the low stakes practice. I was in a job where our projects or ideas failed. Frequently. It was awful at first but our management just shrugged and moved on, saying “Ok we won’t do it that way again.” Nothing came crashing down around us. No one was fired (because usually the fault lay with management themselves, if anyone.) It was incredibly liberating to be able to fail like that!

        It took some time but now I’m far more tolerant of risk and doing things I don’t immediately excel at than I ever was before.

        It’s been so good for me, and I’ve since learned that it’s a helpful way to overcome anxieties — think of the very scenario you fear, and make it happen in a controlled way, many times. You’ll [typically] learn that the worst isn’t actually as bad as the fear and start rewiring your brain. It’s really very cool.

        Reply
      2. madmaxine

        Oh my gosh, in high school when I was at my lowest point, my mom once asked me “Do you want to go see a psychiatrist?!” in the same way one might ask, “Do you want to go to prison?!” and I responded, “YES!” and she looked at me as if I’d stabbed her and it was never brought up again.

        20 years later I finally made it to therapy. And got some SSRIs. Things are starting to make sense.

        Reply
        1. Rainy

          I saw a therapist briefly during my first stint at university, and her main feedback was “you seem pretty much okay, all things considered, but your parents are a problem.” Amusingly, when I mentioned to my mother I’d been talking to a therapist, she shrieked “OH GOD WHAT LIES ARE YOU TELLING HER ABOUT ME”.

          I didn’t learn the lesson then, at 18, not to tell my parents anything, but to my credit, it didn’t take me too much longer to realize that things worked better when I simply didn’t communicate with them.

          Reply
      3. ..Kat..

        I am so glad that I realized I needed therapy. Thanks Mom for your reaction to this, “what are you saying about me?” Gee Mom, you are an amazing bitch, I am telling her the truth…

        Reply
    4. Sualah

      Practicing accepting feedback graciously will also help, in a setting where you feel supported and the feedback is pretty low stakes.

      Yeah, I agree with this. It’s not the same thing exactly, but check out the podcast “Invisibilia” Season 1 episode 2 called “Fearless.” Part of it is about a guy who figured out that he was afraid of rejection, and so started asking people for things to be rejected. Like asking people for rides, or for discounts when shopping, or whatever.

      There’s a short article here: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/01/16/377239011/by-making-a-game-out-of-rejection-a-man-conquers-fear

      And the episode is here: https://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/377515477/fearless

      Reply
  8. Snark

    I could very easily have written this letter when I was, oh, 20-21. One thing that I had to grapple with, painfully, is that a lot of that reaction was rooted in my ego. I’m the smartest, I’m the best, I have so many strengths and talents – wait, what? You’re saying I made a mistake? But I’m the smartest, I’m the best, I have so many strengths and talents!

    Our society, unfortunately, tends to tell smart, high-achieving, competent people that they’re exceptional, not that they did good. Part of how that manifests is how we approach mistakes – not as an unfortunate but inevitable opportunity to learn and self-criticize, but a personal failure and betrayal of all the expectations placed on our exceptional shoulders. Because exceptional people never screw up, right?

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      It’s true, I was most like this when I was younger and newer to the work world. I think my ego has been somewhat ground down over the years and I’m more able to shrug and give myself a mulligan than I once was. Maybe that is encouraging to hear, OP – you probably won’t always be this sensitive!

      Reply
      1. Snark

        Part of getting my ego ground down was the fact that all my strengths are not remarkable anymore, honestly. My skills and talents were precocious, but I’m no savant, and while I got here early….the rest of the world caught up and joined me. And that’s just as it should be.

        Reply
        1. KarenT

          For me, it was joining an industry full of exceptionally smart people. It was a big ego hit to feel like I didn’t stand out anymore, and I even remember a co-worker saying to me once, “Look, I know you were always the smartest person in your class, the thing is, so was everyone else here.”

          Reply
          1. Reforming A student

            That was literally said to me (and everyone else in the class) in a giant lecture hall on the first day of law school. Didn’t really help much at the time, to be honest.

            Reply
      2. madmaxine

        Yes, I’ve also been ground down. While I still do have some skills and talents that people around me don’t have, they haven’t meant anything work-wise. Work-wise I am as average as they come and that realization has definitely helped tamp some of my reactions down.

        Reply
        1. Lil Fidget

          I think there were a few things that went wrong early in my career despite my 100% best efforts, and I realized that … the work world can be a little futile sometimes. You’re being paid to try and herd the cats as best as possible, but nobody’s even expecting a cat circus here. Don’t get too big for your britches, Lil Fidget. Haha.

          Reply
    2. Snark

      As a coda, that’s not to say getting browbeaten by your parents didn’t also leave a mark. But if you’re feeling personally attacked and mocked by criticism, I think it’s worth interrogating whether that’s your ego and self-image talking, maybe in chorus with trauma.

      Reply
      1. CaliCali

        It’s also important to know that ego =/= self-esteem. I know myself, and many others, have that classic overachiever combo of an oversized, yet fragile, ego. We have an outsized sense of our own importance. A good way to gauge this is to see how you’d react to others making the same mistakes: if you’d be like “eh, whatever, people screw up sometimes” but beat yourself up mercilessly if you do, ask why it is that your mistake is so much more significant than those of others. And overachiever types in school (raises hand) tend to connect this achievement superiority to our feelings of self-worth, so when we’re no longer superior, we take professional criticism personally. Like Snark said, doing the work on your ego is the first step. I used to be a lot like you with criticism, but years of making mistakes eventually teaches you how to handle them, and working on my own ego has given me a lot of freedom in not equating my self-worth with my “perfection.”

        Reply
        1. Snark

          Yup. Learning that ego is not self-worth, and decoupling the two, is something most people never figure out, but it’s a critical step to being a mature and functional person.

          Reply
          1. CaliCali

            Agreed in full. It’s constantly a work in progress (this very issue came up yesterday for me at therapy!) but it’s really worthwhile work.

            I also used to have a mantra that I’d repeat to myself when I was dealing with a hypercritical, demanding boss: “I am good at my job. I am more than my job.” I was giving myself the boost of confidence in my work, while reminding myself that even if I sucked at it, I still had intrinsic value.

            Reply
      2. Jillociraptor

        Yes, definitely. Using myself as a case study here: I had the opposite of brow-beating, achievement focused parents, and I developed the same neuroses around making mistakes.

        My parents were extremely intentional about not setting high expectations around achievement (probably because I was such a sensitive kid and would beat myself up over any mistake from a pretty young age). They must have read some proto-Mindset stuff at some point because I distinctly remember my dad always telling me that it didn’t matter if I did well, it only mattered that I tried my best. Which, of course, sent me into a shame spiral, because I didn’t try my best! I skated by on raw talent! I couldn’t even be good at being good at things! This is obviously some self-protective ego talking.

        I’ve read a bit about academically “gifted” children, especially girls, that we often misdiagnose the pressure we put on ourselves as coming from parents, teachers or other adults. We make the feelings bigger and more consequential (and less out of our control), maybe to justify our outsize reactions to them. If I had been writing this comment at, say, 15, I would have absolutely identified my parents as putting a lot of pressure on me, but with the benefit of hindsight, I can see very clearly how hard they worked to NOT do that. This is not at all to suggest that any of the experiences that others are articulating here about pressure from parents are not real, or not traumatic, only to say I think it can get magnified (or maybe even classified differently) when the voices in our heads are also extremely critical.

        Reply
        1. Mad Baggins

          This is too real. I think it would almost be easier to blame my parents, but actually the pressure and criticism was from me, to me, and evaluated by me… and “there’s always room for improvement”.

          Reply
    3. Jules the 3rd

      Interesting – because I was definitely exceptional as a kid and didn’t meet intellectual peers my age until high school. But I never thought ‘exceptional people never screw up’, it was always ‘if you screw up then you need to practice some more but you can probably get it eventually.’

      I wonder if part of it was that I was VERY clumsy, and spent several years in dance classes to help me with that, and the whole ‘you have to practice [subtext: study] to master something’ crossed over to intellect as well. My parents helped too, with a ‘hey, you’re still learning’ attitude.

      Every week or so, I get a reminder of the many things my parents did right.

      Reply
    4. Merci Dee

      Even more than a personal failure, I think that society also tends to look at mistakes as a =moral= failure. Not just that you can’t hack the work you’re expected to do if you make a mistake, but that you’re a bad person for making that mistake.

      Not to bring up politics or religion too much, but you see this mindset of mistakes-as-moral-failings very much among a certain certain portion of the population; the assumption seems to be that if you were a godly, religious sort of person, then you wouldn’t find yourself in the position you’re in. Whether that’s being poor, being sick, being unemployed, being homeless, or any other of a number of things. It’s sad to me that people forget so easily that these things can, quite literally, happen to every single person on the planet — the fact that it hasn’t happened to you =yet= is not the same as the supposition that it =won’t= happen to you.

      Reply
  9. Mimmy

    Hi, are you me?? Seriously, this is me to a T. I too was heavily criticized growing up, both at home and school (FTR, both my family and school are/were excellent overall).

    I wish I had sound advice but since I struggle with this all the time, I can only empathize.

