Cop­ing with neg­a­tive feed­back means know­ing which words to learn from, and which to ig­nore

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Front Page - BY ERICA LENTI IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY ANJA JAVELONA

ANNA* SPENT THE BET­TER part of her adult­hood rais­ing kids. After she and her hus­band mar­ried in 1983, the pair wasted no time start­ing a fam­ily. Their four boys, who were all born within a decade, are now in their 20s and 30s and have be­gun hav­ing kids of their own.

The 57-year-old of­fice ad­min­is­tra­tor was thrilled to be­come a grand­mother, but was re­cently sur­prised by crit­i­cism she faced over her child-rear­ing skills. Last year, Anna was feed­ing her new­born grand­son in what she re­ferred to as the “old-school way”—with him in her lap, laid out hor­i­zon­tally, bot­tle in his mouth—when her son chas­tised her. “You’re do­ing it all wrong,” he told her, not­ing that the baby needed to be sit­ting up­right. “Peo­ple don’t do it like that any­more.”

“I thought, I raised four of you. How could I not know what I’m do­ing?” Anna re­calls. “It was pretty hurt­ful.” The com­ment stuck with her and ever since has made her won­der: Was I a bad mother?

Ru­mi­nat­ing over neg­a­tive feed­back is some­thing we all do: a fa­mous 2001 pa­per pub­lished in the Re­view of Gen­eral Psy­chol­ogy even proved that we’re dis­pro­por­tion­ately more likely to re­mem­ber the bad things said about

us than the good. From neg­a­tive com­ments in the of­fice to pointed words about our be­hav­iour from loved ones, crit­i­cism is some­thing we can’t avoid. But build­ing re­silience to it, and learn­ing to ac­cept and grow from neg­a­tive feed­back, is a skill any­one can and should de­velop.

Stop and Lis­ten

When Anna first heard her son’s cri­tique, she brushed it off as a gen­er­a­tional dif­fer­ence. Ig­nor­ing a judg­men­tal mes­sage, or get­ting de­fen­sive in re­sponse to it, are com­mon ways we at­tempt to sep­a­rate our­selves from what might be pain­ful to hear. In the long run, though, de­flect­ing neg­a­tive feed­back can be a missed op­por­tu­nity for self-im­prove­ment.

Toronto psy­chol­o­gist Noah Lazar, who spe­cial­izes in cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy, sug­gests tak­ing time to process crit­i­cisms in­stead of im­me­di­ately re­act­ing. This, he says, will pro­tect a re­la­tion­ship with some­one who may ac­tu­ally be try­ing to help you. “Anger and de­fen­sive­ness are never well-re­ceived,” he says. “So you might say, ‘Thank you for your feed­back. I’ll con­sider it,’ and leave it at that.”

Once re­moved from the sit­u­a­tion, he ex­plains, you’re more able to calmly and log­i­cally un­pack what the com­ments mean and how you might al­ter your ac­tions in the fu­ture. This is one of the first steps of what Lazar’s field calls “cog­ni­tive re­struc­tur­ing,” the process of rec­og­niz­ing your au­to­matic de­fen­sive­ness and ask­ing your­self why that hap­pens. If this prac­tice is done reg­u­larly enough, Lazar says the re­sult is a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of your re­flex­ive emo­tions and, in turn, bet­ter con­trol over how you re­act.

Dis­tin­guish Crit­i­cism From At­tacks

Ac­cept­ing feed­back can be the dif­fer­ence be­tween suc­cess and fail­ure. A Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia study from 2008 found that in­ter­ac­tions with the fac­ulty (in the form of con­struc­tive crit­i­cism) al­lowed un­der­rep­re­sented stu­dents to not only im­prove their grades but also en­joy their ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence more. And when it comes to ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships, re­searchers have found that pos­i­tive, con­struc­tive crit­i­cism trans­lates into a greater over­all sat­is­fac­tion within the part­ner­ship.

But how do you tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween useful and harm­ful crit­i­cism? Eleanor Beaton, a women’s lead­er­ship de­vel­op­ment ex­pert in Nova Sco­tia, says the dis­tinc­tion is all in the de­liv­ery: was it ag­gres­sive in tone or was the per­son calm and em­pa­thetic? Was deroga­tory lan­guage used? And was the mes­sage pre­sented as a sug­ges­tion for im­prove­ment—of­fer­ing, for ex­am­ple, help­ful hints to do bet­ter next time—or did it aim to shame, call­ing at­ten­tion only to your faults? “Just be­cause you’ve re­ceived crit­i­cism doesn’t mean you have to take it,” says Beaton,

sug­gest­ing si­lence is an apt re­sponse to an at­tack that is not con­struc­tive.

If the feed­back makes space for im­prove­ment, though, you can try set­ting achiev­able goals to change a prob­lem­atic be­hav­iour. Start­ing small, says Lazar, can keep things from feel­ing too over­whelm­ing. If a room­mate is un­happy with your habit of not mak­ing any con­tri­bu­tions to the house­hold, for in­stance, start by mak­ing a spe­cific com­mit­ment, like do­ing the dishes more of­ten. “Mak­ing that small change is much more man­age­able,” he says. “Then you can work up to those goals of chang­ing your­self over­all.”

Don’t Make It About You

It took Toronto jour­nal­ist and au­thor Re­becca Eck­ler a long time to learn not to take at­tacks on her work too much to heart. Eck­ler, best known for her con­tro­ver­sial writ­ing on par­ent­hood, has been re­ceiv­ing an­gry words from read­ers since 2006. When she penned a col­umn six years ago re­count­ing leav­ing her new­born baby with her fi­ancé’s mother while she va­ca­tioned, In­ter­net com­menters were en­raged, call­ing Eck­ler deroga­tory names. Twice dur­ing her ca­reer, she re­mem­bers ac­tu­ally throw­ing up as a re­sponse to cruel words. “There were many days when I thought, I can’t do this any­more, es­pe­cially when a piece went vi­ral and all the nasty com­ments came out.”

To cope, Eck­ler tries not to take things too per­son­ally; most colum­nists who write about them­selves, she re­minds her­self, get plenty of un­pleas­ant mes­sages. And while not all of us are putting our opin­ions and lives out there on a con­sis­tent ba­sis, it can be help­ful to re­mem­ber that do­ing so may in­vite un­war­ranted at­tacks. When a mean com­ment sticks with Eck­ler, she says yoga helps undo its de­struc­tive ef­fect. “I set my in­ten­tion at the start of my prac­tice to not think,” she says, “and by the time the hour is over, I’m back to be­ing in a good mood and plan­ning what to write next.”

Even when you’ve re­ceived con­struc­tive feed­back, Beaton en­cour­ages plac­ing it in the right con­text. “In the mo­ment, crit­i­cism can feel re­ally pain­ful, but it’s not nec­es­sar­ily a blan­ket judg­ment of who you are as a hu­man be­ing,” she says. “It is sim­ply learn­ing that what you’ve done doesn’t match some­one else’s eval­u­a­tion cri­te­ria.” In­stead of be­rat­ing your­self, you can fo­cus on how you’ve missed the mark on that spe­cific ex­pec­ta­tion and fol­low up for clar­i­fi­ca­tion.

In the months since Anna first was con­fronted with her son’s crit­i­cisms, she’s learned to take them in stride. She’ll walk away if she feels frus­trated and wait un­til she’s ready to face the con­struc­tive re­marks. “I can’t beat my­self up for not un­der­stand­ing some­thing,” she says. “I have to grow from it.” This ap­proach, she adds, is help­ing her be­come a bet­ter grand­mother—and a bet­ter mother, too.

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