    Reply
  10. Wannabe Disney Princess

    I’m a perfectionist so nobody is harder on me than me. When somebody points out that I made a mistake or that I need to improve on X my brain kicks into overdrive and pummels home the message that I am as big a failure as I think I am. There are a few things I do to override this depending on how severe my internal reaction is. Sometimes it’s as simple as talking back to it saying, “I am a human, not a robot. I cannot be expected to perform with 100% accuracy.” I also tack on, “It’s just llama grooming, nobody is going to die if Captain Fluffles didn’t get groomed today.”

    Other times, it is sitting down with a pen and paper and listing every. single. accomplishment I can think of in 10 minutes (or 15 or 5…however much time I’ve got). Both big and small. It forces me to view things in perspective and prove to myself that, no, I am not a failure. No matter what my jerkwad brain might be telling me at this exact moment.

    I also recommend Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. The segment about living with Fear (as she called it, just represents personal demons) and not letting it drive but acknowledging it’s there did wonders for me.

    Reply
    1. OP

      Not even just over-criticized, but under-praised? You get an A, so what? You always get As. It’s the BASE expectation. It made poor feedback seem so much worse in comparison because you belittle every good thing you’ve ever done as not important.

      Reply
      1. Lil Fidget

        Oh, my friends and I have discussed this! As people who were generally high-achieving types, we don’t really celebrate accomplishments because – that’s just what you would expect. There was an interesting post from somebody who didn’t get an internship offer that resonated on this topic, I will go back and try to find it – link in my next comment.

        Reply
      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        Ugh, OP is your mom my mom? Because this was my entire childhood (and this framing was just the most benign of the critiques I received growing up).

        From one overcriticized and under-praised/appreciated kid to another, I promise you can work through/past it. But it’s going to take an additional allocation of time outside of work to do it. I think the fact that you recognize that it’s a problem is huge, and your willingness to change is going to be the key factor in your ability to reprogram. Be patient and kind with yourself through the process, and give yourself time. It’s hard to deprogram 18+ years of criticism.

        It’s taken me at least 7 years to get better at this, and I’m still a work in progress. Feedback still sometimes makes my heart race into fight-or-flight mode, but the frequency with which that happens has gone way down. And my ability to be resilient and not endure panic has gone way up.

        And it’s worth it—being able to take feedback is a benefit across all parts of life, not just work-life. Once I learned how to take work feedback, I became a much better human being in my personal relationships/friendships, too, because criticism did not automatically trigger a downward spiral into how awful/worthless I was and how guilty I felt. (I cringe when I think of some of the extremely reasonable friend-to-friend feedback I received in college that reduced me to incoherent crying.)

        Reply
      3. Future Analyst

        Oh OP. This was my household, to a T. Praise was reserved for a (literal) once-in-a-lifetime event, and everything else was just expected. What really helps me get past that mindset is to start new things, and keep failing (a lot). Yoga is great for this, as is rock-climbing. Somehow, if I keep showing up at yoga and “failing” at doing a handstand or crow or whatever, I feel more free to make mistakes elsewhere, because I’ve already practiced getting back up and trying again. Hang in there!

        Reply
      4. Indie

        If I did that with students I’d fail school inspections. Rightfully so. The learning brain needs positive feedback that it’s on the right path.

        Reply
      5. Blue Anne

        Yes! I sympathize with all of you on this.

        I’ve totally internalized it and I worry sometimes that it makes me seem like a jerk. My boyfriend tries to comfort me and stop my stress by telling me that I’ve achieved more in the last year than anyone else he knows – but so what, that’s not necessarily high achieving for me, right? Just for normal mortals. D’oh.

        Reply
      6. Thursday Next

        Yep, yep, triple yep. Right there with you. It’s a really damaging lens, and one that takes a lot of work to recalibrate.

        Reply
      7. Competent Commenter

        Yes, exactly how I always framed it. If As are the standard, then getting an A doesn’t count for anything. There’s no place to go but down. A straight-A report card is no big deal, but a couple of B+s are a problem.

        It took me years to really feel good about my accomplishments, but eventually I got to that point. I hope you can too, OP!

        Reply
      8. Parenthetically

        A CONSTANT source of conflict between my mom and my dad involved my dad getting really irritated and exclaiming, “But why should I have to praise them for something they should be doing anyway?!”

        Reply
      9. nonymous

        That was my parents, but what really drove it home was the larger relative pool’s reinforcement. Nephew got a “C” in a course he finds difficult but is below his grade level? He’s awesome because he tried so hard, never mind that homework/study time was reserved for Sunday @10P. Nonymous got 3.95GPA carrying full college load while in high school? Eh, easy for her ’cause she’s smart (couldn’t possibly be because of study habits).

        Reply
  11. Observer

    Please take Allison’s advice. You hit it on the head when you said that being able to take feedback is an invaluable skill. It is, in fact, and absolutely necessary skill.

    As a practical matter, the fact that you won’t be in a public facing role if all goes well in your career progression is not really helpful. You will still need to be able to work with people at some level, and that becomes more true the higher up you go. And you will always have someone who will need / want / be able to give you feedback, regardless of your role and stage of your career. And, in many of the roles that really are not public / client facing, the kind of emotional reaction you are describing will be perceived in a much worse light than in many public facing roles.

    Acknowledging this issue and making it clear that you are working on it AND that you really aren’t looking for people to tiptoe around it, in the meantime, will help mitigate the fallout for you.

    And, I know that this is not the question you asked, but please also deal with this for the health of your emotional health and personal relationships. Being unable to accept feedback and criticism is a relationship killer. So is over-apologizing. I’m not talking about accepting abuse, or even just rudeness, but reasonable feedback. It happens in the best of relationships. And, in healthy relationships, that’s fine. “I can’t say X to my partner / SO / Friend, because they get so emotional” is almost always the sign of a relationship plagued by problems.

    Lots of luck with this. It’s not an easy way to live. Allison is right – getting a handle on it will be really freeing.

    Reply
  12. Captain Awkward

    Alison nailed the source of these feelings and the recommendations (therapy, feedback for your managers on how to give you feedback). Can I make a simple, mechanical suggestion for making those moments easier to deal with?

    In the moment when someone is giving you feedback on your work, just focus on writing down what they say.

    You don’t have to respond to it, explain yourself, or even process what they are saying in that moment. You don’t have to feel (or not feel) anything about it. Just write it down for now, so you have a record of it. You can process the information in it later, privately, plus it gives you something to do with your hands and your face during an awkward moment.

    Later, when you’re alone, you can read through your notes. Is what the person is saying fair and reasonable? Does it make sense to you? Do you understand what you’d need to do to correct the problem? If not, you can ask for clarification then.

    I used to cry and get very flustered during feedback sessions at work and in grad school (that family of origin stuff and good student stuff that Alison described so well!) but doing this helped me a lot and it did get easier over time. Good luck.

    Reply
          1. Lil Fidget

            This fits my head canon that all the awesome women in the world are actually friends who hang out. I also think all celebrities probably know each other (and to be fair, it kind of seems like they do).

            Reply
          2. Amber T

            I got really psyched once when I read a work-related question on CA’s site, and CA’s advice was awesome but she also suggested checking out AAM and maybe dropping Alison a line for a more work-specific answer, and Alison commented right then and there! It was awesome to see :)

            Reply
          3. Plague of frogs

            Now we just need the Bad Advisor to drop by! Although, sadly, this is a letter that she cannot work her magic on.

            Reply
        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          I feel like we’re getting daily fan drive bys, what with Hannah commenting yesterday and the Captain, today.

          Reply
            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

              She’s the co-host on Hannah & Matt Know It All! Alison linked to their podcast, yesterday, because she was their guest. Hannah then commented on the post as “Han.” :)

              Reply
    1. NewJobWendy

      This is a great idea. OP, for what it’s worth, what you’re describing (the physical reaction) sounds like a panic attack. I developed work-related anxiety and panic attacks as an adult at a particularly difficult job, and seeing a therapist was invaluable. Also, some people are worried about therapy because they think it means once a week sessions for a long time, but I went once every 2 weeks for about 3 months. Obviously every person’s situation is unique but don’t be afraid of seeking some help just because you might not have time or resources to deal with everything right away.

      Reply
    2. Anon for this

      This is good advice, but be careful about the expectations of the feedback-giver – they may perceive you as being checked-out or actively avoidant/deflecting if you’re focused on writing down feedback. Some managers will really need you to engage in the moment to be convinced that you’re taking their feedback seriously.

      Reply
  13. John

    Sounds like the letter writer just needs to learn some coping techniques and mature a little.

    Not sure Alison can actually know just from a letter that family life was dysfunctional. Don’t blame the parents, take responsibility.

    I do agree that the self awareness of the letter writer is a positive sign.

    Reply
    1. Karo

      There’s a difference between “blaming the parents” and recognizing that your struggles probably have roots in something else, and taking steps to figure out what those roots are and how to grapple with them.

      Reply
      1. Lil Fidget

        Yeah it’s actually helpful to think (a little bit) about how or why you ended up with certain ideas. It doesn’t mean you have to get yourself “stuck” in victim mode and how it’s all your parent’s fault how could they do this to you – but it’s harder to correct a thought pattern if you don’t understand how it served you in the past. Sometimes just by naming it, I find that clears it up.

        Reply
        1. Oliver

          Yup! Indulging in self-pity isn’t healthy, but I’ve found being angry at parents sometimes to be helpful. If your parents imparted some harmful ways of thinking on you, mentally telling them to fuck off can help.

          Reply
    2. Kelly L.

      The LW discusses “disappointment (over often trivial matters).” Let’s take her at her word. I also feel that your criticism is unnecessarily snide, given that the LW is specifically writing in for advice on coping techniques, which would seem to be the very definition of taking responsibility.

      Reply
    3. Hills to Die on

      Oh, shove it. You obviously haven’t been through the psychological warfare that comes from being raised like this. It’s damn hard to work through being raised that way and your being judgmental doesn’t help anyone.

      OP IS taking responsibility by trying to better herself and work through this. She isn’t blaming her parents. Having that level of criticism is HARD and takes time for a person to sort out. Years, even, for most people.

      OP, you are acting with maturity and accountability already! You are walking a well-worn path here and you deserve to lighten up on yourself a bit. People spend their entire lives this way, and here you are tackling it head-on. Good for you! Definitely get the therapy and let us know how it goes. It will get easier the more you practice.

      Good luck–muah!

      Reply
      1. Quackeen

        I love this comment, as someone who grew up in the same environment as the letter-writer and who is trying really hard to change the scripts in my head. Thank you.

        Reply
    4. Snark

      This is not a particularly helpful comment. Knowing where a reaction comes from so you can tackle it more effectively is not “blaming the parents.” And if seeking help and advice on how to cope and mature a little isn’t taking responsibility, I’d love to know what you think is.

      Reply
    5. OP

      You’re right. I do think some of this may go back to being the youngest in an large, over-achieving family but I do also need to grow up a bit and accept that not everything I do will be perfect. Thank you for your honest take.

      Reply
      1. Observer

        Blink.

        You do realize that your response here is incredibly mature and gracious? You clearly already have some of the most important skills you need to deal with the issue of taking feedback well.

        Reply
      2. JB (not in Houston)

        No, OP, this is not about “growing up”! This is about unlearning what you’ve picked up from the past and learning a new mindset. You ARE taking responsibility by writing in and looking for how to do things differently.

        Reply
        1. Snark

          Not that I give John much credit for insight, but what you’re describing here is as good a functional definition of growing up as any.

          Reply
      3. Robin Sparkles

        You have such a great self-perception of how you process things – which many people with excellent upbringings are unable to do! So kudos to you.

        Reply
    6. Amber Rose

      Coping techniques are what is being asked for. Do you have any input on that? As it is, your comment is a bit of a tautology.

      Reply
    7. Genny

      Let’s pretend she didn’t grow up in a dysfunctional house. Let’s pretend that her parents were really just trying to do their best to encourage their daughter to succeed. Maybe the stress she felt to be perfect came from within, not from her parents at all. It may not have been a traditionally dysfunctional house, but does that really matter for the LW’s current problem?

      The fact is, LW experienced a house where she rightly or wrongly felt like she never measured up to expectations. She rightly or wrongly perceived criticism as a personal attack, and because of that, she developed certain responses to feedback. She is now trying to fix that. She never once blamed anyone for her own responses to feedback. That is what taking responsibility looks like.

      Reply
    8. Indie

      I wouldn’t ‘blame’ this type of parent simply because they aren’t great teachers or really understand how being joyless sticklers has a severe downside. The OP didn’t even mention them! I (assume) they sheltered and fed her, protected her and did the best they knew how which was well enough to get her close enough to do the rest of the work herself. Which is why she wrote the letter…for self improvement. So I don’t know what you’re on about.

      Reply
    9. Thursday Next

      Alison *asked* the OP about her family life. OP didn’t volunteer that information initially, so it’s not as if she was rushing to “blame her parents.”

      We look to the past to see if there are patterns that might illuminate our present behavior. In this case, it seems that there are. The next steps are about counteracting those past negative patterns.

      OP, I commend you for your graciousness in your responses today. You are resilient, and with practice, you’ll become more so.

      Reply
      1. OP

        I really appreciate that — thank you for your kindness! The whole point of my writing in was to find some context and I have, so thank you.

        Reply
    10. SC Anonibrarian

      I hope you never face trauma or hardships in your life that you need outside assistance to handle. Grow an empathy already.

      Reply
      1. SC Anonibrarian

        That comment was directed towards John the Heartless, in case it wasn’t clear. The OP has my utmost respect for being mature and thoughtful and responsive and for tackling this head-on. That’s more maturity than a lot of people ever demonstrate.

        Reply
    11. This Daydreamer

      Call your parents and thank them for never screaming at you for ten minutes because they disagreed with the way you loaded the dishwasher.

      The OP wrote in to ask for advice on developing coping techniques, not excuses. And, if you look at the comments, you’ll see that there are a whole lot of us who had hyper critical parents and found ourselves dealing with the same challenges.

      Reply
  14. Rincat

    Hey OP – I grew up in very much the same family. My parents, especially my mother, were constantly criticizing EVERYTHING and overreacting to the smallest things. Now that I have a toddler, I’m even more aware of how nitpicky they are – for example she got upset the other day that a single throw pillow was on the floor, and said my daughter was “destroying” her house.

    Anyway, I used to be very afraid of criticism, and also overly apologetic and anxious. I’ve come a long way (still pretty anxious but I’ve gotten better at that too!), and these things have helped me:

    – Compartmentalize in my mind that my job is business, and it’s NOT ME. They are critiquing my work, not my value as a person. Try to separate the two.
    – Practice receiving feedback with a trusted friend in a low-stakes situation. Write a story, make a meal – have your friend provide feedback and discuss how to improve.
    – If you have a good boss: remind yourself they are there to help you. She wants you to succeed! Her goal is to help you flourish, and you can’t flourish without being honed.
    – If you have a crappy boss: remind yourself their bad behavior and attitude is on them. Scoldy micromanagers tend to be very fearful inside and have their own anxieties they are projecting. Lazy non-managers are fearful of conflict. It’s not you – it’s them.
    – Try not to apologize for anything that is not directly your fault. Sometimes a “I’m sorry” can help smooth social situations, but the for the vast majority of the time – they’re not necessary. If you feel the need to apologize, stop yourself and think, is this necessary? Is this worthy of apology?

    I hope this helps, and good luck with your studies and career!

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      These are great tips! I think a lot of them revolve around setting healthy boundaries between your work life and your personal self esteem, which is a great thing. The work world doesn’t really exist to serve your personal interests, so it helps to keep emotional distance between yourself and your job. I wish I’d realized that sooner!

      Reply
    2. OP

      You are so right about the over-apologizing — I shouldn’t preemptively be sorry for everything I do! I’ll try to follow some of this advice :)

      Reply
      1. Genny

        I used to be an over apologizer too because I was taught that’s what taking responsibility for my actions looked like and because I’m conflict averse and preemptively apologizing is a great way to avoid conflict. I found it really helpful to completely remove “I’m sorry” from my work vocabulary. After doing that for a few months (I can’t really remember how long because I didn’t set a time limit on it), I found that I was in a much better space to judge when to apologize for something and when not to. Since then, I’ve allowed myself to use “I’m sorry”, but it’s become much less frequent, and thus more meaningful (at least to me).

        Reply
    3. I'm A Little TeaPot

      Rincat, very good advice. Also, for the sake of your daughter, PLEASE shut that stuff down from your parents. Just because your parents have a problem doesn’t mean your daughter should suffer for it. No child should, and your parents really owe you a sincere apology for doing it to you.

      Reply
      1. Robin Sparkles

        Yes I want to add to this. Do not let your daughter suffer like you did. Your parents- your mom -sounds like she needs help managing expectations. Let her know that and shut this shit down!

        Reply
        1. Rincat

          Oh don’t worry, it does get shut down. I’m older and I don’t care so much about appeasing my parents. :) Also my daughter’s temperment is way more fierce than mine ever was so she’s got a good start!

          Reply
    4. Strawmeatloaf

      I’m an over-apologizer too, but that’s been ingrained in me because I’ve always been lowest on the “totem pole” of all work places I’ve worked so far. So anything that’s a problem even though it’s not anything I had to do with? My fault. Someone misplaced an important document? As a file clerk, it has to be my fault. No one else could have possibly made that mistake even though it was never sent to the file clerks! Double folders for the same case that the file clerk didn’t make? File clerk’s fault!

      I also have it ingrained in me to say “thank you” whenever someone else does because I worked at a grocery store and that’s what we had to say. So it’s been amazingly hard for me to say “you’re welcome” at any point when it has nothing to do with work because it’s been so ingrained and I can say that within the moment, but actually have to think about saying “you’re welcome” if I even remember it.

      Reply
  15. Amy Pond

    Letter writer you are not alone. I started sobbing when I realized I had gotten confused and missed the window to enter time for my first pay period. Luckily, this was one of my work from home days and my fiance and therapist had time help me recalibrate my reaction so I could go to my supervisor for help without it looking like it was a mistake I spent hours panicking about.

    You know where it comes from and you’re willing to receive feedback. You sound like a person thats in touch with yourself and I definitely recommend therapy as it has helped me get a whole lot better at resetting my normal meter for this kind of stuff.

    Reply
  16. Countess Boochie Flagrante

    Oh man did this hit home for me! OP, I feel you. I spent high school in the exact same situation where any tiny misstep or mistake was turned into the Spanish Inquisition. Learning to take feedback gracefully was difficult for me, but hopefully some of the same processes I went through will help you.

    The #1 biggest factor in helping me turn around my reaction to negative feedback was the realization that giving constructive criticism is a lot of work. My mantra for years was Giving this feedback means they believe you can and will act on it. Someone who thinks you’re hopeless and can’t ever improve most likely won’t bother giving you helpful feedback, because they’ll consider it a waste of their time.

    Something else that helped a lot was getting myself into a position where I was giving feedback, so I could put myself on the other side of the equation. For me, it was in the world of fanfiction. I went on a campaign for a while of giving detailed feedback, both good and bad, on every story I read, and learning what it felt like (and how much work it took, see above) to really dig into the nitty gritty of “here’s what I think was really awesome, and here’s what you could probably do better, and here’s how you can do it better.”

    Reply
    1. Snark

      Nobody ever expects the Spanish Inquisition.

      And that’s a great point: constructive feedback is a vote of confidence. “Screw it, I’m going to get Fergus to redo your report, because this is beyond redemption” is the feedback that merits a panic attack.

      Reply
    2. Trout 'Waver

      I was going to say this, but you put it better than I could. It’s a lot of work to give truly constructive feedback. Only jerks enjoy telling people they’re wrong. Giving feedback is emotionally costly and usually ineffective. When people give feedback in a professional setting, it’s because they think it likely that you’ll take the feedback and improve. That’s a pretty big compliment, when you think about it.

      Reply
  17. I could have been the OP

    Just wanted to jump in here and say that I’m also in the “a SSRI helped” category, and also that having a spouse (and associated extended family) who have helped me re-calibrate my whole “all-commentary-must-be-taken-as-criticism” feedback loop, so pick your spouse carefully.

    Reply
    1. Hills to Die on

      God, yes. When I start to beat myself up, my husband will say, ‘Quit picking on yourself; that’s my job.” but then of course he never does. It’s funny–I picked someone so much like my father but he is the kindest, most loving, generous person I could ever have imagined. Don’t settle for any less.

      Reply
    2. OP

      Thank you for your input. I’m lucky that my husband is slow to criticize, but also does not let bad feelings fester in fear of my feelings. He is an excellent support and never lets me beat myself up as much as I’d let me. I am very lucky.

      Reply
    3. hermit crab

      Similar story here. Obviously this is not the right solution for everyone, but I had a sort of life-changing moment when my doctor gave me a small, low-dose Xanax prescription. There was a point where something super stressful was happening and I was… observing and processing it! and deciding how to act! and being in control of my thoughts! instead of panicking and melting down! It’s hard to explain but it was amazing to realize that “processing a situation and deciding how to act about it” was actually an option. I never actually refilled the prescription, either – it turned out that, for me, just realizing how it felt was enough.

      Also totally agree about picking your partner (or friends, support system, etc.) carefully. Very good advice!

      Reply
  18. Cordoba

    It might be worth considering signing up for something low-stakes that you fully expect to be bad at, like a non-work related class in an artistic or physical skill in which you have no experience. Playing the flute, doing trapeze, making pottery; whatever is a good fit for you practically and interest-wise but also completely outside of your normal wheelhouse.

    It is imperative that the teacher for this activity is one who does give criticism and but does so in a way that is constructive and polite.

    I’ve found this is a great way to get used to responding appropriately to well-meaning feedback, as it removes one’s own ego and expectations from the equation.

    My first response to criticism of something I know I’m generally good at is to figure out where the other person is wrong and I am right.

    Moving to a context where I *know* I’m a novice and that the other person is an expert is very freeing; I can just focus on working with them to improve my performance rather than showing them how much better I am, because they’ve been doing this for years and I just walked in off the street. Of course I’m going to be terrible. And that’s fine!

    Reply
    1. Thursday Next

      I really like this idea, and think it’s something that’s been helpful to me. I started taking dance classes when I was 30, at a really welcoming world dance studio. I expected not to be good at it; it wasn’t something I was undertaking with the purpose of being good. I had to take feedback, and make peace with being less than excellent. It was a really important experience for me.

      Reply
  19. LizB

    Many internet hugs to you, OP! I come from a family that sounds similar to yours in a lot of ways, and I’ve been right where you are now. I heartily second the recommendation of therapy. The type that’s worked extremely well for me has been EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which is designed for trauma but can also be used for childhood stuff that laypeople wouldn’t necessarily consider capital-T Trauma. I now have a much easier time taking negative feedback in stride and my anxiety has calmed way down, to the point that I’ll likely be reducing the frequency of my therapy sessions sometime this year. Shop around for a therapist and methodology you click with, and the results can be really amazing.

    Reply
    1. Data Analyst

      Yep, I have a similar story of getting help from EMDR. I also did years of basic talk therapy prior to EMDR, and that did help a lot, but I feel like it advanced me only to a certain point, where I was like “okay, I know why this is coming up, my shame reaction is kicking in but I don’t need it to, I can forgive myself and move on” but wanted more, like how can I turn this BS off?? And EMDR has been helping me take that next step.

      OP, if nothing else, I hope you feel reassured by how common this is.

      Reply
      1. LizB

        That was my exact experience — it feels a little bit miraculous how EMDR can work to make things that have always been really unreasonably distressing to me just… not distressing anymore.

        Reply
  20. Moonbeam Malone

    YMMV, but my advice: write the feedback down. Make that the first thought, rather than trying to process right away. Think, “Oh, I’ve got to write that down,” and reach for a notepad. Most of the time, you don’t need to do anything with that critique right that second, so put it down. Save it for later. Give yourself a moment. You won’t magically stop thinking about it, but this might help it become a task to complete rather than a purely negative thing.

    Reply
    1. Hills to Die on

      I also participated in a good exercise recently. It was hard but it helped.

      1. Write down the bad things you tell yourself.
      2. Now write down the truth.
      3. Now read the truth out loud and put it someplace you can refer to it.

      Reply
  21. Amber Rose

    For me, the most difficult part of receiving criticism/correction is usually that it comes up while I’m doing something else and throws me off balance. I wonder if some warning would help, and if it would be appropriate to ask a manager to just give you a quick heads up. Like, before jumping straight into it just a little “hey, I need to give you some points about X, ready?”

    Learn how to breath, also. Slow breaths in through the nose and faster breaths out through the mouth. If for no other reason than focusing on how to breathe in and out distracts your brain from catastrophizing, which is (for me anyway) when the tears start.

    Reply
  22. Dinosaur

    Hi OP, I have also struggled with this. As trite as it is to suggest a self-help book, Brené Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection” helped me A LOT. It digs into perfectionism and why is can hurt so much, and how to stop internalizing unreasonable expectations, and (frankly) how to be kind to yourself. You are not alone, and I wish you good luck!

    Reply
    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      They’re actually super lovely and kind of roll their eyes at their mom’s approach. But they also had a dad who did not adopt this “tiger parent” method of parenting.

      Reply
      1. Observer

        Well, if Tiger Mom admitted is true, the “chill” didn’t come easy. One of them wanted to play tennis, which Mom didn’t approve of. But eventually she backed down because she realized that is was that or “lose” her daughter. (That’s how she put it in one interview that I saw.)

        Reply
    2. Betsy

      I did once read an article about how when shame is used in Chinese families it doesn’t have a negative effect on the children’s self perception (partly due to the protective effect of being part of a collectivist culture, where although you are shamed to bring your behaviour into line with everyone else, you don’t lose your place as part of a collective). However, children from more individualist cultures did terribly when shamed, due to all that criticism being internalised within that individualist conception of the self. I’m not sure how much other research has been done on this, but it’s certainly a fascinating theory.

      Reply
  23. Cruciatus

    OP, you are not worthless or a crap employee because you were a day late on the project, or the Excel report was missing a column of numbers, or you put in the wrong information. I’ll bet if it was someone else in your position you wouldn’t judge them so harshly, so don’t judge yourself too harshly! You’re human! Your manager is there to guide you to be better (and hopefully you have a good manager!). And once you receive feedback–now you know! You can use it to be better next time.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      And even if you have a *bad* manager, you still need to internalize this message and have the ability to kind of mentally roll your eyes (while being outwardly respectful) if she’s freaking out about your excel failures.

      Reply
  24. Brett

    One bonus is that you might be surprised at how much _more_ successful you become through therapy on this issue. I had a similar background, and basically the issue was that my personality (not just my self-worth) was entirely based on my ability to achieve or not achieve. Once I unravelled this, with a lot of help, my life straightened up dramatically. I went from being an undergrad dropout working fast food (a consequence of being unable to handle even small failures) to an advanced degree and career path job in less than 5 years (but with my self-esteem and self-worth recovered before the achievements).

    Reply
  25. MaureenS

    This is me as well, high family expectations, high performer at school. One of the best things that happened to me as a teenager was failing a course to become a sports coach. I cried a lot that night, then came back from that and am now a highly ranked coach. Family expectations have led me to take over the family business, but that’s another story / hole I haven’t dug myself out of.

    You may never grow out of those reactions, they were hardwired in as a child. But you can set up ways to mitigate the fallout. For me, it’s accepting that I will cry after criticism and having somewhere private to do it in. Escape to a private bathroom, in the car in the parking lot, a different room at home, etc. Have some key supportive friends around that you can talk to ASAP. I phone my best friends parents at night to rant, rethink, and get advice or a reality check. Therapy may also have some good suggestions.

    Reply
    1. Betsy

      Oh, I was coming in to say something similar. My parents were critical in a lot of ways, although they stopped being fixated on grades by the time I got to high school. I’ve done plenty of things in the intervening years that should have made me learn to deal with criticism well. I’ve been in positions where I’ve received regular feedback, and not just the supportive or positive kind. However, I’ve never learned to get that great at it.

      Like the poster above, I let myself have some time to feel upset. For something small, I might just take an afternoon, but if it’s something bigger like not doing well in a job interview for a job I really wanted I might need three days of feeling down. Developing a ‘game face’ is a good idea. That way you can feel terrible on the inside, but shelve it for a bit, until you get home and can cry freely. I feel like I use this quite often in life. When I think about, I’m usually over a problem/criticism in a much shorter time than I expected, if I just give myself the space I need to feel upset.

      If you have been putting in a lot of overtime, then it can be time to wind things down for a bit if you can. I find that when I’ve been working so much and hyperfocusing on my job, and sacrificing other things in my life, then the criticism suddenly feels much worse, but if I had a lovely Saturday and hung out with some great friends who appreciate me and then relaxed and watched some movies when I got home, I’ll be able to contextualise the criticism properly.

      Reply
  26. Kate

    This used to be a huge problem for me. So much so that I wrote into The Hairpin’s Ask a Sane Person column about it. (I’ll post a link in a response to this comment.) The answer really helped me– enough that 5+ years later, a 360-review had several people commenting on how well I take and incorporate feedback.

    I could talk about this all day, but will try to narrow it down to the main things that helped me. Caveat that this applies to normal work situations, not messed up family-of-origin dynamics.

    1. People provide feedback because they want you to be better. I was used to thinking of feedback as “you are a disappointment, be better.” Thinking of it as “you have room to grow, like everybody, and I want to help you” was an important shift.

    2. Asking proactively for feedback helped a ton. Knowing when I’d be getting feedback and getting to control when/where went a long way in calming anxiety. It also helped me be seen as someone who cared about her work quality and wanted to develop professionally– always a good thing. Sometimes this was a formal post-project debrief. Usually it was much more informal, just a quick, “Hey, any feedback on that document I submitted?”

    3. Seeing the feedback-givers as fallible people doing their best also helped. I used to get really frustrated when the feedback would have been more helpful as instructions given before I started the work. But managers often don’t have a One Right Way they’re not sharing. They’re figuring out what they need as they go along, or they don’t realize something isn’t obvious to others.

    4. I can be competitive, so I reframed this from “I suck at taking criticism” to “I am going to be the best at taking criticism.” From there, I used the same strategies for any other skill I wanted to develop. I read up on how to take criticism, and looked for workplace role models who seemed to take feedback well. (I didn’t tell them they were my feedback role models, just observed and tried to model their behaviors.)

    5. Alison and others are recommending therapy and antidepressants for a reason. :)

    Good luck!

    Reply
  27. Bea

    I always remind myself even Mark Cuban failed and was called stupid at times. Nobody gets to break you and you will be okay despite mistakes and fumbles.

    This is something you overcome with age and experience in business. I think it’s huge you understand you need to work on it, continue to work on every road block that life puts in your way, we’re never perfect at any time in our lives.

    I’ve found mistakes made by seasoned professionals and corrected executives/business owners throughout 15 years of my career. Nobody died, they too need someone checking their work and reminders how things are to be done etc.

    Reply
  28. Fabulous

    In the interim while you’re trying to manage your reactions, here’s a small suggestion from someone in the same boat:
    Sometimes I find when I begin having an intensely emotional reaction I bite hard on the sides my tongue. It helps me focus on something other than crying. Also, deep breathing.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      Ha, I dig my fingernail into the fleshy part of my thumb! Something about having a (slight) physical pain to focus on really helps me downshift my heightened emotional reaction.

      Reply
      1. Moonbeam Malone

        Oh, if I’m starting to tear up or have an anxiety attack I will sometimes dig my nails into my palms (not hard enough to do damage or really hurt, but enough to feel and focus on) for the same reason!

        Reply
    2. Temperance

      I mentally disengage and start playing the words to “Let It Go” in my head. That song has saved me from embarrassing situations on many an occasion

      Reply
  29. SubwayFan

    I identify so much with what you’ve written here: I’m also an over achiever from an overly critical family, and I struggle with my emotional reactions to criticisms too. I also had a lot of not so great bosses, so I was always unreasonably afraid to meet with my boss alone, convinced I was about to be fired. I used to cry ALL THE TIME. Things I did to cope:

    – Bite the inside of my cheek: somewhat noticeable by others, but in my opinion, less humiliating than being seen crying. Also, concentrating on not biting too hard would distract myself enough to lessen crying.
    – Hold my breath: sometimes just trying to hold my breath could keep back tears
    – Waiting until it was over, and then running to the furthest bathroom to cry: I found it was easier if I found a place to cry and just get it out, than trying to keep it together at my desk when the meeting was over. I kept tissues, and powder to fix up my face after.
    – Going for a walk to clear my head

    Over time I have gotten MUCH better at this, but it helps to have a better boss. Also, I do find the more I can ask for “how can I improve feedback” myself, rather than wait for it to come to me helps me receive it better. Having people I can ask for honest, unbiased feedback about things I don’t think I’ve done well is also great for bolstering my interpersonal relationships around the office.

    Give yourself time. If you do it repeatedly, you will eventually get better. Good luck!

    Reply
  30. Madison King

    This is so me. I actually cried when I read this because I felt a little personally attacked by how much I can relate. I have worked through a lot of my childhood mess in therapy but I had not dealt with this aspect. It will be at the top of the list for my next session!! OP, noticing things like this and looking for ways to change it mean that you are going to be just fine in life!

    Reply
  31. Beancat

    Another person from the “oops, did I write this?” fleet reporting in. It really takes a toll on you when everyone expects perfection from you and then you get to the point you only expect that from yourself. I once got so badly paralyzed by a project that I had no clue how to start, knew it wouldn’t be perfect, so…I just didn’t do it. And that was really, really bad. I’ve made progress since then, but I still have a lot of growth. Sending you the best, LW – you’ll get there, and best of luck to you!

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      That’s true, sometimes the problem can be that you don’t learn to ask for help when you need it – or just see it as a failing / a sign of weakness / whatever. It’s way better to ask for help and gt a good outcome than flail around and not be “weak” but flub the project!!

      Reply
  32. anon today

    wow, this is the perfect post today. It’s not only taking the feedback, it’s also after making a mistake I go into straight negative self talk and in extreme cases, self harm. I immediately transcend into being a teenager again where I’m frustrated. It happened yesterday. I’m a 45 year old professional woman. I woke up this morning and had to convince myself I’m worth getting out of bed for. I feel you OP. Therapy is a good idea. It has been on my mind all morning.

    Reply
  33. Vivian

    My grandad’s advice for this was to learn something new, from scratch. It has to be a taught skill that nobody just intuitively knows, and (this is important) something you’re not particularly invested in. For me it was soldering. I went to a class, starting from a position of total ignorance. The teacher’s feedback very obviously and undeniably helped me improve. I didn’t mind that my soldering was rubbish because I had no mental image of myself as being good at it and no expectation, so the feedback didn’t personally affect me. It was a way of separating myself from my work, if you like. I went for a few weeks, learned a bit and then quit once the class got more advanced than I wanted. I practiced listening to feedback when the stakes were low. May be counterproductive if there is no area where you can let yourself fail. Also requires you to have the time to learn a skill you’re not really bothered about.

    Reply
    1. madmaxine

      Oh, I wish I could do this. My main problem seems to be that if I’m not at least okay at something right off the bat that my brain can’t comprehend how I would ever get okay at it. Going from okay to good to great makes sense, but going from bad to okay does not compute. For instance, I took a kickboxing class once. I was terrible. The instructor gave me lots of feedback, which I followed, but I still wasn’t okay at it by the end of the class. So my brain just said, “Nope, you’re never going to be better than bad” and I stopped going.

      Reply
      1. Jiya

        Ah, then you need to find something you enjoy even when you’re bad at it, because being good isn’t the point. Maybe even something you won’t get any feedback on because you’re doing it on your own – like, once you get basic instruction on how to do it healthily you can lift weights by yourself, or take up running, and just measure yourself by how nice it feels or how you did compared to how you started.

        Gym class was my one “allowed to be bad” class as a child, so now when I’m pants at something like yoga, it’s okay – I’m just doing it because it feels nice and it’s relaxing, and if I work up a sweat doing simple things, well, it’s okay, I knew I’d be hopeless at anything physical. It isn’t the point to be good.

        Reply
  34. The Ginger Ginger

    OP, I am a huge proponent of practicing the behavior you want to exhibit during high stress times in lower key settings, so your actions become programmed strategies and habits that you can lean into when things get overwhelming. Basically, rehearse this! Maybe this is something you can start practicing in lower stakes settings with a trusted friend? So, ask them specifically to help you with re-calibrating your response to receiving feedback, then have them teach you their favorite hobby or something for an afternoon, so they can provide gentle feedback as you go through it. You want someone who cares about you and who you trust. Someone who will keep it to your scheduled sessions, so they don’t take it as carte blanche to feedback your whole life. Perhaps coming from that kind of source, knowing to expect it ahead of time, and going in with the mindset that you’re intentionally working on this aspect of your emotional life will give you the space to take a few steps in the right direction with confidence. And the more you successfully process feedback in low-stakes settings where you don’t feel judged, the easier it will be to translate that skill to higher stakes settings. You may end up feeling more confident in general once you’re not constantly worrying about having these reactions to feedback.

    Plus you get to spend some quality time with a friend!

    Reply
    1. Observer

      Nothing that the OP describes sounds at all like what that letter writer describes.

      If you regularly take credit for other people’s work, regularly take (literally) 10 or 20 x as much time to complete projects as other staff and blow off legitimate criticisms are sexism, then maybe people will look at you harshly.

      If, on the other hand, you make mistakes like all normal human beings, own your mistakes and don’t take credit for other people’s work, no reasonable person is looking at you that way,

      Reply
    2. Betsy

      The OP sounds like someone who is competent, but who has perfectionist tendencies.

      The recent topic was about someone who was clearly incompetent in many ways, but thought she was actually very competent. I think the recent topic is the opposite of the OP’s situation.

      Reply
  35. Phoenix Programmer

    Oh OP same boat here. It does get easier with time – which doesn’t help you now but I promise it does! I grew up in a violent household and was a super school achiever. I would have to take walks to vent and yell at trees and cry after routine business critical feedback until I was 30!

    Some tips for now:
    Crying – stem this by clenching your glutes. It works!
    Face – lift your eyebrows and smile and nod while getting the feedback. Speech – Say thanks for the feedback after receiving it in a cheery tone. No need to go deeper until you are ready. It’s also ok to disagree or be frustrated but say thank you anyway. This will make feedback shorter.

    After feedback take a microbreak. Go to the bathroom and wipe your face with a cold towel or take a quick lap around the building. Call someone in your support network from your car – whatever you need. Just don’t vent at work in view of others.

    Forgive yourself! Don’t pile on to the tough response by berating your response!

    Reply
    1. OP

      Oof, yeah, that sounds really good. I appreciate practical advice like this. It sounds a lot better than picking my fingernails to bits too!

      Reply
      1. Phoenix Programmer

        Yeah I admit I was concerned about some of the advice to harm yourself honestly….

        Another post I suggest reading of Alison’s is “can I be too emotionally invested in work” and all her advice on that. Usually the two coincide. Link to follow.

        Reply
  36. nnn

    A thought experiment that might help:

    Think about a situation you’re familiar with where something needs to be “just so”, for reasons that aren’t immediately apparent to outsiders. Maybe that finicky dishwasher in your kitchen will only clean spoons properly if they’re put in the right side of the utensil rack. Maybe that one shirt that you don’t ever put in the dryer. Maybe your baby nephew who cries unless he’s held in a very specific way.

    Imagine someone new, a perfectly competent individual – perhaps even the most competent individual you’ve ever met – is put in the situation where they have to use this dishwasher, or wash that shirt, or hold that baby. You’d have to explain the finicky details to them, wouldn’t you? It’s no reflection on their abilities or their worth as a person, it’s just they’ve never encountered this specific situation before.

    That’s what’s happening when people are giving you feedback in the workplace. They’re telling you what you didn’t know going in about how the thing works. You do what they tell you, you get it right next time, and now you’re a person who knows how to Do The Thing – and the expert who can explain the knack of Doing The Thing to the next new person who comes along.

    Reply
  37. Strawmeatloaf

    I have this problem, though it didn’t come from grades, it did come from an emotionally abusive household where whenever my parents wanted to talk to me about something, it was usually bad, so I always had to prepare for the worst and when my father did it I usually ended in tears (introvert in a family of extroverts who don’t get it!).

    They weren’t hard on me with the grades though, and I consistently got C’s in all of my math classes (so I was a B student consistently). I still felt anxious getting it from teachers though, and now in the workforce whenever a manager or someone higher than me gives me (constructive) criticism, I feel like I’m going to cry no matter what.

    Hoping to get into therapy! For right now I don’t necessarily have to worry about crying in my current work, but I will once I move away from this job and I really don’t want to be that overly-emotional person at work. Would definitely recommend the therapy, but if there are any books people can suggest I think that would be good too!

    Reply
  38. What Is A Weekend

    So relatable and bringing up so much #feels. Just want to say that yes, therapy is amazing, and offer 2 strategies that have helped me personally:
    1) Try to take a step back and separate what the person has actually said vs. the story you’ve made up about what’s happening. For example: the person said “You need to fix this file”, but in my story it felt like they said “You’re incompetent and have ruined everything”. If you recognize that these are 2 separate things, then it’s easier to respond to what’s actually happening rather than feeling overwhelmed by what you’re thinking.
    2) “They’re not giving you a hard time, they’re having a hard time.” I actually have this written down on a post-it note on my computer (it has survived several office moves!). It helps me remember that the person isn’t personally attacking me – they are frustrated and trying to get something done and hoping that I can help with that.
    I hope this helps a little bit!

    Reply
  39. Have to be Anonymous for this

    LW,
    I sympathize greatly with you. As a child in school, I was berated by my parents for any score less than 95%. I was also told many times by them that any mistakes at work would result in my getting fired. The first time I received negative professional feedback, I actually fainted… at work… in front of my boss. It was humiliating. I have since been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and am medicated and much happier.

    Reply
  40. Jaybeetee

    I’m another one in this camp. I didn’t so much experience a brutal childhood for this, but I was a naturally high-achieving kid who sailed through school (even university), before landing in a couple of crappy jobs where a) I probably wasn’t a great fit in the first place, and b) had that kind of toxicity where Every Mistake Is a Huge Deal And You Might Get Fired. My sensitivity spilled over into my personal life too. It took years for me to get to a point where someone can say something critical about me/my work and I don’t jump to defend myself or start thinking I’m an unlovable failure or something.

    Reply
  41. Rincat

    I wanted to mention something on the other side of this – I mentioned above that my parents were overly critical, so I developed a lot of the same mindset as OP and others on here. However one difference is that they also overly-praised me. My parents are just over-reactors, negative and positive. So praise lost all its value to me. They’d gush about me making a sandwich the same way they’d gush about me getting a promotion. So my internal calibration of feedback – good and bad – was way off. I’d freak out if I got negative feedback, because that meant I was terrible! And I’d freak out if I got positive feedback because – there was a chance it didn’t mean anything, and I was still terrible. It didn’t help that one of my first bosses was a guy who did the same thing – he’d heap praise on me but didn’t actually know what I did, and then would panic and freak out and tear me down when things went wrong.

    The same techniques still apply. It takes being mindful and recalibrating internally so that any type of feedback can be handled objectively.

    Reply
  42. Veruca

    I grew up in a similar family.
    With my own kids, the mantra is:

    When we are learning new things, we will make mistakes. When we try new things, we will make mistakes.
    Mistakes are evidence of learning and trying new things, which are good. The goal should never be to make no mistakes, the goal is to make progressively fewer mistakes as we master a new concept/skill.

    Reply
  43. H.C.

    For me, one thing that helps is seeing projects and tasks as works in progress versus set in stone, and looking to feedback/criticism is something to help you do better next time around.

    Reply
  44. Mrs. Fenris

    I wish so much that I could print out this thread and take it back in time for Younger Me to read. I am 50 years old and have just very recently learned to take feedback without falling to pieces. My parents, who overall were wonderful and well-intended people, would absolutely shame me for all sorts of infractions…particularly social missteps. And there were a lot of them, because I was a little socially tone-deaf and had a bad habit of saying things out loud that sounded so much better in my head. I can remember being berated all the way home from social events about something I had said wrong. Guess who then grew up with an enormous amount of social anxiety? So now, any kind of feedback doesn’t just sound like “you screwed this up,” it sounds like “you ARE a screwup.” I’m slowly learning to rewire this in my head, but it is really hard.

    Reply
  45. Mananana

    Please find a good Cognitive Behavioral therapist to work with, OP. Learning how your thoughts drive your emotions (and how to recalibrate the thoughts you’re having) is a skill that will serve you well.

    Reply
  46. BadPlanning

    To put a spin on mistakes — for a work environment, mistakes can be useful. They can help put processes in place to make sure things work better in the future. A mistake you make could avoid or detect a malicious act in the future (like a like of audits on financial documents). A mistake you make at work could avoid a customer getting frustrated in the field. A mistake you make could improve training for the next person. Even an escalated mistake can be useful — Big Boss might say “Wait, why are we doing this thing? We don’t care there was a mistake, we should stop doing it altogether.”

    Reply
    1. BadPlanning

      I used to be concerned and stressed when we’d get pushback from other teams about bringing something to our manager (or hirer). I had a team leader who would always say, “Yes, please.” He viewed it as a chance for someone with the bigger picture to prioritize our work (how important is AngryTeam’s teapot glaze?) versus a failure to manage all PRIORITY1++ work ourselves (and burn out).

      Reply
    2. Daffodil

      Yes, this! So often “mistakes” are the result of a process being poorly designed. There’s a book called “The Design of Everyday Things” that really changed my thinking on this topic. The author’s favorite examples are doors that people instinctively push or pull, only to find out they guessed wrong. That’s not the person being incompetent at opening doors, it’s the design of the door handle giving them the wrong cues, or no cues at all. This kind of thing is an absolute epidemic when it comes to software design. The book should be mandatory reading for everyone who works with computers, either as a designer or just as someone who gets frustrated with using the $&*@#$(* things.

      Reply
  47. Sutemi

    As someone who was once a straight-A student without even trying, I think it is important to do things which I find difficult to learn. It helps me keep a beginner mindset, a questioning mindset, and keeps my ego from being tied only to success. It also makes me practice accepting correction in a low-stakes environment!

    For example, I practiced martial arts as an adult for years and really liked it despite being objectively a slow learner on that topic and less skilled than my peers. With time, I actually got good though not nearly as good as others who started at the same time as me.

    Reply
  48. Argh!

    If you make a mistake what does that say about you? It says you made a mistake.

    It doesn’t say you’re an idiot or incompetent or lazy.

    If you get existential criticism from your boss, like “You’re [insert derogatory adjective here]” then the fault lies partly with the boss.

    I like the suggestion to try something new & not in your lane. If martial arts come easy to you, try violin! That’s ridiculously difficult to learn as an adult.

    Reply
  49. Daffodil

    Oh hey, another person like me. Here’s what helped me the most:

    – Therapy and lots of it. There’s nothing else like it.

    – Medication. Not the first thing to try, or the right approach for everyone, but personally I’d been beating my head against a number of brick walls, and medication made them just evaporate. It was unreal. I spent years trying to figure out why I couldn’t just do this stuff like everyone else does – and hey, turns out a few extra neurotransmitters made all the difference.

    – Finding the right job. You know how some people will get into a string of abusive romantic relationships and go through the same cycle over and over? I did the same thing with work environments. It took several repetitions to figure out what was happening and, more importantly, make it stop happening. (For me, the key was recognizing when I go into appeasement mode, and NOT taking any job where that happens during the interview.)

    – One of my personal mottoes is “Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement.” When you mess something up, congratulations, it means you’ve taken a step towards developing good judgement. It’s actually a step forwards, not a step backwards. (And framing it as developing judgement rather than intelligence helps. No-one has innately good judgement, it’s always, always something that is developed over time.) It’s a bit like physical exercise – that muscle soreness from a really hard workout is actually mild damage to the muscles. When the body repairs that damage is when you get stronger. So when I’m feeling emotional pain, the question is always “is this normal soreness from working hard, or did I actually injure something?” It’s hard to tell when your limbic system is overactive and treats everything as a major event, but with practice I’ve been more able to distinguish normal things that are overly painful but not actually harmful from things that really are a problem.

    Good luck to you, it’s a lifetime journey to sort this stuff out, but it’s also very, very rewarding. You can do it! Recognizing that something’s off about your internal calibration and wondering how to fix it is the first and by far the most difficult step. Everything else grows from that.

    Reply
  50. Green Goose

    Hi OP. Like other previous posters, I relate strongly to your letter. I feel like I could have written it at one point in my life. When I was younger I was also constantly afraid of the ominous “being in trouble” about a lot of things that didn’t seem to concern my peers. The one difference is for most of my academic career I didn’t try very hard, and it wasn’t until I did start trying that I would be devasted when it didn’t go well. I cried so much in grad school it was ridiculous.

    But it does get better. I used to also always take work-related feedback personally, so if someone was annoyed or just simply corrected something I had done, my mind always went the “they don’t like me as a person” route. A few things helped me:

    I looked for patterns in a specific person’s behaviour. For example, at my first job Jane was very harsh with me, she would cut me off when I spoke and scold me in front of others and it was stressful BUT she did it with other people too. She wasn’t nice to anyone so I was able to remind myself in the moment that it wasn’t personal and it did help.

    Or other people that are very solutions-oriented who come from a place of “what’s best for the organization” can critique my work now and I know that the are looking at it with another lens.

    I give more weight to criticisms and suggestions from people who know what they are talking about and are trying to make processes more efficient. Fergus who complains about everything? Him, not so much.

    I take pride in my work now (I’m at a job I really enjoy and view as a career) but I am about 70% successful at not taking it personal when people criticize a decision or a way I did a project. It’s not me, its the work. This has been a process but I’ve gotten a lot better at it.

    Good luck!

    Reply
  51. Argh!

    I second the suggestion to try medication. I have known a lot of people on anti-anxiety medication and it really seems to work. Therapy takes longer and you will be suffering and possibly developing a bad record at work while you are at it.

    Reply
  52. Winifred

    I’m sorry to hear this and can empathize. I grew up in a household with parents constantly fighting, which made me very averse to any kind of conflict or disagreement. A few years of therapy here and there (as I moved from place to place as an adult) really helped. I’m in my 50s now and while conflict still makes me a bit anxious, which I think is normal, I have skills for handling it, at home and work.

    In the meantime “let me get back to you on that” is always a useful response when you’re stuck in a moment. Good luck.

    Reply
  53. Justin

    Ah, yes. I’ve figured this out at work, but, let’s see:

    I got a top flight (95th percentile) SAT score, and my godfather said DON’T YOU WANT TO TAKE IT AGAIN??!? (I asked someone in higher ed, and he said, “That score will be just fine.” Which helped me realize I was warped.)

    When I got into an elite college, I felt only relief, feeling I hadn’t failed, rather than the immense joy one might actually feel.

    I did rather poorly at times in college, and thought of it as a personal, value failure. But no one actually asked me why, so I took it to heart believing there was something wrong with me, etc.

    Eventually I changed in my 20s, and I also encourage therapy (which I’m in now but should have started much earlier). (And becoming a marathon runner helped me feel personal accomplishment. Whatever one’s thing is, finding a way to feel good about yourself outside of work goals can help a lot)
    I wish you luck, from the same mindset.

    Reply
    1. Justin

      (Not telling people to do what I did! More saying, finding some way to value oneself aside from these things can slow the anxiety down. It did for me.)

      Reply
  54. Green Tea Pot

    This could have been me.

    I spent most of my working life unable to handle criticism. I tried. I tried listening, thanking the person offering feedback, and then taking it to heart and trying to change. I muddled through, not understanding the root cause and suffering stomach problems, headaches, etc. Being unable to process criticism stifled my career, but I still managed to end it as a CEO. During that time period, I was so busy, I buried my reaction to criticism under a pile of work.

    But after retirement, I was finally able to figure it all out. I had grown up with a mother who was never happy with me, or anything I did. I finally figured out she was probably a narcissist with BPD. My father was an alcoholic, and she struggled to keep that hidden while pushing me, her first born, to excel in areas she thought were prestigious or glamorous. She programmed me.

    I had no idea. It was only after therapy, research, time to think and the help of friends that it all started to make sense.

    I hope no one is offended by this post. I’m pushing 70 now and wishing there had been an Ask A Manager when I was younger and working.

    Best of luck to all who visit here. You have helped me tremendously.

    Reply
    1. Thursday Next

      It sounds like you achieved a great deal of professional success, albeit at a high cost to your emotional and even physical well-being. I admire that you’ve used retirement to revisit these issues and gain helpful insight. Well done!

      Reply
    2. WillowSunstar

      Your mother sounds like my mother. I empathize. It is so harmful when parents cannot be anything but toxic. OTOH, I learned a great deal about what never to do if I am ever so lucky as to have a child.

      Reply
  55. Thursday Next

    Are there any opportunities for you to offer praise to people, OP? I’ve found it helpful (1) to be the person doling out the praise, not just waiting to receive it; and (2) to say kind, encouraging things to other people, whether that’s my students, writing buddies, my children…the teenage neighbor practicing her violin, the waitress who brings my daughter a sheaf of napkins without being asked…

    It may help you to see yourself as having the power to give feedback as well as receive it. It doesn’t have to be someone you have “authority” over, like a direct report.

    Reply
  56. Anon for this

    I get you – I’m from a household where my parent felt a lot of shame about their circumstances, so they tried to not be witness to anything I did that wasn’t well-executed. For instance, they’d get angry if I came home with grass stains from playing because “I must look like my family can’t clean my clothes”, they’d find ways to avoid parent-teacher interviews for my weaker subjects to avoid judgment from teachers, they’d take me out of sports if I wasn’t immediately picking up new skills. But, they were generally never around or sufficiently interested to celebrate the many things I did do well, so I grew feeling like anything I did poorly will drive everyone’s narrative about me.

    So what that means for my career as an adult is that I’ve needed to be very careful about how I allow my perfectionism to be visible in the workplace. If you’re a perfectionist, low confidence and seeming sensitive to criticism can be misinterpreted in ugly ways, such as an assumption that you’re fishing for compliments when you solicit feedback, or that you think that your strengths invalidate your weaknesses in some sort of entitled way.

    I’ve also stopped pulling this impostor syndrome nonsense and I’m getting better at owning what I’m good at. If someone wants to treat that as arrogance, they can go right ahead, but so far it’s worked a lot better than coming to the table with a lack of confidence about my skills. Some of it is a matter of having progressed beyond entry-level gigs, but people giving me feedback treat me a lot better now that I take care to signpost that I know I have lots to learn *and yet* have a pretty good handle on what I already know.

    The other thing is that I worked hard to develop a good eye for whether managers and mentors are able to provide a balanced review of my strengths and weaknesses. Someone who makes existential criticisms about you, in a work context, isn’t necessarily being helpful. We tell people to develop a thick skin but a thick skin isn’t going to do much for your career when you’re not receiving useful, actionable feedback.

    Reply
  57. Troutwaxer

    One thing I didn’t see mentioned above in a quick search is that it might be helpful to make sure you’re making a distinction between yourself and your work. When the criticism happens, it’s not about you. It is about your work, so you can draw a big thick line between your own identity and the work you do.

    Reply
  58. Sarah

    So, I just made this suggestion to my roommate (and some coworkers, haha) and it might work for you: look into a creative writing course or another workshop-based class that you think you might enjoy. So much of those classes is learning to accept feedback, thinking it through, and taking the important bits onboard and making changes that it might be a lower-stakes way to practice this skill. Because really, it’s a skill and one that you can learn.

    This is not as a substitute for therapy, btw – but something that might help you practice this in a non-professional environment where you’re not (as) worried about the ramifications of not taking feedback well.

    Reply
  59. Jennifer

    I just sent this to my therapist :)

    On a related note, I absolutely hate asking for help because my parents lost their shit if you asked for any. You’d get your help but they’d be freaking out and yelling the ENTIRE time. So I consider it shameful to ask.

    Reply
  60. Anonymous Ampersand

    Thank you OP for writing this letter. And thank you Alison for writing such a kind and thoughtful response. <3

    Reply
  61. Jules

    Oh gosh, my parents to the T. I am trying very hard to make sure I don’t in turn hand down the same experience to my kids.

    Reply
  62. thesoundofmusic

    I can so relate to this letter. I am no spring chicken–in my 60’s in fact–and I still have this reaction at times. I’ve learned a better poker face over the years and also to take a deep breath and take some time to work through it before I respond. It’s amazing how hard wired we get and how persistent it can be. Good luck to you.

    Reply
  63. EKW

    I used to hate getting feedback, but then I learned to reframe it as one of the benefits of my job. Think about it this way – your objective in this role is to get better, sharper, more valuable so that you have the credibility and skills to tackle the next challenge that draws you. Feedback is one input into this, in fact, it you should consider it part of your compensation package! If you’re not getting feedback, you’re missing out on part of the experience of growth. I try to push people for constructive feedback if they’re not bringing it up, because otherwise I’m missing out on information I need. That said, you should also filter feedback with a critical lense. Everyone has an opinion, but not all feedback should carry the same weight.
    Also, if you think about it as coaching, instead of feedback, that could help reframe it as well.

    Reply
    1. Anon for this

      Useful, actionable feedback that feeds into a cycle of improving communication with your manager is so important and I really like the idea of thinking of it as part of your compensation package. If you’re not getting that…I’ve seen entry-level/early-career people stay too long at jobs with bad/inconsistent/ad hominem attack-filled feedback, and it’s really held all of them back professionally. A number of these people are stuck at a bad job where they continue to receive a paycheque (as well as abuse!) because years of poor coaching and development have left their soft and hard skills kind of stunted.

      Reply
  64. WillowSunstar

    One thing I have found that helps, and this is coming from someone who had a toxic parent, find a safe situation where you can get constructive criticism from in a sandwich method regularly. As an example, I am going to use Toastmasters, but there are probably other groups that can help with this. Getting polite, yet useful feedback regularly will desensitize you to it better.

    That having been said, if you do actually wind up with a toxic manager one day, all the sandwich critiques in the world won’t help prepare you, but at least it will help with normal feedback.

    Reply
  65. fort hiss

    Adding a voice for YES therapy! This is something that a therapist can help you develop strategies to deal with. I promise that you can get better at it; it just takes time.

    Reply
  66. SS Express

    This whole comment section is the story of my life. Nice to know I’m not alone! OP, therapy has helped me soooooo much, I really recommend it.

    Reply
  67. Kitty

    Oh OP, I’m sorry this is so stressful, and I can definitely relate. I had an extremely critical mother growing up, which left me with similar reactions as you. I still struggle with feedback sometimes.

    Something that’s been helpful for me was therapy, in particular a kind called “schema therapy”. This helped me work through my reactions to upsetting or traumatic experiences in my past, so that I don’t subconsciously automatically react in the same way to similar situations in the present. It helped me start to get my brain out of the grooves of that “track”.

    Something that might help in the meantime if you start to experience these reactions in similar situations: try to keep your focus on your physical reality as much as you can. Focus on the details of people’s faces or clothing, what you can smell, or touch an object to ground you in the present. Hopefully this will help pull your brain out of the connection to past distress and focus on the present, where you are safe and a respected adult.

    Best of luck ❤

    Reply
  68. Kate

    This could be me. I’m much better with taking criticism now, thanks to community theatre. During notes after one rehearsal, the director said something like, “Kate, I love what you’re doing, but I need you to not do it and to stand over here instead, because it’s just not working with the stage picture.” It was such a great way to reframe for me. I’m not necessarily wrong, or bad, or whatever. It’s just not fitting in with the big picture.

    (In case anyone’s wondering, the show was Urinetown. I was playing Senator Fipp, and creeping out over Hope Cladwell.)

    Reply
  69. banana&tanger

    One place to start is to practice accepting compliments. I’m assuming that’s also a thing that’s hard (cause your letter sounded all too familiar). Learn to say thank you graciously, and to believe the compliment. Don’t justify it or excuse it (“oh, it wasn’t a big deal” or “I look like crap today”). Just accept it as true and genuine. And it will help you frame criticism more easily. It’s a process. You got this!

    Reply
  70. DaphneD

    Oh man, I relate to this so hard. I was a precocious only child who spent the vast majority of her time around adults and learned very early on how to achieve the ultimate goal of being acceptable to them – “oh you are such a good girl!”

    I was a quick learner, enjoyed school and started getting top grades in school as soon as they started giving out grades. But my parents and others around me fell into the trap of praising me for my intrinsic characteristics rather than for my deliberate efforts and hard work. It didn’t take long for top grades to become the baseline of acceptable, for As to be a non-event, and for me to stop receiving praise altogether. I kept pushing myself more and more, desperate to find that elusive level of achievement that would earn praise from my parents, and as a child and young adult, I never found it.

    The start of my work life was very much like you describe, OP. I was constantly on edge and would panic at the mere thought of criticism. I’m ashamed to say that on a few occasions I went as far as to lie and cover up minor mistakes to avoid it. Slowly though, I learned that feedback was not necessarily terrifying, and it was empowering to realise that my bosses and supervisors were giving me feedback because they trusted me to do something useful with it!

    Over the last few years I have made so much progress. I take an SNRI which helps enormously, I have worked with a fantastic therapist and finally started to separate my current sense of self from the child desperate for affirmation that she was acceptable to the world at large. One of the results of this is that my overall output at work has fallen slightly. This is not a bad thing! It has fallen from emails-at-all-hours, unused holiday, running-out-of-space-on-the-annual-performance-review-form, “is she STILL in the office?!” to normal, productive employee. My grandboss has said explicitly how much he prefers the “new me” and that he would never, ever trade the health and happiness of his employees for productivity. I realise that there are going to be exceptions to this, but for the most part I hope it is reassuring to hear that recalibrating ones expectations of ones workself can lead to greater success in the working world, rather than less.

    Good luck to you, OP!

    Reply
  71. Misc

    Something that may help is looking up RSD – rejection sensitive dysphoria. It tends to be an ADHD symptom, so most articles and advice will be for ADHD, but it may easily show up elsewhere so the advice may be helpful. Essentially any rejection (failure, criticism, friends passing you by) is unreasonably painful, and one can end up developing anxiety and avoidance and other unhelpful coping techniques to minimise it. The reason it’s painful may vary, in ADHD it’s a combination of brain chemistry (we have weird emotional control and tend to be very pain sensitive) and a life of constant uncertainty, but the result is the same.

    Me and my siblings all have it, we are super sensitive to any rejection. We reacted differently (e.g. my sister went the fragile ego route where to question her was to unleash a raging fury as rejection = bad meant you = bad), but my response was to develop all the anxiety and ‘must be perfect’ and avoidance of stuff I’m bad at responses of someone with abusive parents, because even lack of positive response could be felt as rejection, and positive responses were only valid until I failed at something. And it’s really screwing up my work life, the more personally invested I get in things the more personal any criticism feels, to the point where I sometimes shut down in pain/rage/anxiety.

    In my case there are some medications that may help, guanfacine and clonidine, for example. I have no idea of they would help someone without ADHD but they are closer to SSRIs than anything else.

    Reply
  72. Annoyed

    The first time I got less than 100% (or more because if there are bonus questions/points I always do them) was in undergrad. It was 97% and I was DEVASTATED.

    Years later in grad school I got a 91% on an assignment (that tbh I had no clue how to do and a prof. that was less than forthcoming with info) and it was the first time I was like “good enough.”

    OP Therapy dfinitely but try to remember thst your boss (likely) doesn’t expect absolute perfection.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Before you comment: Please be kind, stay on-topic, and follow the site's commenting rules.
You can report an ad, tech, or typo issue here.

Subscribe to all comments on this post by RSS